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Battling the Serpent – Recovering Eden in the Minds of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Early Church

by John Evans

In the writings of the Eastern Desert Fathers and Mothers, the theme of deliverance or the ministry of exorcism is prevalent in the individual monk’s resistance to temptation as well as in the struggles of the community as a whole.  However, within the surviving letters and narrative works that have come down to us from the 3rd and 4th centuries, this combat is placed within a much broader project to restore the state of the individual soul, the religious community, and the creative order back to an Edenic union with God.  The following essay will seek to determine the motivations and theological framework of these preternatural struggles with evil through the lenses of these desert fathers themselves and the salvific implications of this medicinal struggle culminating in the New Jerusalem.

Overview of Withdrawal and the Themes of Spiritual Combat

The themes of withdrawal and spiritual combat are essential fixtures of the ascetic life of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Figures such as Antony as depicted by Athanasius are seemingly defined by their capacity to withstand and overcome the wiles and schemes of the Devil. The corporeal aspects of this combat are well documented in the beatings Antony received by Satan according to Athanasius or the chastisements encountered by disobedient monks in the Life of Pachomius.  The Psychological aspects of this warfare are also extent in our primary sources as individual monks seek to withstand the lure of disordered passions encouraged by the external agency of the diabolic and to reorder these faculties toward God. Contemporary studies into these internal and external phenomena have tended to stress the sociological, racial, and at times political implications of these struggles. But these avenues of study do not wholly address the underlying question which lingers behind many, if not all of this body of literature, why did these men and women abandon everything they knew, their homes, their families, and their creaturely comforts to face Satan’s legions in the wilderness?  Rather than posing a political or sociological approach, it is the intent of this study to take a patently theological vantagepoint.

The Garden and the Call

Before we must look east to the desert, our journey will begin in the West among the sprawling streets and houses of Milan. In his early 30s, somewhere in a Garden within the Imperial City, Augustine of Hippo retreated from the world to pray. In Book VIII of the Confessions, he would vividly portray this scene as the turning point of his adult-life in which he would encounter the grace of God and put aside the allurements of the world.  By the time he would leave this garden, this up and coming intellectual, known for his command of the Latin language and North African charm, would renounce a highly successful legal career and redirect his philosophical talents for the glory of God. In the eyes of the world, he had everything to lose, and although he had encountered the trauma of separation from his common-law wife and appears to have suffered profound existential angst, he relates in his Confessions the numerous contacts he had within the political and spiritual circles of Milan. What could have motivated such a conversion and complete renunciation?

In his Confessions Augustine informs us that shortly before this experience, he had been acquainted with Athanasius’s Life of Antony, one of the best sellers of the Patristic Age. As Augustine states in Book VIII of The Confessions, “When I remarked that I was applying myself to intensive study of those scriptures, he began to tell us about the monk Antony of Egypt, whose name was illustrious and held in high honor among your servants, though we had never heard it until this moment.  When Ponticianus learned this he dwelt more fully on the subject, enlightening us about the great man; he was astonished at our ignorance.” (Confessions VIII, 195)  Upon hearing from Ponticianus how two friends had renounced life in the world to become monks having merely come in contact with Athanasius’s Life of Antony, Augustine also would embark on a life of study, continence, and prayer. Yet whereas Antony in his own lifetime would remain a threadbare layman living among the caves and waste-places of the Egyptian desert, Augustine would go on to ordination and a highly memorable role as Bishop of Hippo.

Nevertheless, something about the life of this one Coptic Monk and his rejection of the accolades and creaturely comforts of society was so captivating; it was able to lead classically-educated Western minds as systematic as Augustine’s to reconsider their entire worldview, even to leave the urban halls of Roman power for communal life in a religious fraternity. This process is illustrated by David Keller in his book Oasis of Wisdom when he describes the penitent first encountering what he terms Oikoumene. According to Keller, this Oikoumene constitutes an interior realization that “the inhabited world is a distraction from a deep personal longing to seek God and live the Gospel without distraction. This leads toward . . .Anachoresis”  (Keller, 4)  This Anachoresis is defined by Keller as a “physical separation from the usual patterns of a person's relationships, activities, responsibilities and the conventional values of society through a withdrawal to the desert.” (Keller, 4)  Yet as the title of Keller’s book suggests, this desert both materially and spiritually would not remain a wilderness forever, but rather the platform for increased communion with the creator-God. For as the monk elevated his mind to heaven and cast out the diabolic temptations which held both his soul and the whole of creation in captivity, he would undergo the process of rehabilitation and ultimate recovery- a return to the garden of paradise.

