The un-sexy demonology of John Cassian

Having finished A New Kind of Christian, the next “book that ‘normal’ people read” I’m going through is Michael Green’s 1981 volume, I Believe in Satan’s Downfall (from the ‘I Believe’ series). Obviously not a book that normal people read anymore, but I hope that some normal people read it in the 80s, because it is very good so far.

I have just finished Green’s chapter about temptation, and I am reminded of the awkward conversations I would have about demonology when I was researching John Cassian (d. c. 435). Specifically, the lack of any Frank Peretti, This Present Darkness or The Oath business. Cassian acknowledges this sort of demonology, but he is not going to spend time on it.

It’s a bit disappointing for the sensationalists. Why tantalise us with the idea of demons who wait at crossroads to mug people if you aren’t going to give us any details? Other stories from the Desert Fathers give us great details! I forget the source, but there’s this one time that a guy took shelter in an old tomb, and a bunch of demons turned up, and he overheard them talking about all the monks they tempted. Or there are the temptations of St Antony, wherein he wrestled with the denizens of Hell all night:

Including Funnel Butt:

John of Ephesus tells the story of some demons who made a woman levitate and appear like the BVM and fool some monks into praying to her.

Cassian doesn’t deny the reality of such things. After all, they say that The Exorcist is based on real events. But these sensationalist stories are not his main event.

Cassian’s demonology is all about temptation. How do the demons tempt you to sin? How do they try to distract you from prayer? What sorts of thoughts do they encourage? How much power do they have in terms of temptation? Can they implant an idea in your mind? Can demons really see the future?

Let me tell you, when you follow, ‘I study demonology,’ with, ‘specifically how demons tempt people to sin,’ your rocketing coolness plummets.

But the un-sexy demonology of John Cassian is just the demonology we need. I remember this scene in This Present Darkness (the aforementioned Peretti novel) where some dude is literally wrestling with demons in his living room. Let me tell you — you probably do wrestle with demons in your living room.

The demon of wrath.

The demon of greed.

The demon of gluttony.

The demon of laziness.

The demons of gossip and slander.

The demon of saying that malicious thing.

And so on.

Our passions are disordered, and the demonic prey on that. Their main goal, though, as Cassian’s Conferences would tell us, and which is, I believe, the lesson from St Antony’s battle with Funnel Butt, is to keep us from prayer. Watch out, then, for

The demon of distraction.

He comes clothed as a Netflix of Light.

Advertisements

Fighting the Demons 3: St. Columba

So far we have seen stories of St. Antony and St. Savvas fighting the demons as well as an aberrant one about Shenoute. Today, let us look at this week’s saint, Columba, and a story about him and some demons, for this one is notably different from any of the above.

The story is in Book III of The Life of St. Columba by Adomnán of Iona. In Chapter 8, he writes:

One day, when St Columba was living on Iona, he set off into the wilder parts of the island to find a place secluded from other people where he could pray alone. There, soon after he had begun his prayers — as he later disclosed to a few of the brethren — he saw a line of foul, black devils armed with iron spikes and drawn up ready for battle. The holy man realized in the spirit that they wanted to attack his monastery and slaughter many of the brethren with their stakes. Though he was alone against such an army of countless opponents, he was protected by the armour of St Paul and flung himself into a great conflict. The battle continued most of the day, and the hosts were unable to vanquish him while he could not drive them away from Iona on his own. Then the angels of God came to his aid, as he afterwards told a few of the brethren, and the devils were terrified of them and left the place.

The demons proceeded to Tiree where they invaded a monastery and caused sickness, of which many died. Only one died in Baithéne’s monastery because of the prayerful efforts of the abbot.

What this demon story has in common with the other two under discussion is the fact that the saint has gone out alone to pray when the demons attack. The lesson here, I believe, is that the Christian is to remember Christ’s exhortation and example to pray in secret, and spend time alone with God — and that, when we do this, the forces of evil will take note. The battle will ensue.

St. Columba is kept safe in this battle because of the armour of St. Paul, the armour of God, from Ephesians 6:10-17:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (NIV)

This armour is what we need as we wage peace in the battle against the forces of evil.

