Desert and City: The Prophetic Ascetic

A friend recently brought up the criticism of the Desert Fathers that their withdrawal from the city meant a withdrawal from addressing the social issues and needs of the city. If we consider, perhaps, their own idealised desert anchorite or hermit, this holds true. However, if we consider the actual history of the Desert Fathers as well as their situation within the ancient church, I think this is a criticism that does not fit the reality as it was enacted.

First, as far as the actual history of the Desert Fathers is concerned, the first point we must acknowledge is the fact that almost none of the hermits achieved their idealised withdrawal from the world. St Antony ended up with a community gathered around him. St Simeon the Stylite shared wisdom with those who gathered around the base of his pillar. St Hilarion (although his story was largely fictionalised by St Jerome) was found by people wherever he went — he was forced into giving spiritual wisdom and performing miracles, whether he liked it or not. St Simeon the Mountaineer (less famous — one of John of Ephesus’ monks) found the local people living near his monk’s cell to be a field for evangelism.

Simeon the Mountaineer, in fact, is but one of many monks/nuns/hermits who found himself engaged in evangelism, despite the alleged ‘seclusion’ of his monastic profession.

Indeed, any anchorite or hermit whose name is known is known because he was the agent of God in the lives of others, whether, like Sts Barsanuphius and John, that was writing letters, or, like St Daniel the Stylite, that was dispensing advice in person. Therefore, they fulfilled a calling that was of benefit to church and world in these spiritual ways.

The cenobites (monks living in community), on the other hand, had opportunities to fulfill the commands to serve one another and love your neighbour simply through daily life. Moreover, there was always a class of monk who was in community because it provided him with the means of survival. Sure, you only ate once or twice a day. But you ate. At the social level, then, the cenobium provided the ancient poor with a place of refuge.

Moreover, not only the Desert Fathers but many other monks, nuns, hermits, et al., throughout history have left us a wealth of spiritual writings that are well worth reading. This is part of their prophetic calling. For we who read the sayings of the Desert Fathers, or the writings of Evagrius and Cassian, or the mystical treatises of Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, are spurred onward and strengthened in our journey into God’s love through the wisdom he gave them in their lives of solitude.

This, however, does not save them all from their abdication of social responsibility.

My thought on this point has to do with the nature of the church in Late Antiquity, and, indeed, the Middle Ages. Not only was this a pre-denominational age for the church, the local church community did not see the different paroikia (parishes) and communities as, well, different communities. In a given, small-scale church community, not everyone is called to volunteer in the food bank, to lead the music, to cook meals, to help out with the moms’ group, to lead Bible studies, to get bricked into a room to pray and never leave. Each of us must discern which tasks are our own in the wider functional of the ecclesial community.

So in the ancient and medieval church. While we rightly see something lopsided in the belief that a life of retreat from the world and city was better, I do not think we can rightly see it as a wrong choice. Shenoute of Atripe and his monks may have lived in the White Monastery and prayed for the salvation of the world (and beat up the odd tax collector or two), but Cyril was in Alexandria giving to the poor (when not bribing the imperial court).

A better example: The ancient church needed bishops like St John the Almsgiver, a Bishop of Alexandria who was ceaseless in his acts of mercy, and St Daniel the Stylite, a monk on a pillar outside Constantinople who gave spiritual counsel to people from all walks of life.

In fact, I believe that, whatever their excesses and possible errors, the Desert Fathers were part of a prophetic movement of the Spirit of God beginning in the decades after the Constantinian settlement, a prophetic movement that monasticism and its offspring (such as the mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans) would continue so long as Christianity and power were united.

Constantius in the Chronograph of 354

To a church that was seeing the large-scale conversion of aristocrats, as well as the syncretism of folk belief (as archaeology from Egypt shows), and which was perhaps getting doxologically and even morally lax in the comfort provided by favour from the state, the Desert Fathers served as a living embodiment of the full devotion Christ calls his disciples to make. They served as a reminder that Christianity is not a socially respectable institution but an encounter with the fully transcendent God (pictured below) who outstrips any purple-clad, bejewelled emperor in grace, holiness, and majesty (as pictured to the left). They served as a reminder that prayer is ultimately something we live, not simply something that we do when we turn up at a basilica for prayers before resuming ‘normal life’.