Ironically the topoi of the primordial garden and the call to withdraw also appears in Athanasius’ portrayal of Antony. It was this very history which Augustine had been introduced to before his encounter with the Lord in the Milanese Garden. Regarding this Life of Antony, David Keller argues, “Antony's influence and model for the ascetic life was established through the popularity of A Life of Antony written by the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius. Although the Life gives a largely idealized portrait of both Antony and the eremitic life, as well as some of the theological and political biases of St. Athanasius, it represents the priorities of monastic life in the third and fourth centuries from a source very close to the life it describes.“  (Keller, 7)  According to The Life of Anthony, upon leaving the company of the brothers, Antony seeks to find sanctuary in what Athanasius calls “The inner mountain.” (Life of St. Anthony, 20) There we are introduced to a garden, flowing water, and animals that are even docile to Antony’s verbal commands.

As we read, “at the foot of the mountain ran a clear spring, whose waters were sweet and very cold; outside there was a plain and a few uncared-for palm trees. Antony then, as it were, moved by God, loved the place, for this was the spot which he who had spoken with him by the banks of the river had pointed out.“  (Life of St. Anthony, 20) This chapter in Antony’s life, while far less dramatic than Augustine’s, also comes at a crossroads bearing some similar benchmarks. Before this retreat from society, Antony also encounters grave oppression. Where Augustine’s oppression is described as only implicitly diabolic and largely psychological, Antony is physically assaulted by Satan and also internally tormented by temptation. Only after Antony has defeated Satan after being beaten in the tombs of Egypt is he permitted to find rest in this “inner mountain.”

Augustine, more than a generation removed, discovers rest or wholeness in a garden. In either case, the verdant pastures of the Coptic monk and the North African professor culminate in a deeper union with the Triune God. David Keller sums up this mission succinctly when he states, “Their goal was the embodiment of God's love.” (Keller, 3)   Here the disordered internal passions can be rightly ordered to the will of God. Here, in the primal locality of The Garden, the laws of nature seem to return to an ideal unfallen state. Augustine hears the voice of a child in the Milanese garden which he confesses may be a Christophany. Antony encounters wild creatures in the “Inner Mountain” which are in harmony with the rest of creation. The material and spiritual units of reality are no longer divided but one, even as the heart of Augustine and of Antony find singularity with the love of Christ.

Of this state of Ascetic discipline between the heart of the monk and the will of God Keller states, “The ascetic life of the desert elders united head and heart in prayer and combined manual labor with work that fed the soul. It required hesychia, a physical solitude and quietness, that became an environment for solitude of the mind, heart and soul and the possibility for transformation of self.“ (Keller, 2)  Ultimately, the garden is seen as the summit of the Ascetical life or the life of withdrawal in which healing is actualized. This healing however is the result of driving out Satanic powers.

The topoi which Athanasius and Augustine borrow from, present in the ascetical imagination, are undeniably Edenic. Most of the Desert Fathers and Mothers were known to have committed long passages of Scripture to memory and some of the later Fathers appear to have owned copies of the Old and New Testaments. As for Antony and his near contemporaries it is the opinion of David Brakke in his article “The Making of Monastic Demonology” that certain interpretations of Scripture arriving out of Alexandria found in the writings of the Early Desert Fathers and Mothers reveal an implicit awareness of such authors as Origen, Clement, the arch-heretic Arius, and Valentinus. Previous to this reevaluation, the monks of Upper and Middle Egypt such as Antony the Great were seen as remote from this Alexandrian Intellectual milieu and intense study of Scripture. Brakke on the other hand argues that this keen separation between the Monastic Literature of Middle and Upper Egypt with Alexandrian Intellectualism is simply untenable and thus it can be safely assumed that these Desert Fathers were not all “simple Copts” but profound students of the Bible.  In the words of Brakke, “many of the early monks, including Antony himself, were better educated and less rustic.” (Brakke, 20)   David Keller similarly argues, “Although Antony came from a peasant family and led a simple monastic life, these personal letters portray a man well acquainted with the theological and philosophical issues of his day and represent the wisdom of both a practical and mature monastic mentor.”  (Keller, 7) These studies in Brakke’s view include a need to return to a primal “oneness” or “sweetness” in which the will of God and that of the Monk are harmonized. Many of these passages bear characteristics which can be defined as Edenic and as harkening back to the bookends of salvation history.

