Saint of the Week: Saint Antony the Great

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St. Antony and St. Paul

St. Antony the Great (251-356) is traditionally considered the “founder” of Christian monasticism, although this is a difficult thing to be sure of.  One of the stories about him, in fact, tells of his pride about how he was the first-ever monk, and then an angel told him about this guy Abba Paul who’d been a hermit way longer than he had, so he went off to visit St. Paul the Hermit on St. Paul’s deathbed.

Whether or not he was the first or not, he was part of a movement to the desert that was beginning at the time.  There had already been the occasional Egyptian person or village that would disappear into the desert whenever socio-economic times got hard.  At the time went St. Antony started out for the tombs and the mountains of the Egyptian wilderness, people were first getting the idea of this retreat (anachoresis) as an act of Christian piety and part of the path self-renunciation as a replacement of martyrdom.

St. Antony’s anachoresis was inspired by the command of Jesus to the Rich Young Ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor, then to follow Jesus.  St. Antony figured this was a good principle for all serious Christians, so he sold off his inheritance, leaving behind enough for his sister to live on.  Then he went visiting Christian ascetics in the town where he lived and learning from them about how to live.

Soon, he heard the verse about not worrying about tomorrow, so then he got rid of the stuff that was supporting his sister and put her in a house of virgins (inchoate nunneries).  Then he went off into the desert to live alone.  Of course, living alone is hard to achieve for spiritual masters, because somehow word always get round that you’re out living in a cave or a tomb or an abandoned temple somewhere, so you start to get a bit of a following.  Over the years, Antony lived in tombs, on a mountain, and on a second mountain, each time moving farther and farther from society and receiving fewer and fewer guests — or at least hoping to receive fewer and fewer guests.

In these days of incipient monasticism, the concept of the hermit as a man who was complete and utterly cut off from the rest of the world was an ideal but never achieved (I’m not sure any hermit ever achieved it).  We see that St. Antony had disciples, such as his successor Ammonas, as well as those to whom he gives his discourse in The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius.

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Apopthegmata Patrum), Antony is frequently quoted as providing a pithy saying or two, demonstrating that he was part of the new monastic movement wherein a newer monk would approach a more experienced monk and say, “Abba, give me a word.”  The more experienced monk, the Abba, would then give a brief saying or discourse to the less experienced.  Antony is also quoted in John Cassian’s Conferences concerning discretion, saying that discretion is the most important tool of the monk.

St. Antony did more than give advice to his disciples, however.  As we saw in my last post, he was engaged in the battle with demons.  In this battle, according to St. Athanasius, he received literal blows from demons and found himself almost physically defeated, but he continued on nonetheless.  The idea is that the desert is the property of the demons, their last retreat and lair.  By going there, St. Antony and the other monks are encroaching on their turf; turf wars ensued, with the monks victorious through many battles.  Eventually, St. Antony was left alone by the Devil and his minions.

Although called “unlettered” in St. Athanasius’ biography, this does not mean St. Antony was illiterate.  It likely means he was not literate in Greek or Latin, that he was not schooled in the classics of the Hellenistic world.  Modern philology has determined that seven Coptic letters attributed to St. Antony are most likely by this monk himself.  Whether he wrote them with his own hand or dictated them is impossible to say.  In these letters, we get a picture of a man who was concerned for the care of souls, deeply orthodox in theology, but not uninfluenced by Valentinian Gnosticism in aspects of his spirituality.

This does not, however, mean that Egyptian monasticism was Gnostic by any means.  There are similarities between Celtic Christianity and Buddhism, for example; yet there are also similarities between the Celts and St. Maximus the Confessor.  The Coptic monks tended to be orthodox in their theology, as evidenced by their harbouring of St. Athanasius when he was on the run.  They ran into theological difficulties with Anthropomorphism (imagining God to have a body like a man) and Origenism (the antithesis, all-too-often accompanied by Origen’s heterodox teachings on Christology and souls). However, St. Antony shows no influence of the heterodox aspects of Origenism or Gnosticism in these letters.

