Reading the ‘Life of St Antony’

I have blogged about St Antony and his Life published (if not composed) by St Athanasius before, as visible on the Desert Fathers page of this site. When we come in front a text such as the Life of St Antony, the questions that tend to confront us — especially if philosophical materialists (matter is all there is) — are manifold.

How much of this is even true? We have Antony visible wrestling with invisible opponents. The sick are cured. Demons are cast out. People hear the disembodied voices of the demons as they tempt Antony. He lives for twenty years alone on a sparse diet but is as hale and hearty as ever when he comes out of seclusion. He has visions both of demons and of Christ.

People who want to determine whether an account is true or not tend to dissect things on their likelihood as well as how well attested they are. The likelihood of any miracle is, by definition, scanty. And our evidence for Antony’s miracles primarily comes from this text written probably by an Alexandrian and certainly serving the polemical purposes of Athanasius vs. the ‘Arians’ — if the Nicenes can produce such a saint, how could they be wrong?

Of course, one could easily point to the vast wealth of material that gives us miracle stories, exorcisms, and visions in the acts of the martyrs and lives of later saints. Perhaps these could be used as a bar — people in similar circumstances do similar things. May these miracles be not so unlikely after all?

However, immediately it will be pointed out that the earlier stories are unreliable because they were often written after the fact and clearly embellished to promote the Christian message. And the later stories are clearly modelling themselves on the Life of St Antony. Therefore, the argument that holiness manifests itself in similar ways throughout history will not convince our imagined materialist.

In fact, short of witnessing such a miracle oneself, I don’t think that a confirmed materialist could ever be convinced that the Life of Antony is 100% true. Furthermore, the apparatus of historical investigation cannot either prove or disprove the events recounted in this story. ‘Likelihood’ cannot be used as a criterion if the miraculous is in play, short of discounting all miracles (as the materialist will).

What use, then, is the Life of Antony? We cannot prove it true. We cannot prove it false. What do we do with it?

We must ask ourselves why the text was written in the first place and for whom it was written. It claims to have been written by Athanasius to provide the ideal monastic lifestyle for the reading pleasure and edification of his fellow clergy. The point of the Life of Antony is not historical information but edifying example.

Therefore, what this text shows us is what this particular Egyptian community — Alexandrians who admired the Desert Fathers, perhaps the Desert Fathers themselves a bit — values and strives towards. These people value commitment to Christ above all. They value what Franciscans will later call ‘evangelical poverty.’ They value constant prayer. They believe in demons but also in the greater power of Christ at work in the Christian to overcome the demons. These things and more are what we can take away from this text.

At this point, when we look to it as reflective of a particular historical community rather than a straight historical narrative, the Life of St Antony takes on a different force and becomes disturbing in a new way. Rather than challenging the philosophical materialist (matter is all there is), it aims for the heart of the practical materialist (matter is all that matters).

This is the value, historical and philosophical, of documents such as the Life of St Antony. These are the questions we should ask them — questions that will provoke the text to question us as well.

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Greater things than these! (John 14:12 & Demonology)

This morning, I read Luke 8:26-39.  This is Luke’s telling of the famous story where Jesus encounters a demoniac in “the country of the Gerasenes” possessed by “Legion” — ie. approximately 6000 unclean spirits.  I have been trying my own little form of Lectio Divina with my daily Bible readings, anointing the time with prayer and reading the passages reflectively.  And there I saw Christ casting out so many demons, setting free the mind of a man that was held in bondage.

I have written before about whether a (post)modern person can believe in demons.  Psychologist John White, in The Masks of Melancholy, seems to think we can even when recognising that so much mental illness is not the work of unclean spirits.  Yet I think even the de-mythologisers of Scripture would have to admit than something mighty happened here (unless they choose to dismiss the story as fairytale nonsense) — Christ cured a man of a mental illness, whether caused by unclean spirits or not.

I’m not about to recommend going off your meds or ignoring the noble work of psychologists, pyschiatrists, therapists, counsellors.  That sort of action is folly; the Lord gives us medicine for what ails us — you would take medication for your kidneys or your diabetes or whatever, so why not your brain?  It, too, is an organ.

Anyway, what I do want to talk about is the power of Christ to do such mighty things — casting evil spirits into pigs rather than “the abyss” (what is this abyss?  where is it?).  Jesus is mighty and strong to save, to set us free from the powers of evil and darkness, to liberate us from sin, to heal us of our spiritual, physical, mental wounds & illnesses — if not now, on the day of Resurrection.  And we see in John 14:12 the following:

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (NRSV)

Now, our Lord Christ, being the God-man, is the only One Who can redeem, atone, and save.  Yet if we truly place our faith in Him, we can join Him in healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, preaching to the lost, feeding the hungry, partying with tax collectors and sinners, walking on water, and casting out demons.  Indeed, we can do these and more! (Always, as St. Augustine points out, through the power of Christ himself.)

So where are the exorcisms?

An important question, that.  To reference another work by John White, The Golden Cow, I believe that we have succumbed to pragmatic materialism in the church of today — not that matter is all there is, but matter is all that matters.  So we speak piously about spiritual things, and many of us even believe, quite literally, in unclean spirits, but none of us seem to take them seriously.  Do we pray through a new home that it may be pure of the presence of such beings?  Do we pray for discernment of spirits when someone is sick?  Do we pray for the breaking of such spirits when we see the sickness and decay all around us in the world, in what Pope John XXIII called “a culture of death”?  Do we stand before our bedroom windows proclaiming the power of Christ the King as ruler of all we survey, confronting the spirit of the age, commanding him to grovel at the knees of Christ?

If we ever had the feeling something demonic were at work, how many of us would have the faith to dare cast it out?  Wouldn’t you feel some sort of shame to think that a fellow human being might be possessed by some sort supernatural spirit?  Doesn’t it seem silly?  What about the shame of not seeking to liberate a fellow human being who is in bondage?  How do you think the Holy Spirit feels about us ignoring the gifts he gives us?

The casting out of demons did not seem silly or shameful to Christ and the Apostles, to the Church Fathers, to the Desert Fathers, to Early Medieval missionaries, to the Reformers, to those in the modern missionary movement, to Christians throughout all ages?  Where is our faith?

Where are the exorcisms?