Eden appears in the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis with certain precise geographical features. Although it is seen as a primordial or ideal place, it is depicted by the sacred author as a literal mountain forked by four rivers. There the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil are present, but far from being abstractions these are described in terms of locality “Eastward in Eden” and not merely as emblematic of forms or first-principles. One paragraph of Genesis is precisely dedicated to locality, going so far as to include place names and minerals to be found in certain quarters of the Mountain of Eden. We read, “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold.  The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.” (Genesis 2:10-14)   in the minds of the early desert fathers and mothers this material existence in which “God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Genesis 3: 8) constituted a reality which was not only past but also future and immanent.

The topoi of the Garden of Eden as a reality in the past and to be anticipated reveal certain terminology which would become hallmarks of the ascetic imagination and vocabulary. This would result in three overlying characteristics, first the docility of creatures to human stewardship, secondly the need to cultivate the garden as a physical enterprise, and ultimately the use of names to indicate a return to union with the creator. The most direct of these passages appears in the last two chapters of Revelation, 21 and 22 in which the “New Jerusalem” depicted as a mountain-like city, descends out of the heavens in which there is a river which runs through the metropolis where “The tree of life” is present.  But here the “tree of life” is described in association with healing or restoration. We read in Revelation 22:

On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. (Revelation 22:2-4)

The monk was to live, “while dwelling on earth” as a member of the heavenly host, as one of the “citizens of heaven.” Therefore the icon of the heavenly city and of the “tree of life” would become fixtures of his meditation and reality. In the first Eden the tree of life was associated with humanity’s intimate bond with the creator himself. Here in the last Eden the tree bears a crop of dozens which are “for the healing of the nations.” The reference to “healing” is not present in Genesis in so much as death and sin only enter into creation as a result of The Fall. Therefore, this Last Eden is depicted by the sacred author as a return to primal unity or oneness with the Triune Creator. This is also depicted through a theology of names. This will become increasingly significant in our study of the desert fathers.

In Genesis 2, on the same day Adam and Eve are formed, Adam is compelled to name all the living creatures and they are placed under his authority. From the beginning, the sacred author places a link between the knowledge of an individual’s name and one’s authority in relation to them. In Revelation 22, the Name of God is placed on the foreheads of the citizens of the New Jerusalem signifying their return to this rightly ordered relationship with God and with one another, according to the hierarchy the creator has established.  These familiar icons of the tree and the obedience of creatures through the idiom of names would become central tenets of the desert fathers’ own understanding of their calling to wholeness or divine-healing.

In his article “The Making of Monastic Demonology” David Brakke refers to a theology of names in the corpus of Antony’s surviving letters.   In so much as the discernment of spirits is concerned, Antony explains that each demon has been “given” their respective name due to their particular deeds in contrast with the unity they possessed before they fell from unity with God. Antony draws a clear distinction between one’s passing- transient names of the flesh with the incorporeal eternal “true name” found in harmony with God.  Antony’s conception of the spiritual life can be described as Edenic in so much as he believed in what can be called an imminent Eden of sorts- a state in which the community and the individual as a whole could return to wholeness in God. This “oneness” in Antony’s letters is threatened by a false diversity and plurality caused by a destructive egotism arising from disordered passions. This false diversity arising from evil conduct and true unity is described through a theology of names, in a struggle between “The true name” and many false names. One could make the argument that to abide in “The true name” of God is to essentially walk in imitation of Adam who was in harmony with the Creator in paradise.

Certainly, aspects of this “oneness” in the “true name” are similar in concept if not in symbolism to the “inner mountain” of Athanasius’ account of the monk’s warfare. The concept of “The true name” (Brakke, 27) in Brakke’s mind appears to be inspired by the work of Philo and the Alexandrian school which held that the narrative found in Genesis in which Jacob wrestles with The Angel of The Lord is an allegory for how the soul is compelled to overcome disordered passions. By achieving this mastery, the soul become “Israel” which Brakke translates “one who sees God.” (Brakke, 27) Antony’s theology of the “true name” as eternal and related to essence in contradiction to one’s corporeal names is a call to return to the Edenic state of conformity to the will of God, a conformity challenged by a concern for “the external” and temporal desires of this fallen-world. Exorcism or deliverance therefore in the mind of Antony is less about the liberation of a single person, object, or place but a liberation of creation and the soul of the individual monk from the fallen order produced through The Fall.