Here is some wisdom of St. Antony:

Advice given to those troubled by demons: Have faith in Jesus; keep your mind pure from wicked thoughts and your body free from all sordidness.  In accordance with the divine sayings, do not be seduced by the fullness of the stomach.  Detest pride, pray frequently, recite the psalms in the evening and in the morning and at noon, and meditate on the commands of the Scriptures.  Remember the deeds done by each of the saints so that the memory of their example will inspire your virtue and restrain it from vices. (Life of Antony 55, trans. White)

Wherever you go, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, have [before you] the testimony of the holy Scriptures. (The Sayings, Latin systematic collection [I think], trans. Ward)

I beseech you, beloved, by the name of Jesus Christ, do not neglect your own salvation, but let each one of you rend his heart and not his garment (Joel 2:13), for fear lest we should be wearing this monastic habit in vain, and preparing for ourselves judgment. (Letter 2, trans. Chitty)

Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. . . .  Without temptations no-one can be saved.  (The Sayings, Greek alphabetical collection [#5], trans. Ward)

I no longer fear God but love him, for love casts out fear. (The Sayings, Greek alphabetical collection [#32], trans. Ward)

If you are interested in learning more about St. Antony, I recommend the translation of St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony in Carolinne White, Early Christian Lives, published by Penguin Classics.

I read Derwas J. Chitty’s translation of the Letters of St. Antony, published by SLG Press.

Sister Benedicta Ward, SLG, has a Penguin Classics translation of the Latin systematic Sayings called The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks as well as of the Greek alphabetical (by author) sayings called The Sayings of the Desert Fathers published by Cistercian.

Ancient Demonology: The Temptations of St. Antony

Temptations of St. AntonyMy first introduction to ancient demonology was the painting to the left, The Temptations of St. Antony, presumed to be by the Dutch painter Hieronymus (Jerome) Bosch (1450-1516).  As you can see, all sorts of the denizens of Hades are surrounding St. Antony, the hunched hermit by the shrub in the middle.  There is a naked woman in a pond, a variety of bizarre monstrosities on the roof of his abode as well as those scaling its walls with ladders.  The bottom left contains an example of the mediaeval imagination it is hard to explain, whereas in the right, above the egg, is a demon clearly designed to frighten.

However, front and centre, is Funnel Butt.  A person with his tunic pulled up over his head, his left foot in a jar, and a funnel coming out of his butt.  Flying from this funnel are birds.  And to the right we see a guy shooting arrows into the funnel from his perch in an egg.  Here’s a closer view of Funnel Butt:

Funnel Butt

This demonological wonder can be seen in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where Emily first showed me it.  The picture here is scanned from my postcard of the same.

In this late mediaeval painting, we have an example of the primary role demons play in human life: Temptation.

Wait.  Temptation?  What exactly is Funnel Butt tempting St. Antony to do?  What are any of these things tempting him to do?  I mean, the naked woman in the pond seems fairly obvious, but all these others?  What is going on?

To answer those questions, answer these:  What is the role of the monk?  What is the role, indeed, of every Christian?  What does the Devil fear most of all?

Bosch’s painting is inspired by the Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius, one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages.  In this book, we read:

… there was a sudden noise which caused the place the shake violently: holes appeared in the walls and a horde of different kinds of demons poured out.  They took on the shapes of wild animals and snakes and instantly filled the whole place with spectres in the form of lions, bulls, wolves, vipers, serpents, scorpions and even leopards and bears, too.  They all made noises according to their individual nature:  the lion roared, eager for the kill; the bull bellowed and made menacing movements with his horns; the serpent hissed; the wolves leaped forward to attack; the spotted leopard demonstrated all the different wiles of the one who controlled him.  The face of each of them bore a savage expression and the sound of their fierce voices was terrifying.  Antony, beaten and mauled, experienced even more atrocious pains in his body but he remained unafraid, his mind alert.  And though the wounds of his flesh made him groan, he maintained the same attitude and spoke as if mocking his enemies.  ‘If you had any power, one of you would be enough for the fight; but since the Lord has robbed you of your strength, you are broken and so you attempt to use large numbers to terrify me, although the fact that you have taken on the shapes of unreasoning beasts is itself proof of your weakness.’  And he went on confidently, ‘If you have any influence, if the Lord has granted you power of me, look, here I am: devour me.  But if you cannot, why do you expend so much useless effort?  For the sign of the cross and faith in the Lord is for us a wall that no assault of yours can break down.’  They made numerous threats against the holy Antony but gnashed their teeth because none of their attempts were successful — on the contrary they made fools of themselves rather than of him. (Ch. 9, Carolinne White, trans. in Early Christian Lives, pub. by Penguin; another translation is online here.)

