12 November 2012

On Battling Demons, St Anthony's Temptation, and the Importance of Myths

[[Dear Sister Laurel, you have written about demons in the past. Do you really believe in demons? How about powers at work from outside us? When I read the desert Fathers a lot of what they say is incredible to me because there is so much reference to demons. The story of Anthony and all the hideous noise that occurred as he battled demons while people passing by heard the fighting is part of that. I just can't buy it. Is there a way to understand this that is not so primitive or mythological?]]

St Anthony'sTemptation by Bosch

Thanks for the questions. The desert is known in two integrally related ways. It is first the place where we are closest to God and may know and be known by him most intimately, and secondly it is the place where people meet demons face to face and battle with them in order to come to terms with their own humanity and claim it more fully. A desert vocation, that is the vocation of the hermit, is especially therefore, a vocation where one does battle with demons and comes to terms with and claims her humanity more fully through the grace of God. But we need to know what the desert Fathers and Mothers were talking about when they spoke of demons and the place of the desert in all of this. Whenever I have written about this I have spoken mainly of doing battle with the demons inside my own heart --- because for me that is the primary struggle that goes on in my life. While there may have been more of a tendency to personify these demons at the time of the desert Fathers and Mothers, I think this is mainly what they were speaking of and secondly of the powers and principalities in our world which are also at work within and upon us.

Consider what the desert (or any wilderness) is like. You are there, God is there, and often, with the exception of wild animals, that is pretty much all there is. At every moment you are thrown back upon yourself and God (though you may not realize God's presence at this point and may not have yet begun to seek him). To survive with the (perhaps unknown) grace of God you must find the resources within yourself to hunt, find water, create shelter, protect yourself from predators, stave off weather, hunger, boredom, hopelessness, and tedium; you must manage bodily needs, take care of injuries and illness, etc etc. This will mean dealing to some extent with your own insecurities, your own fears, prejudices, ignorance, and allergy to failure on a daily, even hourly basis. You will not survive otherwise. Further, you must deal with the loneliness, the isolation, the loss of all those things (role, position, money, relationships) that made your life valuable in worldly terms. There are no books, no electric lights, no TV's, no computers or internet, no musical instruments or iPods, nothing to distract you from yourself and the God who summons you to your truest self. Even while one is working quietly, one's mind is churning and one's heart is often in turmoil.

And perhaps you will begin to seek out God. If so, the heart that is in turmoil is the place you will enter now in a more concerted way. If you thought the region outside you was wild and threatening, wait until you enter your own heart. It is, after all, at times like these we begin to meet the darker or "shadow" parts of our selves as well as the giftedness and virtuous dimensions. In trying to feed and shelter ourselves we dealt to some extent with fears, insecurities, prejudices, ignorance, etc but now we face them full on --- now when there is nothing to distract us from looking into our own hearts. And besides these demons are so many more! Greed, arrogance, envy, pride, rampant ambition, perfectionism, laziness or a failure of will, a selfishness that rules out compassion, resentment, a tendency to manipulate others or the world around us in order to be loved or appreciated, evasiveness or outright dishonesty. The list goes on and on. If one has not been loved as one ought to have been there may be hatred and a really fearful rage and despair as well. And then there are the roots of these things --- for they do not come from no where! Thus, there are the "demons" which occupy our memories as well! They too must be exorcised in their own way.

One thing must be emphasized, however, especially given the focus of this question and answer. Our looking at the darknesses of our own hearts in such a situation is dependent upon the light and love of God (as well as upon our memory of all those who have loved us throughout our lives). It is the one who is loved and knows herself to be loved as only God loves who can look at her own sins against love and the darknesses of her own personality fully and honestly. But the process of coming to know God's love AND coming to see and deal with one's darker aspects is often a long and messy process. The desert Fathers and Mothers rightly described it in terms of a struggle which was fraught with temptation and which could even be described in the terms Anthony's battle was described. Like Jacob wrestling with an angel and coming away limping,  or Anthony coming out torn and haggard, we do not come away unmarked from our own battles with our demons --- even when God is fully victorious. This is true even when we are ministered to by angels and eventually come to (or usually dwell in!) a place of peace and light.

So, yes, there are certainly ways to make sense of the stories of Anthony's struggle or those of the other desert Fathers and Mothers which are less "primitive or mythological". Today we use Jungian psychology among other things to speak about the shadow side of ourselves, etc. But let's also be clear just how powerful those myths are. They tell us a story whose profound truth we can each recognize on some level, whether we are hermits or not. Imagine for a moment what it would feel like to have someone threaten to make a secret part of your life known to others at a business meeting. If you can feel this, even a little, then you know the truth of the fact that the revelation of the demons which inhabit our lives can be a terrifying proposition. Imagine instead unpacking a container full of secrets and private darknesses in front of someone who doesn't much like you or these things about you (the way some of us feel about ourselves, for instance, especially if we have not really known God's love).

Imagine doing this with someone who loves you profoundly. Still probably not very easy to undertake. But also imagine that these things you are trying to unpack LIKE the darkness, hate the light and that as you reach for each one it fights your efforts to reveal it and set it aside. Imagine it battles you and the God you seek as a betrayer of critical secrets and a threat to its very life. Or, imagine that once you have looked at the demon, even obliquely, you simply cannot get it out of your sight or mind.  If you are dealing with impatience (or an inability to resist being critical, or some form of inordinate desire etc.), impatience (etc) then becomes a howling animal struggling to insinuate and assert itself in every situation. Now imagine these things reside in your very heart and you are entering there instead to try to confront and deal with them. One's heart, precisely because it is by definition the place where God witnesses to Godself, is not always going to be the most placid of places; when we are battling its demons this is even truer. Images like these help us to see at least part of what we are all really up against in growing in intimacy with God. Stories like that of Anthony help us see what eremitical life (or life stripped of distractions and luxuries, what we call desert living) can involve. I would argue these stories are really quite sophisticated conveyors of profound truth, especially when seen as dramatizations of our inner lives, or externalizations of the hidden dynamics and struggles hermits and others live in order to come to healing and holiness.

It is easy to think that we do not carry within us some really dark and awful depths with the power to distort, disrupt, and destroy, or that these only come from outside us; this is especially so when they seem to take control of our lives and literally dehumanize us. I am not denying that forces outside us exist and influence our world (e.g, what Paul called powers and principalities), but on the whole I think this is a fuller picture of the reality of spiritual struggle and growth both now and in the days of the desert Fathers and Mothers.

I hope this is helpful.