The Science of Spiritual Warfare and Rest

The Ministry of Exorcism in the Catholic Church of the 21st century is often associated with the Roman ritual administered by a priest given jurisdiction by his local bishop to perform the deliverance. The role of Exorcist in the early Church, however, was but one of many steps toward ordination to the Priesthood along with Porter and Deacon. Also, as far as the Eastern Fathers and Mothers of the Church are concerned these deliverance sessions were conducted without the use of a formal ritual imposed by The Bishop and were even carried out by the monks themselves. Nevertheless, the ministry then as now has been one of healing or of restoration. This restorative quality bears strong implications for our understanding of what the monk’s meant by salvation, rest, or silence. This is because, as Antony notes in his letters above, the false transient names of the devils lead the monk astray into division and pride whereas the “true name” of divine humility leads to communion with the Father.

Therefore, in the mind of the desert fathers and mothers, Eden or healing could be made immanent for the self through the living out of this harmony. The devils would always seek to disturb this harmony but by reciting the Psalter, through acts of charity, through contemplation of the Creator God, the monk could reenter the gates of paradise and in doing so foil the plans of Satan. This harmony was often associated not merely with silence or stillness but also with the virtue of humility. This virtue according to John Wortley also went under the name “the rest”. (Wortley- Hesychia, 163)  This is Edenic in explicit terms as God is said to have rested on the seventh day at the completion of His creation. Therefore, this salvation, healing, or rest which Wortley notes is not inactivity but rather harmony between the Creator and his creation through the completed work of Christ in His death and resurrection. This is accomplished by the Monk’s living out his vocation through the virtue of humility. In doing so the devil’s hold over creation is all but checked and overcome.  Often this meant not only isolation from creatures in the urban settlements of Egypt but also from fellow brothers for fear of being accounted wise or falling into vainglory. In The Sayings of The Desert Fathers, a possessed person is compelled to remain in a church until some brothers can trick a neighboring Abba to leave his solitude. The Abba presumably remains absent to avoid distraction from rest or the silence of contemplation. As a result, the brothers plot as follows:

The priests said, 'What can we do against this devil? No one can drive him away, except Abba Bessarion, but if we call him, he will not come, even to the church. Therefore let us do this: since he comes to church early, before anyone else, let us make the possessed sleep here and when he comes, let us keep to our prayer, and say to him, ‘Abba, awaken the brother' This is what they did. (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 41)

One should note that among those seeking the attention of the Abba is a priest who technically outranks the Abba-Monk. Yet it is the Abba who performs the exorcism and according to the Sayings, the deliverance occurs only after a few short words. This indicates to the audience of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the power these monks could hold through their profound unity with the will of God or rest in His divine-name. However, this episode also indicates their great concern to avoid any action which might lead to pride.

According to John Wortley, “It is no exaggeration to say that humility occupies a most important, even the most important, place in the hierarchy of monastic virtues as they are portrayed in the Apophthegmata; it is the very keystone and lynchpin of the Desert Fathers’ teaching. Even when some other monastic quality is being advocated, one is left in no doubt that humility is an indispensable element of that quality.” (Wortley-Saved, 296)  Wortley goes on to offer one of many episodes recorded by Abba Longinus in which two brothers attempt to enter into the gates of heaven, gates associated in the patristic era with the doors into the garden of paradise. These two brothers are thwarted because, as God appears to explain to the elder, “These men are carrying the yoke of justice with pride; they do not humble themselves to be corrected and to walk the humble way of Christ; so they stay outside the Kingdom of God.” (Wortley-Saved, 296)   The soul of the individual monk, his community at large, and creation could only reenter the garden by taking on the role of a servant and conforming their wills with the one will of God. This meant becoming little in one’s own eyes. As Abba Bessarion explains in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, “When you are at peace, without having to struggle, humiliate yourself for fear of being led astray by joy which is inappropriate; we magnify ourselves and we are delivered to warfare. For often, because of our weakness, God does not allow us to be tempted, for fear we should be overcome.” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 43) Vainglory or pride had to be avoided at all costs. Both Ammonas and Antony of the Desert emphasize how personal pride can lead to larger ramifications including the dividing up of the community into factions. Sittser argues, “Humility was necessary because it kept the desert fathers and mothers from becoming proud of their spiritual feats and from assuming that they were more worthy of God’s favor than ordinary Christians.” (Sittser, 65)  However, there is also a cosmic aspect to this requirement, rooted in the depths of profound spiritual warfare. Sittser summarizes two episodes well known from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. One episode concerns a devil which sought to tempt a monk into vainglory by appearing to be the Archangel Gabriel. Upon arising from sleep and seeing the supposed angel the monk in question asked the disguised devil to leave in so much as he was unworthy an archangel should come to him.  The other episode concerns the famous Desert Father Macarius who refused to defend himself when a young pregnant woman falsely claimed that he was the father of her child. Macarius not only refused to defend himself, he also provided for her implying his guilt in the eyes of his contemporaries, and even after the truth was revealed, he fled from his community to avoid being praised for his humility. In either case Satan’s influence and web of deception was defeated not by a heroic reading of a rite of exorcism, but rather by walking in obedience to the will of The Father. Then and only then, by delivering one’s self of self-importance could the demon or the false witness be exorcised, driven out, and discredited.  In Mark Gruber’s book Journey Back to Eden, a contemporary account of a Western Monk’s Journey East, this same call to humility and to sacrifice is evident. He informs us, “Abuna Elia added, our relationships must be ordered by a surrender, a letting go, a sacrifice. We own no one; we possess no one.” (Gruber, 42)