Demonology comes up throughout the Life of St. Antony; it is one of the foundational texts for much Christian demonological thought.  The demons are here attempting to draw St. Antony out of his cell, to drive him back into society, to stop him from praying.  David Brakke (Demons and the Making of the Monk) has said that it is more appropriately considered the trials of St. Antony than the temptations (both are the same in Latin).

The lesson for the Christian demon-fighter?  They will try to distract you from prayer.  They probably won’t make it seem as though your house is full of holes; they probably won’t appear like a horde of wild animals pretending to prepare to devour you; they probably won’t physically harm you in any way; unlike here or in Frank Peretti, they probably won’t make your presence known.

But prayer is one of the weapons we have in the fight.  So they will do their best to distract us, to tempt us to do anything else, to draw us into other things, even things that seem noble.  Many of the stories about the Desert Fathers tell of men who were drawn away from prayer and into excessive works of charity to the peril of their souls.  We need prayer to satisfy our souls, keep connected with God, and wage war on the front lines of the battle.  Let us remember the power of Christ within us, the power of His cross, to keep us safe and enable us to fight the fight and pray the prayers.

Can we still believe in demons?

I have heard some people say that since we live in a world on the other side of the Enlightenment, in a world where science has found natural explanations for so many things, we can no longer believe in certain elements of the supernatural, e.g., demons.

I do not think this is necessarily so and that such a view misunderstands the entire discussion.  If belief in demons were mere superstition, by which I mean a belief that exists for merely aitiological reasons to fill gaps in our knowledge, then yes, we have explained away many things about demons.

For the weather does not come from demons, it comes from pressure systems and out of whims directed against umbrella-carriers.  Mental illness is caused by all sorts of factors, both physiological and environmental.  I am the one who sins, not some spiritual being inhabiting my body.

However, such findings do not negate the possibility of there being malevolent beings of a spiritual nature who are seeking our destruction and ruin, seeking to lure us into sin and harm.  We may scoff at the plani of Cassian who wait at crossroads to mislead travellers and their companions who actually attempt murder (Conf. 7.32).  However, Screwtape, on the other hand, is nothing to scoff at.

What we need to realise is where the boundaries of scientific enquiry stop.  Science, modern empirical investigation into the nature and order of the cosmos, cannot actually see and observe everything.  It deals, essentially, with only the physical.  It deals with energy, matter, time, and so forth.

Science has no means of measuring the spiritual.  The spiritual is on a plane of being different from ours.  When we look at another human being, we see but the outer appearance; the spiritual is invisible.  No scientific instrument can actually observe the human spirit.  They have seen things going on in brains that point to spiritual experiences, but these are not hard evidence for spirit; they could easily be interpreted by atheists as proof that the spiritual does not exist but is merely certain actions occurring within the human brain.

If we as Christians believe that all human beings are persons with spirits, and if science cannot even see a spirit where we know one exists, why should we decide that since science has no evidence for the demonic, and certain alternative explanations for traditional demonic spheres of activity, that the demonic is no longer at work?  That the demonic was never at work?

I believe that a demon can produce a physical disease, for example.  Simply because it has its origins in the demonic does not mean that it will not have the same physical symptoms as another manifestation of the same disease caused by purely physical means.  A demon could cause mental illness as well, perhaps by stirring up the juices of some poor soul’s brain.  Drugs could heal the physical or mental illness at hand, but that is merely treating the disease as it stands, regardless of its origins.

This is to say: The physical and spiritual can act in concert.  Science and medicine will only show us the physical.

