Saint Anthony of Egypt and the Demons
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven; then come, follow me.” These words of Jesus, read at the liturgy in the Christian church at Coma, Egypt, around the year 270 CE, initiated a new life for Anthony, orphaned six months earlier at the age of eighteen or twenty. He divested himself of his assets, distributed them to the poor, and began a quest for union with God through prayer, solitude, and spiritual discipline. Not until Francis of Assisi would another individual have such a seismic effect upon the spirituality and worldview of Christianity. And for Anthony, his paradigm-shifting life of love was deeply bound up with his holy experience of the demonic.
Demons and the Passions
Much of what we know about Anthony’s life comes from the Life of Anthony, written by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and noted theologian, around the year 360 CE. This seminal work remained one of the best-known pieces of Christian literature well into the Middle Ages. In the Life, we learn that Anthony’s call to the contemplative life is fraught with demonic visitors from the beginning. Anthony begins his vocation through apprenticeship to Christian ascetics who lived lives of discipline and relative solitude in and near the cities and towns of Upper Egypt.
Living as they lived, he has his first recorded encounter with the devil and his demons, raising in his mind “a great dust of debate” during which Anthony confronts a demon in the form of a Spirit of Attachment: he is forced to face his lingering attachment to family, to money, to glory, and to bodily pleasures. How difficult for the young Anthony, likely still grieving his parents, to mourn (and perhaps second guess?) divesting himself of his sizable inheritance, his remaining family, and the pleasures of the senses. We are even told that at this point he is “like a man filled with rage and grief.” Within this period, Anthony is visited by another demon, the Spirit of Lust, who “one night even took upon him the shape of a woman and imitated all her acts” but was conquered through faith, prayers, and fasting.
Understanding Anthony’s encounters with these demons requires a brief introduction to the psychological model of his day. Reaching as far west as Greece and as far east as India, the human psyche was represented as a charioteer in a chariot steering two horses. Gregory of Nyssa called these horses the appetite and the spirited. These are our two deep sources of energy. The appetitive seeks to bring the world into the self, while the spirited seeks to push it away.
The streams of energy encompass such opposites as desire and anger, compassion and contempt, and sexual attraction and physical repulsion. These basic drives are God-given and, when balanced, serve for the good. Ensuring this is the charioteer, reason. While today reason and logic are often equated, in Anthony’s time reason was the balancing force that kept a person’s foundational energies in balance. Reason, in this model, is linked with love, compassion, forgiveness, deep emotion, and all the virtues.
For Anthony and his contemporaries, the opposite of reason is not emotion but passion. Passion in this account is not connected with romance or emotionalism. Rather, passion for Anthony is an imbalance of the appetite and the spirited that prevents us from being able to love. The passions are distortions that keep us unhappy and bound.
Therefore, for Anthony to battle the Spirit of Attachment, and to experience such a spirit as a demon, is not his attempt to break all bonds of affection or involvement. The battle with this demon is Anthony’s opportunity to correct an imbalance or distortion between the two horses of his chariot. Likewise, his fight against the Spirit of Lust should not be seen as an attempt to deny his sexuality, but rather to substitute freedom for compulsion in his sexual nature, so that this energy too can serve reason, which in turn serves love. Anthony’s battles here, his recalibration of his deep channels of energy, are all done so that he might eventually be able to love perfectly, with no compulsion or distortion or imbalance, for “being a Christian means learning to love with God’s love.”
I Flee Not From Your Stripes…
After these initial experiences of demons and devils, Anthony moves to a sealed tomb farther from the village, where he was alone for days at a time. Here, the devil “coming one night with a multitude of demons… so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment.” Found the next day by a friend, beaten and wounded, he is carried to the village church and assumed dead.
In having moved to the tombs, Anthony intensifies his battles with the demons: the whippings and beatings he experiences are not metaphorical or psychological, but corporeal. He is assumed to be dead. The Christian thinkers of the first centuries CE largely refuted the neo-Platonic understanding prevalent in the Hellenistic world that the human person is separable from the body, that humans are essentially spirits inhabiting bodies that were extraneous or foreign. Nearly one hundred years earlier than Anthony, Irenaeus of Lyons argued that the concept of salvation is bound up with the physical as well as the spiritual. Therefore, if Anthony fights the demons in his mind, he must also fight them in his body.
