Day Twenty-four: St. Athanasius: Life of Anthony: Chaps. 31-40
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 122 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf
Today we continue with Anthony's exposition on the trickery and deceptions of demons who try to cause the faithful to stumble and be fooled by their power. You don't often hear much taught on this area of Christian spirituality these days, at least, not in the church circles I've been a part of in the last few years, and not in so much depth as you can read here.
But even from my own various experiences with this, I can attest to what Anthony is teaching and explaining here, and it really goes to show the level of deception that demons bring. Athanasius is writing this biography nearly 1700 years or so ago, and yet the demonic trickery explained here is really no different than what I've seen myself in my own short lifetime— which really goes to show the weakness of the enemy and the lack of weapons he has to work with if nothing has changed all that much in all this time! Our Lord really is greater and stronger!
The deception of demons
Anthony really draws it just how little power these evil forces have, but also explains how they can make themselves seem more powerful than they are. Just as in the chapters yesterday where he said that like the Apostles, we must not be “ignorant of [the enemies] devices” (2 Cor 2:11) now he goes into details so that we may learn these devices and no longer remain in ignorance.
Going on to explain more on this, especially concerning any prophetic utterances demons may give, and how it is possible that they can be accurate in what they foretell. I found this very interesting to read because it’s exactly the way I understand the way demons work from what the Lord revealed to me after I was delivered from the demonic. Anthony clarifies as well, that only God knows the things which are unseen and so we may be dazzled or some may be marvelled at the foreknowledge of other spirits, but they are actually only pretending to know anything real about the future.
Giving an example from something Anthony and others have seemingly witnessed, he says that “often [the demons] announce beforehand that the brethren are coming days after. And they do come” – but they don’t do this to benefit the believers, or because they care, no, they do this to gain trust so that in the long run they make destroy those who place their trust in the demons.
But how do they know what’s coming before we know it?
For what wonder is it, if with more subtle bodies than men have, when they have seen them start on their journey, they surpass them in speed, and announce their coming? Just as a horseman getting a start of a man on foot announces the arrival of the latter beforehand, so in this there is no need for us to wonder at them.
Basically, the demons just see what is already in motion, no matter the spacial distance, and then announce it to others ahead of time so it has the appearance of prophecy. It is no different than when a man gets a higher perspective from a mountain top or the like, to see things far off which approach.
For they know nothing of themselves, but, like thieves, what they get to know from others they pass on, and guess at rather than foretell things. Therefore if sometimes they speak the truth, let no one marvel at them for this.
Just as those who study the weather, or doctors who study the body, get to know the symptoms and patterns so as to be able to predict with some accuracy what is happening before it does, no one would say these know this by inspiration, “but from experience and practice”. In the same way these demons also operate.
Should we desire to know the future, desire to use the gifts of the Spirit, as Paul encouraged (1 Cor 14:1,5), then it should be through our discipline to God to keep ourselves pure so that when our “soul is perfectly pure and in its natural state, it is able, being clear-sighted, to see more and further than the demons--for it has the Lord who reveals to it”.
How do we distinguish between the good and the evil?
“When, therefore, they come by night to you and wish to tell the future, or say, "we are the angels," give no heed, for they lie … but rather sign yourselves [with the cross] … and pray, and you shall see them vanish.”
“But if they shamelessly stand their ground”, Anything warns, then fear them not and don’t think that they may be good spirits. “For the presence either of the good or evil by the help of God can easily be distinguished” – the evil comes with much fear and distraction on our minds so that we are not focussed right on God.
Whereas good spirits from the Lord, come “so quietly and gently that immediately joy, gladness and courage arise in the soul” since the Lord our God is ours, and their, joy and the “thoughts of the soul remain unruffled and undisturbed”. Just as we see in Scripture, when the angels came to give messages, they started with “fear not” and removed all fear on those listening, despite being in the presence of God and powerful beings.
To discern the spirits is to do so as follows:
If your fear is immediately taken away and in place of it comes joy unspeakable, cheerfulness, courage, renewed strength, calmness of thought ... then is it surely the Lord!
But, to the contrary:
…. whenever the soul remains fearful there is a presence of the enemies. For the demons do not take away the fear of their presence as the great archangel Gabriel did for Mary and Zacharias
Rebuking the enemy
Just as Jesus rebuked the devil (Matt 4:10), so we can also though the power of the Spirit within us.
But in doing so, we must remember to not lift up those who cast out demons, or those who heal, as worthy of anything more than those who do not do these things. This should not be a point of pride for us which could make us stumble, “for the working of signs is not ours but the Saviour's work”; so we should keep in mind what Jesus said to his disciples on this matter:
Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
Those who boasted in their works rather than in Christ who has sealed them (2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30) were those who will be turned away by Jesus in judgement (Matt 7:22); and so because of this, Anthony urges that we seek the gift of discernment as John wrote in his letter (1 John 4:1) that we may not be deceived.
Anthony goes on to give some of his personal testimony to show that he is not just speaking at random, but from experience and from what the Lord had shown him. From visions and visitations of demons in disguise as angels or monks to trick him, to appearances of soldiers and beasts to scare him, to physical beatings; he spoke the name of Christ, sang Psalms and kept himself in prayer, and the demons fled and disappeared “like smoke”.
In all things he kept this one thing at the forefront of his mind, and we should to whether it be demons we face, or human persecutions, this saying rings true:
Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ
I hope this has encouraged you to stay strong in Christ whatever the circumstances.