Whether in the desert or the city, whether monastic or cleric or layperson, each of us must realise that, for the Christian, there is no ‘normal life’, for the immanence of the transcendent God and the sacramentality of his good creation make that impossible.

And this is the prophetic role of the Desert Fathers.

 

Transfiguration of Jesus, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai (art of the Desert)

Grace, Christology, and the disciplined life

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

My research has recently brought me into contact with Fulgentius of Ruspe, an African theologian who lived c. 467 to c. 532. Some say he is the greatest African theologian of antiquity post-Augustine. Fulgentius is not an original thinker. He is, however, articulate and a great synthesiser. His job is not to be original. When you read his letters, you see a man who knows what catholic doctrine is and who wants to help his correspondents understand this doctrine better.

My research interest is in his reception of Leo the Great (of course), so I’ve not actually got to the topic of this post in Fulgentius. Nonetheless, of note in Fulgentius’ corpus is correspondence with Scythian monks about Christology and the question of grace/predestination.

Normally, we separate these two concerns. Christology is a largely eastern concern on which the West does its best to be as unoriginal as possible and simply re-articulate Hilarius of Poitiers, Augustine, and Leo the Great. Grace/predestination/freewill is a western debate not often, therefore, connected to Christology. (This is a point made differently in the English translation of Fulgentius’ letters to the Scythian monks by Rob Roy McGregor [real name, I swear!] and Donald Fairbairn.)

This is related to a research question I have been toying with: Why are certain monks against Nestorianism?

Nestorianism, you will recall, is the teaching that Jesus Christ exists in two persons, one divine, one human. John Cassian, the alleged ‘semi-Pelagian’ monastic leader in Marseille (but, really, semi-Augustinian?), wrote a Latin tract On the Incarnation Against Nestorius on behalf of then-Archdeacon Leo of Rome. Mark the Monk, off in Ancyra and, later, Palestine, also wrote in Greek against Nestorianism. Third, Shenoute of Atripe, the greatest of Coptic writers, also wrote against Nestorianism.

I am uncertain about Shenoute, but Mark and Cassian also wrote about predestination and freewill, Mark in ‘On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works’ and Cassian in Conference 13. Neither is a friend to the -ism associated with Pelagius, although neither fully embraces the -ism of the Augustinians. To the Latin West as represented by Cassian and Pope Celestine I, Nestorius’ association with Theodore of Mopsuestia was damning because of Theodore’s own friendliness towards Pelagius and Caelestius.

My hypothesis runs something like this. Part of the heart of the Pelagian debate is whether or not one’s discipline is what ‘saves’ him/her. How much is enough? Is it all my own will? How responsible am I for my own righteousness? My own sin? How does my freedom interact with God’s sovereignty?

To many people, the teaching associated with Nestorius undoes the divinity of Jesus. By bifurcating the Messiah, the human is not really assumed by the divine, they argue (thus abrogating communicatio idiomatum, on which I’ve blogged). If Jesus the man has to do everything as a man, then God isn’t really saving us, and Jesus the man has no saving power. I may be missing parts of anti-Nestorian polemic. Forgive me. This certainly is not meant to represent Nestorius, I assure you.

Think about this, then. God has not truly become man. He just gave a particular kind of special grace to Jesus. Jesus becomes just a moral exemplar. Regardless of what Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum actually believed, this is precisely the sort of thing their opponents were gravely concerned about. Grace is now inaccessible, really.

