DESERT FATHERS: Dealing With The Devil by Michael Patella

Dealing With The Devil by Michael Patella

From Angels and Demons

Desert Monasticism

The apocalyptic battles dramatically described in the Pseudepigrpha should not and cannot be interpreted literally, and no group knew this point better than the monastic women and men, who did so much in shaping Christian theology in the early days of the church.  The monks and nuns dwelling in the remote deserts were never far from daily confrontation with demons, as well as appearances of angels, and the stories of their battles with the diabolical world provide us with some of the best thought and practice of living in a world redeemed from sin and death.  From this desert literature, we can learn a great deal about how to approach the supernatural in our day.

The monks and nuns moved to the desert to become closer to God.  They knew that to abide in God’s grace, they would have to battle the demons, who would do everything in their power to keep the holy ones from reaching their goal.  The demons were not always external, however; many if not most of them were the internal demons of selfishness, anger, self-centeredness, lust, sloth, envy, and the like.  Likewise, expressions of grace as seen in faith, hope, and charity are often described as angels and saints in the literature.  From our perspective, this might seem to be an application of literary simile in which, say, the vice of anger is depicted as a ferocious demon, but to look at it only as a literary device would not be accurate.

The worldview of the desert monastic men and women was one that drew a very fine line separating the natural from the supernatural realms.  Where people today feel uncomfortable with such visual imagery and may even liken it to hallucination, these contemplatives knew quite well how evil desires, forces, and actions could take on a life of their own.  A contemporary example that is analogous to such a mindset would be the struggles a person recovering from addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, and food must face.  Moreover, people dealing with personality disorders and mental illness live brave lives with nearly insurmountable difficulties.  For them, to fight their way to sobriety or wellness is in very many ways a battle with demons.

The first example involves Saint Evagrius, and the second, Saint Macarius the Great.  Before heading to the desert, Evagrius was one of the most learned men in Constantinople.  While there, he is overcome with lust for a married, highborn noblewoman, and the woman in question was also smitten with him.  At no point in his writings does Evagrius chastise, condemn, or demonize the woman, yet the state in which he finds himself is itself described as falling into the “hands of the demon.”  Evagrius prays continuously and earnestly for deliverance, and it finally comes in a vision at night of angels dressed as soldiers coming to arrest him.  Evagrius thinks it is because the jealous husband had falsely accused him of sexual transgression.  In the vision, one of the angel soldiers morphs into the appearance of a very close friend who questions him on the reasons for his arrest.

Evagrius explains all and the visionary friend gives him advice: flee Constantinople.  Evagrius, still within a dreamlike state, swears on the gospels that he will do so.  He awakens from the vision and realizes that an oath in a dream is still an oath.  Immediately, he packs his things and sets sail for Jerusalem, and from there, he goes into the desert.

Did a close friend actually come to Evagrius during the night to speak to him about the impending scandal?  Did Evagrius’s emotional tension combine with his somnolent state, causing him to see this friend as an angel?  Is the whole vision a literary device?  For the desert mothers and fathers these questions are uselessly immaterial.  The fact of the matter is that Evagrius prayed for deliverance and deliverance came.  God loves his people and helps them.  A friend is an angel, and an angel is a friend (and we today still use similar language when someone shows up at a time of great need.)  This story about Evagrius is but one among the desert literature.  Within this genre there are many of a more graphic and dramatic nature, as found in an account about Saint Macarius the Great.

A man falls in love with a married woman.  She is virtuous and spurns his advances.  He in turn becomes so angry that he goes to a magician and pays him to cast a spell so that she would appear as a mare to her husband as well as to all the people in the area.  The poor husband is devastated that the woman he loves has turned into a horse; he even tries to feed her hay.  No one is able to help the hapless husband restore his wife, so he takes her to Saint Macarius.

Saint Macarius assesses the situation in short order.  He tells the husband and those with him that the magician has only made the woman appear to them as a horse; she is still a woman.  Macarius further explains that the magician’s spell could not possibly change the woman into a mare, because it is not possible for a person to change one of God’s creatures into something else.  To break the spell, Macarius sprinkles holy water over the woman’s head, and the husband and his friends see the wife and woman they all know.  Saint Macarius is not yet finished, however.  He also blesses some bread and gives it to the woman to eat with the instructions that she must attend church daily for Eucharist as well as morning and evening prayer.   The whole affair has taken place because the woman had been lax in her prayer life and had not been partaking in the Eucharist.

This short passage is a small vignette of the wisdom the desert monks and nuns can offer us today in dealing with the struggle between good and evil.  At the very start, Macarius disabuses any notion of dualism; good and evil are not equal, and the forces of evil are subject to God.  Although the incident is bad and unfortunate, it is not terror-ridden; God is in control, and there is nothing to fear.  Finally, the spell had power only because the woman had not been availing herself of the church’s sacramental life.

In many accounts, the demons attack the monks and nuns to the point that the holy ones are left bloodied and bruised.  Sometimes the demons tempt the monks with lustful thoughts or may even appear to them as voluptuous women.  The demons also pose as guests and try to engage in conversations which would get the monk to renounce Christ deliberately or accidentally.

The desert monks and nuns had other dealings with demons as well.  A great deal of the time, the monks exorcised people already possessed by evil spirits.  For these holy people, to confront a demon was nothing out of the ordinary.  Christ had his temptations and struggles with Satan, and that his followers do as well is all part of the Christian life.


The literature from the early monks and nuns of the desert recounts some of the battles these holy people had with demons.  The followers of the monastic movement went into the desert to become closer to God, and if that meant contesting with demonic forces, so be it.  Those battles ensue, for the demons do not want the holiness of the men and women to succeed.  One of the greatest contributions that the desert fathers and mothers make is a refocusing of temptation and evil.  Rather than directing evil at others, the monks and nuns look first to the evil within; scapegoating is not part of their worldview.  Temptation is deception, and the greatest deception is self-deception.  Simultaneously, Satan is a very real presence to them, and they do not hesitate to exorcise demons from each other and from people in the neighborhood.  The monastic objective was then and is now to follow the light of Christ at all times, and by following that light, monks and nuns lead others there as well.

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