This week I attended a series of meetings on prayer. The speaker mentioned that prayer can lead to spiritual danger, a point that reminded me of the Life of Antony.
The Life of Antony (Vita Antonii) is the best known of the hagiographies, or lives of the saints, from the early church. Written by Athanasius sometime around 357–58, the book is a biography of Antony, or Anthony, one of the founders of Christian monasticism. Antony was an Egyptian Christian who, like many in his day, led a life of asceticism and prayer. Antony became known for being the first ascetic to live in the wilderness. Both because of his example and because of persecutions, many “desert fathers” lived in solitude or small bands in the wilderness. The Life tells of Antony’s life of prayer in the desert and his wrestling with demons. His temptations are described in great detail, so that the temptation of Antony became a common feature in Western art, such as in this allegorical painting by Hieronymus Bosch (click for full size):
The Life of Antony is one of the two foundational texts of Western monasticism. (The other is the Rule of St. Benedict.1) Though highly valued by the medieval church, Protestant reformers scorned the text for valuing monasticism and for its accounts of the supernatural. Twenty-first-century readers, no matter whether Protestant or Catholic, are likely to read the text incredulously.2 At a minimum, however, I think any reader can take the descriptions of Antony’s temptations as a description of the dangers encountered by people who take prayer seriously. Just as C. S. Lewis wrote the introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, so Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is a kind of retelling of the Life of Antony.
Here is a section of the text when Antony was living in the tombs before going to the desert (para. 8–10):
Thus tightening his hold upon himself, Antony departed to the tombs, which happened to be at a distance from the village; and having bid one of his acquaintances to bring him bread at intervals of many days, he entered one of the tombs, and the other having shut the door on him, he remained within alone. And when the enemy could not endure it, but was even fearful that in a short time Antony would fill the desert with the discipline, coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment. But by the Providence of God—for the Lord never overlooks them that hope in Him—the next day his acquaintance came bringing him the loaves. And having opened the door and seeing him lying on the ground as though dead, he lifted him up and carried him to the church in the village, and laid him upon the ground. And many of his kinsfolk and the villagers sat around Antony as round a corpse. But about midnight he came to himself and arose, and when he saw them all asleep and his comrade alone watching, he motioned with his head for him to approach, and asked him to carry him again to the tombs without waking anybody.
He was carried therefore by the man, and as he was wont, when the door was shut he was within alone. And he could not stand up on account of the blows, but he prayed as he lay. And after he had prayed, he said with a shout, Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ. And then he sang, ‘though a camp be set against me, my heart shall not be afraid.’ These were the thoughts and words of this ascetic. But the enemy, who hates good, marvelling that after the blows he dared to return, called together his hounds and burst forth, ‘Ye see,’ said he, ‘that neither by the spirit of lust nor by blows did we stay the man, but that he braves us, let us attack him in another fashion.’ But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful. But Antony, stricken and goaded by them, felt bodily pains severer still. He lay watching, however, with unshaken soul, groaning from bodily anguish; but his mind was clear, and as in mockery he said, ‘If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord hath made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.’ And again with boldness he said, ‘If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.’ So after many attempts they gnashed their teeth upon him, because they were mocking themselves rather than him.
Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Antony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, ‘Where wert thou? Why didst thou not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?’ And a voice came to him, ‘Antony, I was here, but I waited to see thy fight; wherefore since thou hast endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to thee, and will make thy name known everywhere.’ Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly. And he was then about thirty-five years old.
The entire book is short, and could be read in an hour or two. But if you’re only going to read one more passage, read Antony’s advice to the other Christians in the desert on prayer, temptation, and spiritual battles (para. 16–43).
- At least the Life of Antony made it into Philip Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. The Rule of St. Benedict, which was contained in the life of Benedict in book 2 of Gregory the Great’s Dialogues was inexplicably left out of NPNF, which is after all a Protestant collection of texts. ↩
- At the fall 2012 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History at Gordon College, Carlos Eire gave a fantastic keynote titled “Did Miracles Ever Cease? The Reformation and the Supernatural,” explaining how the reformers came to regard the power of the devil as preternatural rather than supernatural. ↩