In this story, interestingly enough, we get a Peretti-an twist in the arrival of angels, unlike the arrival of Christ to aid Sts. Antony and Savvas. Of course, the image of the demons is much in keeping with the sort of thing Frank Peretti relishes, yet the battle is not. Savvas wins through prayer, the armour of God, and the mere arrival of angels, whose appearance is so fearsome to the demons that they flee.

This story reminds us that, if we have the supernatural worldview that accepts the demonic, the angelic is also a part of the broad world of the spiritual cosmos surrounding us on all sides. Angels are the messengers of God (literally), and they fight alongside the Christians in the battle against evil. First and foremost, we are not alone because Christ will never leave us or forsake us. We are also not alone, however, because the Lord of Hosts will send his hosts to battle with us and for us.

The arrival of angels is a reminder of the whole realm of “spiritual warfare”, the sort of thing evangelical teenagers get really excited about. Who knows what a battle in the heavenlies would like (Do they fight with swords or appear as people or chuck around mountains?) — but the biblical record seems to indicate that it does go on, and our role is that of faithfulness in prayer and growth in virtue.

This is much preferable to those who wish us all to become exorcists, for oftentimes that demonstrates an obsession with the Dark, with something that remains mostly unknown to we poor mortals.

Finally, the demons are driven by Columba to Tiree where they cause disease. Here we have an example of what our mediaeval forebears are constantly accused of doing, of attributing everything to the spiritual forces and being generally “superstitious.”

I have no wisdom to draw from the demonic source of disease. It, too, is driven away by prayer, but we know that already. When I consider the mediaeval universe and the bigness of today’s universe, physical and spiritual, I am reluctant to rule out the possibility of spiritually-caused disease. It’s not a strictly rational belief, but I don’t think the world is, either.

Shenoute and the Demons: The Limits of Hagiography

I tend to try and find something edifying in much of what I read. So weird stories about demons and stuff don’t necessarily bother me, so long as the example of the monk or the lesson about who God is can be of use. However, despite much wisdom having come from the desert tradition, not everything the Desert Fathers and Mothers had to say and do was necessarily a good idea.

Now, these days most people get uncomfortable with desert monks because of their strong emphasis on avoiding other people. This is a justifiable concern — St. Basil the Great held it as a criticism of his time in Egypt. If you don’t spend time with others, how can you even begin to fulfill the commandments? Nevertheless, this has never been a great concern of mine largely because the monks who say, “Avoid people,” said it to people whom they were ostensibly avoiding.

More troubling is Shenoute, Archimandrite of the White Monastery in Upper Egypt from 385 to 465. Shenoute, as we see him in Besa’s Life of Shenoute, was a violent man whose idea of God’s forgiveness was that one is only forgiven after a sufficient penance set by Shenoute. Or a criminal’s repentance is not enough for salvation — he must also go to the secular authorities and be executed to reach paradise. He is a hard man, dried by the sun and his sparse diet, but it also feels at times that his soul and his very self are hard and dried out.

So when we consider Shenoute and demonology, we come across this story:

One day, when my father was sitting in the monastery, behold! the devil and a host of other demons with him came in and spoke to my father with great threats and wickedness. When my father saw the devil, he recognised him immediately, and straightaway he sprang upon him and grappled with him. He seized him, hurled him to the ground and placed his foot on his head, and shouted to the brothers who were nearby: ‘Seize the others who followed him!’ And they immediately vanished away like smoke. (Ch. 73, trans. David N. Bell for Cistercian)

Was this even the Devil? I mean, what if it was just an angry dude who Shenoute beat up? Or did it even happen? This is certainly a Frank Peretti moment in the world of ancient demonology, is it not?

The root and source of our tradition is Christ. Never does Christ beat up the Devil or step on his head. The Gospels are subtler than that — their presentation of the Devil is subtler than that! The Devil is a tempter in relation to Jesus. The demons, the unclean spirits, are beings that possess people in the Gospels.

