Patience (Part VI): Patience Withstands Demonic Influence
When the desert monks left the inhabited world, every monk brought parts of his or her former life with them. Memories, thoughts, fantasies, regrets, old lusts, pride, unfulfilled desires, anger, fear, unresolved conflict and a host of other remnants of the “world” were present in their cells. At the same time, they found a new “world” in the desert in the lives of other monks, visitors, local towns and villages and the rich, yet austere ascetic life they had chosen.
Any of these influences could become disturbances along the monk’s path toward virtue and scatter the monk’s focus to stay centered on the path. This danger was personified in the presence of demons and the chief of demons, diabolos, the “devil.” Sometimes it was difficult to discern the influence of the demons and only the wisdom of the more experienced “warriors” could identify a demonic presence for what it was. Abba Antony offered advice for recognizing the presence of demons and patiently withstanding their influences:
Let us likewise understand and take it to heart that while the Lord is with us, the enemies will do nothing to us. for when they come, their actions correspond to the condition in which they find us; they pattern their phantasms after our thoughts. Should they find us frightened and distressed, immediately they attack like robbers, having found the place unprotected. Whatever we are turning over in our minds, this-and more-is what they do. For if they see that we are fearful and terrified, they increase even more what is dreadful in the apparitions and threats, and the suffering soul is punished with these. However, should they discover us rejoicing in the Lord, thinking about the good things to come, contemplating things that have to do with the Lord, reflecting that all things are in the hand of the Lord, and that a demon has no strength against a Christian, nor has he any authority over anyone-then seeing the soul safeguarded by such thoughts, they are put to shame and turned away.31
Abba Antony had experienced everything he describes in this passage. He learned that evil is the scattering of mind and spirit away from God’s presence. When the monk’s focus is deflected away from God he or she becomes subject to the demons. The demonic influences do not drive out God; they mask the awareness of God’s presence and transformative power. Patient endurance in prayer, contemplation, and “things that have to do with the Lord” is required. Antony knew that a new moment of repentance will restore a turning toward God, who has never abandoned the monk. He also said, “For the joy and the stability of the soul attest to the one who is in your presence.”32 Patience is not inactivity. It is a courageous act of detachment from thoughts, temptations or acts that try to shatter the monk’s heart and drive it away from the Spirit within. Patience and trust in God’s presence gives birth to a purity or wholeness of heart which can re-harmonize the monk’s whole being in God.
A brother questioned an old man, saying, “My thoughts wander and I am troubled by this.” The old man said to him, “Remain sitting in your cell and your thoughts will come to rest. For truly, just as when the she-ass is tied her colt runs here and there but always comes back to his mother wherever she is, so it is with the thoughts of him who for God’s sake remains steadfast in the cell: even if they wander a little they will always come back to him.”33
~David G.R. Keller, Oasis of Wisdom: The Worlds of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
- Anthanasius, Life of Antony, 63.
- Ibid., 46.
- Ward, Wisdom, 22.