Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Demonology of St. John of the Ladder (2 of 6) - The Demonology of the Ascetic Fathers

...continued from part one.

1. The Demonology of the Ascetic Fathers

Whatever the predominance of demons in John, other ascetic sources, for instance the Life of Saint Anthony, reflect an even greater preoccupation with them. John approaches Evagrios who regards "demon" (δαίμων) and "thought" (λογισμός) as almost interchangeable, where however the former overrides the latter. Klimakos tends to follow the Palestinian tradition: like Barsanuphios, he is concerned not with apparitions but with the inward ascetic struggle. The demons are present, but they do not stand out. His attention is drawn to the almost frightening inner scale and power of demonic activity and its vertiginous possibilities. He elaborates an intricate and subtle strategy to defend and immunize the attacked human person. The demons are not mere fragments enlisted to act as scapegoats, to impersonate warring elements with a psyche divided against itself. Nor are they, as some would have us believe,19 purely psychological, that is, mere subjective states in a phantasmagorian tale. They are represented as real forces, but functionally rather than in terms of some monsters in classical or popular mythology. Western mystical thought, for example the medieval association of demons with the seven deadly sins, and even more modern psychology - the super-ego, ego and id spring to mind - tend to incorporate and, in a sense, de-mythologize demons into parts of the structure of the human person. The demons, if any, are understood to be unregulated drives of man that force him to act according to his deep-seated desires or, theologically speaking, as part of a state of guilt, inherited by man from Adam.

It would probably be wrong to contend that texts such as the Life of Saint Anthony which to some extent "overdramatize" the demonic element, are simplistic by comparison with the more sophisticated Saint Paul or Isaac the Syrian. Both kinds of evidence underline the extrinsic, alien, though not necessarily external character of evil. The Life of Saint Anthony and the History of the Monastics liken the demons to a large dragon (cf. Rev. 12:3-9) or serpent; Dorotheos of Gaza not only calls the devil "an enemy" but also describes him as ἀντικείμενος20 - the one who stands against us. In John, demons appear as hybrid, intrusive, but basically alien forces attempting to coerce man into acting against his true nature and to prevent him from attaining his higher spiritual aspirations. The same point is emphasized by Symeon the New Theologian who says that demons "continually stand opposite us, facing us, even if they cannot be seen by us."21

This extraneousness is a measure of the pristine, divinely created perfection of human nature, whose most unnatural, indeed sub-human, aspect is deprivation of freedom and, in the end, death, as distinct from innate, punishable corruption, requiring man's justification. Man as such is a free agent not separated from grace. But he can be and is being assailed from without by demonic forces: this is the Christian ascetic answer to Messalianism. In this perspective, spiritual struggle for the ascetic is not a matter of the contortions of human nature, but the confrontation with an enemy without, who prevents man from living according to his true, integrated nature in communion with God and illumined by divine grace.


19. Cf. J. Stoffels, "Die Angriffe der Damonen auf den Einsiedler Antonius," Theologie und Glaube 2 (1910) 721-32 and 809-30 and Prakt. 58.

20. Instr. 2, 27. Cf. also 1 Pet. 5:8.

21. Cat. 3.