The true defeat of the devil does not happen in a wrestling match in your living room or the forecourt of the White Monastery. It occurred on Golgotha when the Lord and King of the universe bled and died for His broken creation. It happened in the three days when that same Lord burst forth from the grave, trampling down death in victory.

Stories like this are there merely to enhance the prestige of their saint. One could argue that that is the whole point of hagiography, but I disagree; hagiography, at least most of what I’ve been reading, is about Christ and his power in people. Christ does not show up in this story, unlike in yesterday’s story of St. Antony.

The desert has its limits. As the desert tradition is gaining a certain amount of popularity today, as it encroaches upon our spirituality, let us stay grounded to the Scriptures and the broader tradition before we start going in for stories about monks who beat up the Devil.

Fighting the Demons 1: St. Antony

In Frank Peretti’s bestselling thriller This Present Darkness there is a scene wherein one of the characters engages in physical combat with demons in his living room. No joke. This sort of presentation of demonology, while it certainly entertained me as a teenager, draws attention away from the real fight with the demons, a fight that usually has as its great champion Christ.

Even if you don’t believe in demons, I think the lessons we have to learn from the ancient demon stories are applicable. So please, keep reading.

A very good description of the real fight with demons, a fight that takes place at the level of temptation, not at the level of wrestling matches, is John Cassian’s in The Institutes when he deals with the Eight Thoughts (precursors to Seven Deadly Sins). However, hagiography does give us some interesting demon stories, so I’m going to give you three posts and three stories battle with demons: St. Antony (below), St. Savvas (here), and St. Columba (here).

Other saints who have similar stories are St. Daniel the Stylite (saint of the week here), one of John of Ephesus’ saints whose name escapes me, and some other tales from the Desert Fathers. This is probably literary borrowing, not historical truth, but I believe it has a lesson inside.

What can we learn from patristic and mediaeval hagiography? I mean, we’re not likely to wrestle with demons Peretti-style, nor are we likely to be tempted Antony-style. So what on earth can these ancient demon stories say to (post)moderns in the 21st century?

Case One: The Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius

This is the locus classicus of monastic hagiography as well as the battle with demons. Evagrius and Cassian may give us the more nuanced, psychological vision of how we combat the tempters, but here Athanasius gives us a very vivid picture of St. Antony’s temptations from demons and the fight against them. I’ve posted on this before here.

This time, rather than focussing on the strange menagerie comprised by the denizens of Hell, let us focus on what actually happens to St. Antony.

If you read this encounter of St. Antony with the demonic, which we can find at 8.7-10.9 of the Life which is pp. 14-16 of White’s translation in Early Christian Lives and available through the CCEL here. In some ways, this account is Frank Peretti-esque, especially with the Devil and his minions beating St. Antony up.

Despite being beaten, however, we see that Antony continues to inhabit the tombs and prays continually. He also recites verses from the Psalms against the temptations that assail him. Ultimately, regardless of everything the adversary throws at him, he prevails in the combat.

At the end of it all, he is granted a vision of Christ.

St. Antony immediately asks why Christ didn’t help him. Apparently Christ was testing him, but then goes on to assure him that he will be present with Antony through the rest of the saint’s testing with demonic powers.

What can we learn, then? I mean, we aren’t likely to be beaten. And those of us who even believe in demons don’t tend to dwell on them and often live as though they don’t exist. Is there any edification for today’s reader, then?

I think so. (No surprise there.)

First, as I mentioned when I first posted about the Temptations of St. Antony, our saint does battle with prayer as his chief weapon. We should never forget this piece of our arsenal when we are beset by temptations or evil in any of its forms, be it within ourselves or in the unjust world we see around us. Prayer is a walkie-talkie for the battlefield of Christian life (I think J Piper said that).

Second, St. Antony quotes Scripture at the demons. We need to hold the Scriptures in our minds. We need to read, mark, and inwardly digest the Bible. We need to memorise it, pray it, study it, read it, recite it. If you want to have a biblical mindset, you need the Bible in your mind (this is part of the advice Abba Chaeremon gives Cassian in one of the Conferences).

