Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Demonology of St. John of the Ladder (4 of 6) - The Struggle Against Demons

4. The Struggle Against Demons

No sin is attributed to the mere fact of being attacked by the demons and indeed we are called "blessed" if we endure their attacks. What is wrong is to give cause to them for tempting us, either though "carelessness" or pride.59 Just as there are many ways in which the demons wage war against man, so there are many ways of defending oneself and fighting them, using at times their own tactics: "By divine inspiration he contrived to conquer the guile of the spirits by a pious ruse."60 The aim is not merely to wrestle with them, not merely to engage in combat, but to take the initiative in driving them away, to open fire and declare war on them.61 The Shepherd of Hermas makes this clear: "The devil is able to wrestle with us but not to overcome us in the wrestle."62 Symeon the New Theologian's explanation is particularly pointed:

It is one thing to resist and fight one's enemies and another thing to completely defeat and subdue them, putting them to death; for the first belongs to athletes and those brave in asceticism but the second belongs rather to the dispassionate and perfect.63

The battle against the demons is an entire science - Abba Arsenios refers to the "alphabet" of this science - which must be learned in experience, starting from a young age because "to see an old man going to a children's school is a great disgrace."64 If we have been trained well enough in this science we will be able to mock the demons.65 At any rate, one should be just as brazen and ruthless in one's counter-attacks as those who attack us. To neglect the fight is to be shallow, to remain on the surface and to turn into "tools of the demons".66 The demons do not fight us at random but, in their shrewdness, aim at the weak spots. That is where battle must be given.67 The demons may strike at random but we parry "where we are fought", deftly "taking the demons by surprise",68 which requires discernment.69

It is natural to turn one's very passions against the demons,70 and the monk is aroused to go into the wilderness to fight the demons who inhabit it.71 The notion of the wilderness, the desert as a dwelling-place of demons, is common in ascetic literature, perhaps going back to Leviticus 16:22. The retreat into the desert is not a negative gesture, a form of escapism, but a positive counteraction to demonic forces in "outer darkness". The demons try in every way to drive the monk back into the city.72 But in that confrontation there is a promise of encountering God. It is a promise given in the tormenting trial of strength between good and evil in which God participates73 and in which, as John says, the demons try "to dash [their victim's] foot against the stone" (Ps. 91:11 and Mt. 4:6).74 The monk turns into a martyr or a confessor.

While there are no recipes or patent stimulants for pursuing the spiritual warfare, there are ways for sustaining it. The Macarian Homilies speak of prayer which "burns the demons like fire melting wax,"75 and John sees the monk standing "with feeling of heart before God in prayer, and none of the...demons will make sport of him."76 Above all, they are disabled by humility, which can turn even demons into angels.77 John keeps away from the question as to whether the demons could actually be saved - a matter which Gregory of Nyssa seriously considered;78 but them Climacus is overwhelmingly concerned with man's salvation.

The one thing demons cannot withstand or fake is humility.79 In other respects, they not only threaten man in a conflict of opposing forces, but have a way of, as it were, participating distortedly in the holy and virtuous. They involve themselves intimately in our very struggle. One may, through asceticism, wear down the body and prevent the demons from settling comfortably in it,80 but they try to take advantage of the struggle itself. The struggle, therefore, must not remain self-contained or self-sufficient, in isolation from man's total commitment to God, nor should it exceed man's limited strength.81 Sense of proportion, ingenuity and "logic" should be exercised. On reaching dispassion, one can outfool the demons. One can, as we shall see, even pretend to be subject to passions, while having none. The struggle, then, is an extraordinarily multiform, versatile and intricate process, providing no security at any of its stages and persisting uninterrupted to the end of this life.82


59. Ladder 26.4

60. Ibid. 25.23

61. Ibid. 26.2, 24

62. Liber 2

63. TGP 1.97

64. Ladder 26.14

65. Ibid. 14.10

66. Ibid. 26.2, 17

67. Ibid. 15.42

68. Ibid. 25.12

69. Ibid. 15.62

70. Ibid. 26.2, 41

71. Ibid. 15.60

72. Ibid. 15.60

73. Cf. Apophth. Moses 1

74. Ladder 5.5

75. Ibid. 4.25

76. Mac. Hom. 43, 3

77. Ladder 18.4 and 3

78. Ibid. 25.60 and 43

79. Or. Cat. 26.

80. Ladder 25.16

81. Ibid. 26.3, 8

82. Ibid. 26.2, 8