Perhaps the monks recalled that paradise itself was lost through an act of pride. This much is narrated in Genesis 3 when the figure of the serpent proclaims to Eve that she and Adam would “be like gods knowing both good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)  Conversely, humility acts, according to Wortley’s reconstruction, like a gate through which the monk can return to full communion with God.  This introduces the great conflict of salvation history between Satan and his fallen legions seeking to incite disordered passions leading to ruin of the Church Militant here on earth. This is because The Fall, the primordial forfeiting of the Garden according to the patristic worldview, did not merely spiritually cut off the soul of the individual from God, but also introduced human sickness, physical death, and the usurping of the world by The Adversary. This is why Paul describes creation groaning in the book of Romans until the eschaton and why Christ Himself in his farewell discourse, John chapters 14 through 16 describes Satan as the ruler or god of this world who is imminently going to be cast out. The project of Asceticism therefore was in Brakke’s view to imitate Philo’s allegorical reading of Jacob’s contest with the Angel of the Lord. One was compelled to wrestle with angels, devils, and ultimately with one’s own self. As Sittser states about this enterprise, “The desert fathers and mothers believed that the rigor of asceticism is essential because the Christian faith demands struggle. The fallenness of the world imposes it.” (Sittser, 46)

Conclusion

Therefore, it is our conviction that the spiritual combat of the monk should be understood as a medicinal enterprise in which the desert father, the ecclesia as a whole, and creation itself are withdrawn from the fallen patterns due to Original Sin and instead called out into a rightly ordered relationship with God. The ministry of exorcism then, which is a ministry of healing, will be explored not merely as a vocation singularly relegated to the deliverance of a possessed or oppressed person, object, or place. Instead in view is the genuine liberation of all of creation from the bondage to decay recorded first in Genesis-3 and conquered by the salvific work of Christ, embodied by the lives of His foremost warriors, the desert fathers and mothers of the 3rd and 4th centuries.  This theological paradigm allows us to understand the lives of these desert fathers and mothers through their own paradigm, and I hope we have presented a fuller portrait than the otherwise sociological, psychological, and politicized scholarship which has dominated the research in this field.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Augustine, et al. The Confessions, I/1. New City Pr., 1997.

“BibleGateway” Genesis 2 NIV - Bible Gateway.

“BibleGateway” Genesis 3 NIV - Bible Gateway.

“BibleGateway” Revelation 22 NIV - Bible Gateway.

“Life of St. Anthony.” Church Fathers: Life of St. Anthony (Athanasius), http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2811.htm.

“Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Apophthegmata Patrum”; The Alphabetic Collection. Trans. Benedicta Ward, foreword by Metropolitan Anthony. Cistercian Studies 59.  Cistercian, 1975.

Secondary Sources

Brakke, David. “The Making of Monastic Demonology: Three Ascetic Teachers on Withdrawal and Resistance.” Church History, vol. 70, no. 1, Mar. 2001, pp. 19–48.

Gruber, Mark, O. S. B., and M. Michele Ransil. Journey Back to Eden: My Life and Times among the Desert Fathers. Orbis Books., 2002.

Keller, David. Oasis of Wisdom: The Worlds of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Liturgical Pr, 2005

Sittser, Gerald L. “The Battle without and within: The Psychology of Sin and Salvation in the Desert Fathers and Mothers.” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, vol. 2, no. 1, Spr 2009, pp. 44–66.

Wortley, John. “What Hesychia Meant to the Desert Fathers.” Cistercian Studies Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 2, 2019, pp. 159–170.

Wortley, John. “What the Desert Fathers Meant by ‘Being Saved.’” Zeitschrift Für Antikes Christentum, vol. 12, no. 2, 2008, pp. 286–307.

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