On the other hand, whether you are a conservative Cyrillian or a traditional Latin in the cast of Pope Leo, Jesus Christ is most assuredly completely and utterly God. You can also tell he is fully human. But in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God has rent the heavens and come down. He has entered to the fullest into the human condition. He did not simply join himself to Jesus or have a conjunction (the sort of language used by Nestorius and Theodore). The entirety of a unique human nature was experienced by God.

Grace can flow from him to us. Prayer matters. Union with God through Christ in Eucharist, in prayer, in baptism — this is freely available to all who truly repent and turn to him. Your disciplines may not save you, but they can make you more like the man Jesus. And the man Jesus is definitely God. So God can use them in you to perfect you and draw you closer to the mystical goal that is the end of all Christian ascetic practice — union with God, Godmanhood, theosis.

I think, then, that in ascetic theology, grace and Christology are intimately united.

I’ll have to see what Fulgentius has to say.

Saint of the Week: Shenoute

Not only is today the day Canadians remember Queen Victoria signing the BNA Act and making Confederation and the Dominion of Canada reality, it is also the Feast Day of St. Shenoute (348-466).

Now, if you’ve not been around my blog before, or only dip in once in a while, you’re probably saying, “St. Whosit?”

Indeed.

Shenoute’s section in William Harmless’ book Desert Christians has the title “Monasticism Overlooked: Shenoute of Atripe.” This is because Shenoute has, frankly, been largely overlooked. Even Derwas J Chitty’s masterful introduction to Desert monasticism, The Desert a City, passes him by, because Shenoute is beyond the purview of a book concerned only with the Chalcedonian tradition.

That’s possibly a better reason than most have for not knowing about Shenoute: He was a Copt who wrote in Coptic and left no remains in Greek or Latin. Shenoute’s obscurity, in my opinion, is entirely because he is part of the Coptic tradition. Perhaps if the Coptic and Graeco-Latin traditions of Christianity had not become estranged, more of us would know about Shenoute. However, given that we also have a hard time making Syriac saints beyond Ephrem and Aphrahat popular, I doubt it.

It is high time Shenoute, for all his faults and oddities (see my earlier post about him), had his day in the sun.

Shenoute became a monk at a young age, moving into the large coenobitic complex of his uncle, Pjol, near Atripe in Upper Egypt. If you read The Life of Shenoute by his disciple Besa, you will learn about the miracles and feats of asceticism Shenoute was capable of even as a young man.

Eventually, Abba Pjol died. Foolishly, the administration of the coenobium was left to someone else. Anyone who knows the Life of Pachomius should know that the new abbot should be popular, precocious young man, not that other guy. But I guess Abba Pjol didn’t know about the Life of Pachomius. Or Besa did. Either way, things went badly, until Shenoute took over as archimandrite of the monastery, just as Theodore eventually succeeded to being abbot of the Pachomian foundations at Tabennesi.

The monastic complex over which Shenoute was archimandrite is called the White Monastery by modern archaeologists, given the white colour of the stones from which it was built. It is to be distinguished from the Red Monastery which is nearby and was led during Shenoute’s life by the revered Abba Pshoi. Antony and Savvas are said to have made the desert a city of monks — Shenoute certainly did, for the White Monastery was more of a monastic city than a simple coenobium or monastery.

There were several monastic houses attached to one another within the walls of the White Monastery — Egyptian coenobia tend to come with walls to keep out wild beasts, thieves, and the Devil. At a certain distance were the houses of women associated with the monastery. Also connected to the White Monastery were some anchorites. Eventually, Shenoute went out to the desert to be an anchorite himself, dealing with the monks of his establishments through letters.

These monastic settlements succeeded in drawing between 10 and 15,000 monastics within their life and walls. Impressive.

What drew these people to Shenoute and the White Monastery? Salvation. The hope of glory. The fear of Hell.

Some would say, “Financial and economic security,” imagining poor Copts to be easily-ruled people who are concerned largely with their bellies. I do not know if this is true; it sounds too much like Hellenic propaganda about barbarians to me. Research should look into it and tell us.