The Lord will sometimes give a person an insight into such a situation.  For example, I know of a doctor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who treated a young man for tetanus.  Within the year, the young man was again demonstrating all the symptoms of tetanus.  This should not be; a tetanus shot, as we all know very well, lasts for 10 years.  Through discernment, he came to the decision that this illness was one with a strong spiritual element.  The tetanus was healed in this case through prayer, not drugs, since the drugs had failed.

What that story shows us is that we should not neglect the physical, but should at all times be attuned to the spiritual and pray to God to heal people with diseases.  We will almost never know whether a disease has its origins in nature or supernature.  Nevertheless, we can pray that God, who knows all things, heal through the wisdom of doctors and his own touch as the Great Physician.

What we should never do is assume that people with mental illness have demons.  Or that everything that goes wrong is the result of a demonic attack.  We can rarely see into the spiritual.  It is beyond our place as mere mortals to assume that someone else has a demon every time something goes wrong.  This sort of behaviour can result in abuse.

However, the most important role of demons in Christian demonology proper, as seen in the Desert Fathers, Cassian, Evagrius, Augustine, the mediaeval writers, is not to possess people in dramatic ways, not to cause illness, not to confuse people, not to waylay travellers.  Rather, the demon’s role is that of Screwtape, of C.S. Lewis’ masterwork The Screwtape Letters.

Demons are tempters.  They entice us to sin.  Now, our own flesh and the world can do the same.  Nevertheless, by Cassian’s reckoning, demons will observe us and see where we are weak and make tiny, little suggestions to us.  They will try to draw us into sin, to draw us away from virtue, to draw us away from seeking God and His ways.

This is a role that a person of a modern mindset can easily acknowledge.  It does not touch upon any of the core doctrines of science.  All it says is that sometimes, when we are tempted, it’s because someone else is tempting us, someone unseen, someone unmeasurable in any physical sense.

Finally, we should not avoid belief in demons, for Christ casts them out, St. Paul assumes them among the “principalities and powers”, and they are a part of the tradition throughout the ages.  I hope that the above has demonstrated the reasonableness of belief in the demonic.  All that remains of the stool is experience.  Some of us have had the unfortunate experience of direct, knowing encounters with the demonic.  The strongest testimonies are Scripture and Tradition, both of which are interpreted and bolstered in this case by Reason and Experience.

Therefore, let us take up the fight and proclaim the power of Christ over our own lives, receiving His grace and His love to enable us to endure forever and stand firm in the fight.

Demonology and You

Nobody believes in the Devil nowadays.  That is one of the Devil’s favourite jokes.
-Robertson Davies, “Scottish Folklore and Opera,” in Happy Alchemy*

The special essay for my MA was “John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus on Demonology”.  The writing of this bit of comparative demonology brought me into contact with not only Cassian and Evagrius but also with the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the anonymous Historia Monachorum in Aegypto, Palladius’ Lausiac History, St. Augustine’s City of God, the Shepherd of Hermas, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, Origen’s De Principatibus and a variety of other Patristic writings.  In these writings, although there were points of variance**, I saw the fundamental interconnectedness of Patristic writers.

They all believed in demons, for one thing.

In the Patristic world, demons are out there.  They are fundamentally hostile and inhabit the air.  Their main action in the life of the Christian is to tempt/test us.  They want to distract Christians from prayer and lead them into sin.  One of the fundamentals of Christian demonology is the fact that demons cannot force people to sin.  Some people don’t realise this, and thus they brush off demonology as having nothing to do with them; clearly their sins are their own.

Yes, your sins are your own.  This does not negate the reality of demons seeking to entice you to omit the good and commit the wicked.  Indeed, if demons are real (which a worldview based on Scripture and tradition proclaims loud & clear), we should be on the guard against them; our sins are own responsibility, so we should be on our guard to avoid being enticed to lead life separate from God’s ways.

Therefore, we should be equipped to fight them.  We should know our weapons.  We should know our enemies.  We should also know what else we’re up against — for not all evil originates with demons.  According to John Cassian’s telling of the eight deadly vices in his Institutes, the will to sin is our own and the vices originate in our own sinful state; the traditional word for this, taken from St. Paul, is the flesh.  The other origin of evil is the world.  The world is full of enough wickedness stemming from other people’s evil and the wickedness of organisations and systems that the demons need not always tempt us.