Merely hours after having been dragged half-dead from his solitude, Anthony regains consciousness and begs his friend to carry him back to his place of solitude. Still too weak to walk, he is deposited on the floor and shut up within the tomb. After praying, he shouts out: “Here am I, Anthony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ.”
At this point, the demons seek to terrify him:
The whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves.
Yet Anthony is not fearful. Rather, mocking them, he addresses the demons with an argument:
“If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord hath made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.” And again with boldness he said, “If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain?”
After his return to the tombs, Anthony is confronted with an experience of terror or dread through demons taking the forms of aggressive wild beasts. In the story of these faux beasts we see Anthony’s encounter with what Paul Ricoeur calls “ethical dread.” This is the primordial terror that the horses pulling our chariots might in truth be brute beasts:
Taken in its origin – that is to say, in its matrix of terror – this initial intuition is the intuition of primordial fatality. The invincible bond between Vengeance and defilement is anterior to any institution, any intention, any decree; it is so primitive that it is anterior even to the representation of an avenging god. (The Symbolism of Evil)
True to Ricoeur’s explanation above, only after the beasts have gnashed Anthony with their teeth does God intervene, scattering the demons with a holy light. Anthony questions God, saying, “Where wert thou? Why didn’t thou not appear at the beginning to make my pains cease? And a voice comes to him, ‘Anthony, I was here, but I waited to see thy fight.'”
This experience, too, is reflected in the physical body: Anthony experiences a renewed and heightened physical power in his body. He has had a deep encounter with purity, not in terms of scrupulousness, but through overcoming the terror of an avenging wrath triggered by fear of defilement. He has become free at a very deep level of his being. At this point, he is thirty-five years old.
Into the Nitrian Desert
Soon after this experience, Anthony sought an even more intense solitude and relocated to the Nitrian desert, roughly sixty miles west of Alexandria, an out-of-bounds place, a place where humans exacted little control and demons held sway. Here, far from human community of help of any kind, Anthony was walled into an abandoned Roman fort, “so long deserted that it was filled with creeping things,” together with six months’ rations, for a sustained period of solitude and self-encounter. Athanasius tells us that the few acquaintances intrepid enough to visit Anthony in his abandoned fort,
Heard as it were crowds within clamoring, dinning, sending forth piteous voices. So at first those outside thought there were some men fighting with him, but when stooping down they saw through a hole there was nobody, they were afraid, accounting them to be demons, and they called on Anthony. Them he quickly heard, though he had not given a thought to the demons.
In addition to these battles, there was a sweetness and joy to Anthony’s experience. Long-term meditators experience at some point what the monk Thomas Keating calls “the unloading of the unconscious.” This difficult and often unpleasant process, in which we become cognizant of our prerational motivations and neurotic tendencies, deepens our self-knowledge and unties the final knots that hinder our openness to God’s transformative power. Father Keating writes that the “Purpose of the unloading of the unconscious is not limited to your moral improvement. It brings about a change in your way of perceiving and responding to reality. This process involves a structural change of consciousness.”
Spiritual practice during this time is difficult. Keating advises,
When the unloading of the unconscious begins in earnest, many people feel that they are going backwards, that contemplative prayer is just impossible for them because all they experience when they start to pray is an unending flow of distractions. Actually, there are no distractions. It doesn’t matter how many thoughts you have. Their number and nature have no effect whatever on the genuineness of your prayer. (Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel)
In ignoring the clamoring, dinning, and piteous voices of the demons, Anthony models how to act in response to the unloading of the unconscious. This process is a necessary piece of healing, as necessary as correcting the deformations of energy that tend toward the passions, and as necessary as encountering the terror of primordial fears lodged in the inner folds of our identity. The contemplative life, as Anthony models it, is a school of transformation and integration that requires opening to God at the deepest levels of our being. Rather than wellness, this can feel, temporarily, much more like illness.
Living the Divine Life
After twenty years in the Nitrian desert, “Anthony, as from a shrine, came forth initiated in the mysteries and filled with the Spirit of God.” He emerges from his integrative work as a divinized person, as one who has arrived at theosis, the experience of participating in the very life of God. From this point, his life takes a different turn. While he still returns to his solitude, Anthony becomes more outwardly engaged.
He heals many who are physically infirm or afflicted with demons. He attracts more and more disciples, and his very person becomes a point of pilgrimage. His ascesis has made him absolutely unafraid, as he is no longer ego-bound; during a time of religious persecution, Anthony openly tends to imprisoned Christians, and loudly acknowledges his own faith to the authorities. Yet none dares to imprison him.