Shenoute offered people more than food in their bellies and a structured work day. He offered them salvation, and he regulated that salvation down to the minutest detail — what you wore, when you prayed, what you ate, what you prayed, how you worked, how you prayed, where you worked, how you were beaten, by whom you were beaten — that sort of thing. A highly detailed roadmap to heaven was made available to Shenoute.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Shenoute also cast his monks as brethren. They were a family. And they were all equal, which is why they were brethren, not brethren and sistren.  Salvation was found in a tightly-knit group of people with whom you could rejoice when one rejoiced and mourn when one mourned. All were bound together in this vision of salvation.

This is not to say that it was all basket-weaving and linen harvesting. No, indeed. The monks and nuns of the White Monastery occasionally got fed up with Shenoute’s heavy hand. A couple of times they rebelled. Sometimes the women, who never actually saw Shenoute, would take the running of their community into their own hands; they would also frequently receive spiritual instruction from Pshoi, abbot of the aforementioned Red Monastery.

These occasional disturbances are why Shenoute moved into the desert and communicated not only with the women but also with the men via epistolary.

He was a man who was committed to the orthodoxy of the Patriarch of Alexandria, and accompanied St. Cyril to the First Council of Ephesus in 431. Our records of his Christology are largely to the extent that he an anti-Nestorian Nicene, and although he lived until 466, his own thought does not seem to show a great facility with the issues surrounding Christ’s nature that were setting Alexandria to the North aflame.

Some say that his Christology is of a Christ-less Christianity. Jesus was God, certainly, and he died for our sins. But there is little of grace in Shenoute, sadly. His Jesus, while a close chum of Shenoute’s (Besa records several instances people running into Shenoute having a chat with Jesus), is a stern Jesus, a Jesus of the baking sun and blowing wind of the Desert. This Jesus puts heavy burdens on humanity so that humanity can grasp salvation.

Nonetheless, Shenoute was one of the first great Coptic writers, and his dialect, Sahidic, was the literary form of Coptic for centuries until Bohairic eclipsed it in the Middle Ages. He left behind a collection of letters — sadly scattered and tattered by now — and sermons in Sahidic Coptic. He helped Coptic move beyond its status as a language whose literary remains were largely translation into a language with a spiritual literature all its own, standing alongside Latin, Greek, and Syriac as one of the great languages of ancient, patristic Christianity.

For more on Shenoute:

Primary Sources

Besa. The Life of Shenoute. Trans. David N. Bell. Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1983. Our main source for Shenoute’s life.

If you read Coptic, check out Shenoute’s Literary Corpus that has gathered together all the scattered bits.

Secondary Sources

Harmless, William. Desert Christians. Oxford, 2004. pp. 445-447 deal with Shenoute.

Krawiec, Rebecca. Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery. Oxford, 2002. This book, while it seems to be a women’s studies approach to Shenoute given the subject matter and title, is a very good introduction to life in the White Monastery and what drew people to Shenoute’s rule.

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.

St. Columba Revisited

Two years ago, I published the first Saint of the Week, St. Columba. At the time, I focused on St. Columba’s missionary excursions which were primarily centred upon Pictland north of the Grampians (hence his sighting of the Loch Ness Monster). I have extolled the great goodness of missionaries on this blog often and feel no need to do so at present.

St. Columba, however, besides being a missionary, monastic founder, and first-recorded sighter of the Loch Ness monster was also a wonderworker. In Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, we read a whole host of tales about St. Columba’s miracles.

Indeed, Adomnán’s Life is unlike any other saint’s life I have yet encountered. It consists entirely of miracle stories divided up thematically into three books: prophecies, miracles of power, and visions of angels. Within these categories there is no attempt at being chronological — indeed, he begins the prophecies with a posthumous vision of St. Columba had by King Oswald before Heavenfield Battle.

Most hagiographies contain an abundance of miracle stories — or at least a few. They take their cue from our dear friend St. Antony as a literary inspiration. But they also set events out in some sort of chronological order — usually. So, for example, Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of Savvas contains its share of miracle stories, but these are interspersed throughout a coherent narrative that tells us of Savvas’ monastic profession and monastic foundations.