However, knowledge of the battle is not readily available for the (post)modern Christian.  We are trapped between Frank Peretti and secular humanism.  What we need is a demonology for (post)moderns, something with both eyes open that takes Scripture seriously, does not deny science, but also peers into the wisdom of the Great Tradition, drawing out the teachings on Spiritual Warfare from the ancients, mediaevals, Reformers, and more, looking at liturgies, exorcisms, and training in the spiritual life.

I think a comparative analysis of John Cassian and Walter Wink (for example) would be interesting not only from a scholarly point of view but from the point of view of the average Christian seeking to live in a world surrounded by principalities and powers.  We need work that is not only scholarly but actually useful.  My approach to this question would be inherently Patristic, but there are other ways to deal with this issue with a Christian, biblical, honest approach.

And so I am glad to see that the Internet Monk has posed the following question to his Liturgical Gangstas:

How does the theme and practice of spiritual warfare relate to ministry in your tradition? Where are the boundaries of your own “comfort zones” in the practice of spiritual warfare?

In the post on his blog, we get thoughts on this very important question from the Eastern Orthodox, United Methodist, Southern Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian perspectives.  Unsurprisingly, I liked the Eastern Orthodox and United Methodist best.  You should read the post.

The position that many of us have on the question of demonology is summed up well in that post by Matthew Johnson, United Methodist pastor:

I think attributing every kind of mistake or misfortune to Satan and his minions is ridiculous. However, I would be biblically remiss not to recognize that there are powers, there are principalities, there is a reality beyond my senses that is gruesome and violent in which there are beings who would love nothing more than to see the church and the members of the body of Christ fail.

Hopefully to come shall be more on demons, John Cassian, and you.

*Many thanks to Emily Martin for providing the quotation to me many moons past.

**Most notably the Origenist teachings about the Fall and Christology as embraced by Evagrius in opposition to Cassian & Augustine.

Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 2

Books, including PsalmsI believe that classical exegesis gives us the tools for unlocking even the most unfortunate parts of Scripture.  Thus, we look upon the aforementioned verse, Psalm 71:13:

Let them be confounded and perish that are against my soul; let them be covered with shame and dishonour that seek to do me evil.

Then we scratch our heads and pray, thinking about what sort of spiritual meaning could lie there.  And then John Cassian says:

When we read or sing all these things [of violence and hatred in the Psalms], therefore, and others like them that have been included in the Sacred Books, if we do not take them as having been written against those evil spirits that lie in wait for us day and night we shall not only not derive from them any increase of gentleness and patience but we shall even conceive a kind of cruel feeling that is contrary to gospel perfection.  For we shall not only be taught not to pray for our enemies and not to love them, but we shall even be incited to detest them with an implacable hatred, to curse them, and unceasingly to pour out prayer against them.  (Conf. 7.21.7-8, trans. Ramsey)

Who are against your soul?  Who seek to do you evil?  Evil spirits.  Demons.  The Psalm in the Christian’s hands becomes a tool of spiritual warfare to combat the forces of darkness.

Let us now, therefore, consider the most famous of the violent Psalms, Ps. 137.  The Psalm closes with the following:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock! (NRSV)

Typically, the Revised Common Lectionary avoids these passages, and if we consider how most of us read the Bible most of the time, I can understand it.  However, if we look to the ancients, such as John Cassian or C.S. Lewis, we find new ways of looking at the above verses:

It behooves us as well to destroy the sinners in our bed — namely, our fleshly feelings — on the morning of their birth, as they emerge, and, while they are still young, to dash the children of Babylon against the rock.  Unless they are killed at a very tender age they will, with our acquiescence, rise up to our harm as stronger adults, and they will certainly not be overcome without great pain and effort. (John Cassian, The Institutes 6.13.2, trans. Ramsey)

And C.S. Lewis:

I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals.  They begin whispering to us, “I don’t ask much, but”, or “I had at least hoped”, or “you owe yourself some consideration”.  Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is the best: knock the little bastards’ brains out.  And “blessed” he who can, for it’s easier said than done. (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 383-384, in Selected Books)

And there you have it, the spiritual interpretation of the difficult Psalms at work.