Day Twenty-three: St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 21-30
Who: Bishop of Alexandria; Confessor and Doctor of the Church; born c. 296; died 2 May, 373 AD. He was the main defender of orthodoxy in the 4th-century battle against the Arianism heresy. Certain writers received the title “Doctor” on account of the great advantage their doctrine had on the whole Church, Athanasius especially for his doctrine on the incarnation.
What: The biography of Anthony the Great’s life, which helped to spread the concept of Christian monasticism, particularly in Western Europe.
Why: From the letter’s own prologue: “The life and conversation of our holy Father, Anthony: written and sent to the monks in foreign parts by our Father among the Saints, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria.” They wanted an accurate account of his life so they imitate his life and teaching.
When: Somewhere between 356 and 362 AD
You can find today’s reading on page 117 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf
We continue with the next part of Athanasius's biography of ‘Anthony the Great’. In these chapters, Anthony is continuing his teaching to the people which he began since leaving the fort on the Nile where he had been living in solitude for twenty years.
Beginning with warnings on how we should avoid being led by anger and lust, quoting from James, because they will lead us to death and not into God's righteousness (James 1:14-15,20), he instructs that instead we must be watchful against our desires and the enemy, guarding our hearts (Prov. 4:23), since that can lead us down a path towards deception and sinfulness.
We battle against demonic forces
From here he begins some lengthy teaching on how our battles aren't against flesh and blood, but the “authorities”, “cosmic powers” and the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12), whose number is great in the “air around us”, he says.
Going into a little more detail on the deceptions of demons, Anthony explains how the more Christians press into God and keeping good discipline for living a Christ-like life, the more often demons will throw temptations and evil thoughts our way to try and distract us and cause us to stumble. But with prayer and fasting we can overcome and strengthen our resolve against their attacks, which we'll need since once we defeat the weaker demons by our faith, they will come with stronger powers to try and bring fear through terrible visions and dreams and false prophecies. But through the power of Christ, these demons are displaced “like serpents and scorpions to be trodden underfoot by us Christians”.
But even so, despite this they will try all the more to distract and deceive the Christian, causing noise and music and sleepless nights by rousing us awake at all hours, sometimes taking on the appearance of holy men or angels in order to trick us into listening to their lies. Even if, Anthony says, they take on the appearance of seemingly godly beings or people, and even if they speak things which have a sliver of truth or quote Scripture (for even Satan quoted Scripture to Jesus in the desert, and the demoniacs declared Jesus to be the Son of God), pay no heed since they do not do this to aid our discipline of righteousness, but rather to tire us out and lead us to abandon the principles of the faith out of despair and from feeling burdened.
For the demons do all things --they prate, they confuse, they dissemble, they confound--to deceive the simple. They din, laugh madly, and whistle; but if no heed is paid to them forthwith they weep and lament as though vanquished.
Though they may attack us with temptations and evil, ungodly thoughts, like fiery darts flung at our minds, we must remember that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4) and that by “much prayer and of discipline, that when a man has received through the Spirit the gift of discerning spirits, he may have power to recognise their (the demons) characteristics”, Anthony says, so that we may be like the Apostles who were “not ignorant of [Satan’s] devices” (2 Cor 2:11).
Whenever I am weak, then I am strong
Anthony continues with his teaching on demons and their deceptions, but stresses time and again that though they make much noise, or bring terrible visions, they are powerless and weak – “demons like these, who have no power, try to terrify at least by their displays”; they are like “actors on the stage changing their shape and frightening children with tumultuous apparition and various forms” but, and this is the important point he makes, “now we are gathered together and speak against them, and they know when we advance they grow weak”. The more we gather together in prayer and discipline of our faith towards Christ, living a godly and righteous life as the Scriptures instruct, the weaker the enemy becomes and the easier it is for us to ignore him and “his devices”.
Casting our minds back to the story of Job, Anthony poses the hypothetical question: “if the devil is so weak, how come Job was overcome with calamity?”, to which he responds by reminding us that despite the devil bringing lots of suffering, illness and sometimes death, to Job or his family and livestock, none of it was possible without permission from God.
“The devil was not the strong man”, he points out, because it was God who let Job be tried to test his faith; “certainly he had no power to do anything” other than what was permitted. This, he says, is exactly what proves that the devil is weak because although Satan was willing, “he could not prevail against one just man” and if it were possible, “he would not have asked permission”, but as it is, he had to and this shows his want of power. Remember, “destruction would not have come even on his cattle had not God allowed it”, not even does he have “the power over swine” since in the Gospels we see that Legion begged Jesus to release them into the herd of pigs (Matt 8:31)!
And so, with all of this in mind, we ought to have only fear of God, and not of demons. Even if they come at us from all sides and intensify their attacks, all the more should we intensify our dedication to God and prayer to combat the evil one, reminding ourselves of the words of our Saviour in Luke 10:19 –
“Behold I have given to you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy!”