In spite of being illiterate and uneducated, Anthony debates with and debunks many philosophers of his day. He has access to a source of wisdom connected with the true and the virtuous from which he can engage the knowledge of his age. Over and over, Athanasius remarks on the surprise of Anthony’s audiences and visitors in finding that “such an ignorant man” could argue and speak so deftly.
These stories of Anthony’s activities underline an important truth: Anthony’s long time of solitude was never meant as an end in itself. In being divinized, Anthony was divinized for. The more he advanced in the spiritual life, the more he was drawn back into the world so to act as a sacred force of love and freedom.
Anthony, as a divinized human person, lives within the divine love. As “knowledge of God cannot be taught or learned apart from living out a life that is a reflection of who God is,” and since “God is love,” those who arrive at union with God live from, within, and for God’s love. Anthony recovered the human person’s natural state of unitive love-consciousness with the divine, what the early Christian hermits called “being guided by reason.” This natural state puts him in harmony with the natural world, evidenced by his ability to cross the crocodile-infested Arsenoitic Canal in safety after a period of prayer.
Demons, Divinization, and the Sinai Christ
In the gradual process of Anthony’s sanctification, the demons serve as unwitting partners. It is through his “battles” that Anthony is divinized: his slow evolution into a person free to love comes about through engagement with the demons.
If Anthony’s demons are brokers of God’s life of grace in a roundabout way, is it possible that these demons are really an aspect of God? Can it be that Anthony’s own passions, primal dread, and unconscious content, coming into contact with the burning grace of divine healing generate the experience not of holiness but, provisionally, of the demonic? Can it be that the cause of his personal bedevilment might have been God?
Anthony himself writes about the demons as aspects of “fallen goodness”:
First, therefore, we must know this: that the demons have not been created like what we mean when we call them by that name; for God made nothing evil, but even they have been made good. Having fallen, however, from the Heavenly wisdom, since then they have been groveling on Earth.
The plastic nature of the demons is seen in the legend of Anthony searching out Paul of Thebes, a fellow hermit that became known to Anthony in a dream. On his way to meet Paul, Anthony encounters two demons, a centaur and a satyr. At first, these demons seek to terrify and confound Anthony. However, they end up serving him, helping to direct him to Paul of Thebes and asking for his blessing.
In Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhism, deities are often portrayed as having both a beneficent and a wrathful aspect; both aspects serve the highest good, but have different functions. The beneficent aspect of a given deity offers kindness and solace, while the wrathful aspect wages fierce battle against those ego constructs and deformations of mind and heart that must be transformed in the crucible of spiritual praxis. Both aspects are sourced in loving compassion. Within the Christian household, there is a single image that captures this dual experience of divine activity: the icon of the Sinai Christ.
The Sinai Christ, the oldest extant icon of Christ Pantocrator (Christ All-Powerful or All-Ruling), dates from the sixth century CE. This image escaped destruction by Christian iconoclasts as it was housed at St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, safely within Muslim territory. The Sinai Christ is a composite of two faces, with the right half of the hold face being sweet and peaceful but the left half fierce and intense.
Some commentators believe the icon means to point up a distinction between Christ’s humanity and his divinity, but such a distinction would be foreign to Christian theology. While the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE affirmed that Christ did have two natures (the human and the divine), these two natures exist as one hypostasis (“person”). Understanding Christ as “split” between humanity and divinity would be evidence of the heresy of Nestorianism, already condemned at the time of the icon’s creation. Something else, then, is going on with the face of the Sinai Christ.
Perhaps in the image of the Sinai Christ we see the two aspects of divine love: the beneficent and the wrathful. This image may be key to understanding how demons play such a large role in the divinization of Anthony. Perhaps Anthony experienced not forces actually opposed to God, but rather another type of angel (angelos = messenger) of God, who comes for battle with a fierceness borne of love. This is not to say that all forces, powers, or beings experienced as evil are directly aspects of the divine; however, in terms of personal bedevilment it is quite possible that our ego constructs and passions, our vision colored by primal dread and our projected unconscious content may inform the experience of wrathful – but loving – aspect of God. Perhaps, for many of us as for Anthony, it is only through the experience of the adversarial nature of what binds us that we become loosed and opened to the full freedom, love, and joy that awaits us in the divine life.