This coherent narrative is of no concern for Adomnán. He’s here for the miracles, pure and simple.

The prophecies at times help people. Sometimes they are foretelling the future, but also they at times tell the truth about something happening elsewhere from wherever St. Columba happened to be at the time. They also come accompanied by the odd miracle of power or two. These are miracles of knowledge whereby God demonstrated His own omniscience, His abiding presence with St. Columba, and his concern for people who may otherwise have fared poorly.

The second category of miracles is more familiar, being miracles of power. Miracles of power are what we tend to think of when we hear “miracle”. In the course of Book II, St. Columba turns water into wine for the Eucharist, he purifies a well for drinking, scares the Loch Ness Monster, brings good winds to friends, heals the sick, resuscitates the dead, and more.

Book III contains the category of miracles I did not expect — visions of angels. These actually are relatively few, and are often visions other people had of Columba interacting with angels (vs. Shenoute hanging out with Jesus on a regular basis). This book also includes visions of light — visions of St. Columba shining with light from his face. While not unheard-of, this sort of phenomenon is not par-for-the-course hagiographic fare. It makes me think of Moses’ shining face at his descent from Mt. Sinai and St. Seraphim of Sarov who, himself, is reported to have had a shining face.

Whenever people discuss hagiography, the admission that this stuff is not necessarily all true comes out. The Bollandists, since the seventeenth century, have been at the fore of the movement to extract the legends from saints’ lives and provide us with the genuine article.

The path of Bollandist may be futile.

The trouble is that, if we admit miracles, even a miracle that seems to be a literary topos could turn out being true. There is no way of being 100% certain which miracle stories are true, and which are false.

When we look at St. Columba, we have to accept the fact that all three varieties of miracle gathered by Adomnán are present in the biblical record, in the Old Testament historical and prophetic books and in the Gospels and Acts. We have to admit, as well, that they abound throughout hagiographical literature from the third through the sixteenth centuries. And we have to admit that they are part of the charismatic and Pentecostal worlds, especially as seen in Africa and South America.

So, if St. Columba is said to have been able to prophesy like St. Shenoute, or can raise the dead like the Prophet Elijah, or can calm a storm like our Lord Christ, or still the jaws of a fierce creature like Abba Bes, who are we to argue with Admonán?

Instead, let us think upon these miracles. What do they tell us?

Adomnán tells us that St. Columba turned water into wine for the Eucharist. This tells us two things: Christ’s followers can do deeds like unto his, and Holy Communion is an integral part of the Christian life.

St. Columba raised the dead. Well, in this instance, it was the child of a recent convert from paganism. This tells us that God looks after His own and is the King of All, holding the keys to life and death.

St. Columba prophesied the deaths of men, violent for the violent, peaceful for the peacemakers. This reminds us that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and that the kingdom of heaven belongs peacemakers (as well as the cheesemakers, I suppose).

St. Columba calmed storms. Christ is the Lord of Creation, and His power runs through the lives of His followers. We need not fear destruction as Columba’s fellow-passengers did — for, even if we perish from this earthly world, God will not allow his holy ones to taste destruction.

St. Columba closed the jaws of the Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Monster is a thing of great speculation, but a miracle concerning the closing of the jaws of a fierce beast was performed by Abba Bes in fourth-century Egypt once regarding a marauding hippopotamus, another time against a crocodile (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 4.2). I have also seen a photograph of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain with a sparrow perched on his finger. These miracles concerning animals are a reminder that Christ reverses the curse from the Garden, that humanity was made to be master over the animal kingdom.

These are the lessons we can learn from Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, although we shall never be certain which miracles are true.