Third, Christ was there all along. He is our champion. This role becomes very important in other monastic encounters with demons, from Palestine to Ireland. Hagiography is essentially Christocentric; Jesus is the reason the saints can do the great things that they do. We need to remember this, as well as the Old Testament name YHWH Nissi — YHWH is our banner. He fights our battles.

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.

John Wesley on Spiritual Reading

As promised, here are some thoughts on Wesley’s thoughts on spiritual reading.

First, go and read his brief introduction to The Christian’s Pattern, Wesley’s abridgement of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.  A non-copyright edition is available through Google Books.  My thanks to Liam for making me aware of this fact.

In our world of instant, consumable media such as blogging, newspapers, TV, magazines, etc, Wesley’s advice goes somewhat against the grain.  His first piece of advice?  Find an assigned time for reading your spiritual book (in this case, The Christian’s Pattern).  Same time every day.  Don’t give it up unless absolutely necessary, and then reassign your time for reading to time as close to the original as possible.  Most of us tend to read whatever we want whenever we want.  Wesley urges not to do this.

This first piece of advice is actually quite good.  It is sensible for someone who has limited time and a specific book to work through.  The establishment of a routine can be the establishment of a good habit.  By doing our spiritual reading at the same time every day, we are less likely to forget about or let it slide to the wayside.  And if we keep it up for 40 days, it becomes a habit.  Some habits are good and worth keeping.

Second, he encourages the reader to read with purity of intention.  We are supposed to prepare our hearts and minds for reading.  We are to read prayerfully, asking God to enlighten us through the reading, to make us attuned to what he is saying.  Most of us just grab a book/computer/magazine/whatev and plunge in with no preparation or time for self-examination.

I like this second piece of advice.  Clearing your mind of the detritus of the day before engaging in any task that requires mental preparation just makes sense.  You are less likely to be distracted and more likely to follow Kierkegaard: “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.”

Third, we are not simply to burn through our spiritual reading like it’s a thriller by Frank Peretti, Dan Brown, or Daniel Defoe.  We are to read “leisurely, seriously, and with great attention.”  We are reading for our own profit.  We are to read and reread until we thoroughly understand what is being said and have applied to our lives.  If something is of especial profit to us, we should go over it and meditate on it more than once, trying to appropriate the lesson for how we ought to live.  Again, most of us are careless in our reading.  We read quickly and for pleasure, not slowly and with leisure.  If we wish to have our souls scoured and made clean by the spiritual books in our lives, Wesley urges us to slow down.

If we read slowly, carefully, and methodically, our reading is more likely to have a lasting impact upon the way we think and live.  I think we need to engage in this kind of reading more than once a week (if we are readers, that is), and possibly every day.  I have read a lot of stuff about spirituality and the Bible, but very little had truly soaked into me.  Perhaps if I followed John Wesley’s advice on spiritual reading, it will finally soak in and transform who I am, how I live, what I think.  And perhaps I’ll more easily be ready for the movement of the Spirit when He says, “This part here — not such a good idea…”

Fourth, John Wesley exhorts his readers to stir themselves up to “a temper correspondent with what you read.”  The idea is that we are more than mere intellects but are also spirits and bodies, with emotions and passions.  This paragraph is a reminder that John Wesley is the man whose “heart was strangely warmed,” a man who once had an experience that looks suspiciously like “being ‘slain’ in the Spirit” to my eyes, the man who gave Hooker’s three-legged stool a fourth leg, that of experience.

I understand what this fourth piece of advice is driving at.  However, it seems the most suspect to me, to someone of academic training, to someone who, since high school at least, has been told to set aside passions and emotions when approaching a text.  A text is to be studied with the intellect alone.  To bring the bundle of emotions and passions that make me me is to compromise my point of view, to ruin my objectivity.  I am, as a result, not sure how far to go with Wesley on this fourth piece of advice.

Finally, he exhorts the reader to conclude with a prayer.  This is sensible advice.  We are to lead lives soaked in prayer, imbued with the very presence of God in all that we do.  We should begin and end all activities with prayer; we should also pray in the midst of them.

This little introduction also serves as a reminder that John Wesley was a Methodist before he wasn’t an Anglican.