Reading the ancient ascetical writer, Evagrius Ponticus, is a rather wild experience.
An immensely influential figure within Christian monasticism, especially in the East, Evagrius wrote works on theology, the monastic life, and other spiritual writings. In the pages of his works on prayer and the ascetical life, one is immediately presented with a world populated by the continual assaults of demons that makes the writing seem more like a work of fantastical fiction than anything.
And yet, the writings breathe with a kind of authenticity in the frightening battles between monks and demons that they speak of. Though the modern mind is probably more than tempted to simply pass these words of Evagrius and other Desert Fathers as metaphorical, mythological, or whatever else, it is actually quite interesting to read these writings simply as they are.
Evagrius does not speak of demons as simply sinful temptations or thoughts, but as literal spiritual beings engaged in all-out warfare against the Christian. If this was true in his time, it seems that this kind of thing has really subsided - evil seems to have found other avenues to go about causing the ruin of man.
Nonetheless, here's a sampling of what Evagrius describes in his work On Prayer:
"We have heard that the evil one attacked a certain saint so fiercely as he prayed that, when the saint lifted up his hands, the evil one changed himself into a lion and raising his front legs fixed his claws into the saint's thighs; and he kept them there until the saint lowered his hands, which was only when he had come to the end of his usual prayers."1
"There is too the case of that great monk, John the Small. He lived the hesychastic life in a pit, and his communion with God was not interrupted even when a demon in the form of a serpent wound itself round him, chewed his flesh and spat it out into his face."2
"He who practices pure prayer will hear the demons crashing and banging, shouting and cursing; yet he will not be overwhelmed or go out of his mind. But he will say to God: 'I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me' (Ps. 23:4), and other words of this kind."3
"You should be aware of this trick: at times the demons split into two groups; and when you call for help against one group, the other will come in the guise of angels and drive away the first, so that you are deceived into believing that they are truly angels."4
"Another saint living the hesychastic life in the desert was attacked, as he was praying, by demons who for two weeks tossed him like a ball in the air, catching him in his rush-mat. They were completely unsuccessful in distracting his mind from fiery prayer."5
What baffles me is the modern reading of such works, and how it re-interprets these kinds of writings and accounts. I have a book by the Jesuit Fr. George A. Maloney entitled The Prayer of the Heart, wherein he constantly speaks of "demythologizing" these writings. I am not sure why they cannot stand as they are.
My view is that if Evagrius, St. Anthony, or any other monastic wished to speak of the demons as metaphors and nothing more, then they were certainly intelligent enough men to do so. They are not the only ones to do so - right up to our own time, such men as the exorcist Fr. Gabriele Amorth has written, almost in a frightening calm and everyday narrative voice, two books on his own experiences with the demonic. So why should we be surprised when we read of it in the works of the past? I'm not.
Conversely, what can we do with such writings when we are confronted with them? Obviously, my prayer life is sometimes difficult, and I go through periods of spiritual dryness, as it is called - but I am not being tossed about like a paper cup in a tornado by the forces of evil, nor am I being assaulted by vipers, wolves, and scorpions everytime I say a Hail Mary.
Perhaps this is why such writings are no longer as common. Perhaps they were, as modern Christian readers would prefer to say, a "thing of their time". I have no idea - I simply read them as they are. I for one do not think that all these ascetic saints simply wrote imaginative tales like this for the fun of it. Their words were too simple to need ornate literary decoration like this - in fact, I do not think they would care to write in such a manner at all, were it not necessary. Perhaps I'm wrong - I am no expert in the least, simply a sinful pilgrim reading what he finds and showing others.
1 - On Prayer, 106
2 - ibid., 107
3 - ibid., 97
4 - ibid., 95
5 - ibid., 111
Source: Ascending Mount Carmel (Blogspot)
Used with permission.