Fighting the Demons 2: Saint Savvas

Our first examination of the fight with demons was that of St. Antony, the locus classicus of the monastic fight with the Devil in the ancient world (here with an older post here), followed by an unplanned post on Shenoute’s violent treatment of “the Devil”. Our second look at fighting the demons is from another Greek biography of a desert saint, the Life of Savvas by Cyril of Scythopolis.

St. Savvas (we met him here before) was a Palestinian monk who founded several monasteries including the Great Laura which is still operational today. Savvas had as his custom to spend Lent away from the lauras and coenobia he had founded and live a life of austerity and prayer in the Judean Desert. One Lent, Savvas went to Castellion, the site of an abandoned Roman fort:

He underwent on this hill many trials inflicted by the demons. Doubtless he himself, as a man subject to fear, would have wished to withdraw, but He who had formerly appeared to the great Abba Antony appeared also to him, bidding him have confidence in the power of the Cross; so, taking courage, he overcame by faith and endurance the insolence of the demons.

While he was persevering in uninterrupted prayer and fasting, towards the end of Lent, when he was keeping vigil one night and begging God to cleanse the place from the impure spirits that lurked there, suddenly the demons began to make a beating sound and to display apparitions in the likeness sometimes of snakes and wild animals and sometimes of crows, wishing through such apparitions to terrify him. Since they were thwarted by his perseverant prayer, they departed from the place, shouting in human speech the words, ‘What violence from you, Sabas! The gorge you colonized does not satisfy you, but you force your way into our place as well. See, we withdraw from our own territory. We cannot resist you, since you have God as your defender.’ With these and similar words, they withdrew from this mountain with one accord at the very hour of midnight, with a certain beating sound and confused tumult, like a flock of crows. (Ch. 27, pp. 119-120 in English, trans. R. M. Price)

Following Savvas’ ordeal at Castellion, the old remains of the fort were converted into a coenobium, a monastery where the monks share together a communal life.

Our first point is to see that Christ again, as with St. Antony (but not Shenoute), plays a role. He appears to Savvas and gives him courage, calling him to “have confidence in the power of the Cross.” Christ is the true champion defender of the Christian. He fights alongside us and gives us the strength we need, whether our battle be with demons on a hilltop or the darkness of sin in our own souls. Christ is there to give his followers the strength they need.

The power of Christ is given to us in the power of the Cross. As I mentioned in my post “From what are we saved?”, Pope Leo saw in the Cross, alongside the defeat of sin and death, the defeat of the Devil and his minions. When we put our trust in Christ, our trust in his sacrifice at Golgotha, he gives us the benefits of his most precious death and resurrection. This includes power not only over sin and death but over the Devil.

Thus, trusting the great power of Christ in His Cross, Savvas was able to withstand the forces of the demons.

And what is in the saint’s arsenal against the demons as he trusts in Christ’s Cross? Prayer, fasting, vigils. These are the standard weapons in the battle against the demons. As we trust in the power of the Cross, we pray, we fast, we stay up through the night. Through these actions, in the battle against evil, be it demons appearing as snakes or late-night porno on the internet, the Christian is able to overcome the evil of the world.

Prayer is a given. I think most Christians pray. My (Anglo-Catholic) uncle once said that if you don’t pray and read your Bible, what business do you have calling yourself a Christian?

Fasting is less popular today. It is one of the neglected disciplines, even though Christ seems to imply it is something that his followers will do after the Ascension (see Mt. 6:16-18). If you are interested in fasting, I recommend you read Wesley’s sermon on the subject.

Vigils are even less popular. Oddly, some of the monks of the Desert believed that sleep deprivation was a help in the fight against demons, even though I, personally, find myself stirred up to irascibility much more easily when I haven’t got enough sleep. Nonetheless, I think that sometimes maybe we should organise groups of people to spend the entire night praying. Or to ensure that the entire time a particular event is occurring that there is someone praying, night and day. This soaking of the world in prayer is, I believe, a way to keep us focussed on the spirit, a way to keep us alert against the demons and the evil within us and around us.

These, then, are the lessons we can gain from the example of St. Savvas and the demons.

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.