Please note: This is an abbreviated script for the coming podcast Wisdom of the Ancient Monks. The podcast is scheduled to begin August 30th.
In the Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back the hero, Luke Skywalker, begins his training as a Jedi. He travels to the swamp planet of Dagobah and discovers that the Jedi Master he is to learn from is the humble Yoda. Quite a strange place for a young man who grew up on the desert planet of Tatootine. Quite a strange master for him to learn the ways of the Force from. Luke soon learns the power of faith and grows to trust Yoda.
As part of his training, Yoda sends Luke into a cave where the dark side of the Force is strong. He must face the darkness about who he is if he is to continue down his path of becoming a Jedi. So he descends and quickly is confronted by an image of Darth Vader. He is the demonic personification of the dark side and Luke battles him. He overcomes this image of Darth Vader only to discover that it is his face behind Vader’s mask. He now understands that Darth Vader is in fact his father Anakin Skywalker and that if he is not vigilant, he too will fall to the dark side.
Going deep and confronting demons is a common theme in spirituality and in literature. From Elijah at Mount Horeb to Henry David Thoreau’s retreat to Walden’s Pond spiritual people are made by first retreating, contemplating, and listening in solitude. With Saint Anthony the Great this is no different. For him the retreat was a tomb and it was there he battled demons. Let’s hear his story.
In this way, then, Antony girded himself and left for the tombs that lay some distance from his village. After asking one of his friends to bring him bread every few days, he went into one of the tombs and, closing the door of the tomb behind him, remained inside, alone. The Enemy, however, could not stand his being there. He was afraid that little by little Antony would turn the desert into a city of asceticism. Coming out one night with a mob of demons, he beat Antony with so many blows that he was left lying on the ground, unable to speak because of the torturous blows. Antony said with certainty that human beings could never wield such blows or inflict such punishment, so great was his suffering.
But by the providence of God (for the Lord does not disregard those who hope in him), the next day Antony’s friend came, bringing some bread for him. When he opened the door and saw Antony lying on the ground as though dead, he lifted him up and carried him to the village church and laid him on the ground. Many of his relatives and people from the village sat down around Antony as though he were dead. Around midnight, though, Antony regained consciousness and raised himself up. When he saw all of them asleep and only his friend keeping watch, he beckoned to the friend to come over and asked him to pick him up again and carry him back to the tomb without waking anyone.
So, Antony was carried back to the tomb by this man and, with the door closed, as was his custom, he was once again inside by himself. He did not have the strength to stand because of the blows from the demons but continued to pray while lying down. And after his prayer he would cry out, ‘Look, here I am—Antony! I will not run from your blows! Even if you do worse things to me, nothing “will separate me from the love of Christ’”. Then he also recited the psalm: ‘Though an army should array itself against me, my heart will not be afraid’. The ascetic thought and said these things, but the Enemy, who hates what is good, was amazed that after all these blows Antony was brave enough to return. Summoning his dogs, and so angry that he was about to burst, the Devil said, ‘You see that neither with the spirit of fornication nor with blows have we stopped this fellow. On the contrary, he stubbornly opposes us! Let us approach him some other way!’ (It is easy for the Devil to take on other forms to do evil.)The Life of Antony: The Coptic Life and The Greek Life – Translated by Tim Vivian and Apostolos N. Athanassakis
While there is much to talk about it we will focus on simply three truths this chapter from Anthony’s life reveals. The first truth is that we all have something dark within us and/or oppressing us. For Anthony it was his sexual drive. He was human like anyone one else and he had urges like anyone else. Now let it be said clearly that there is nothing wrong with having these urges, it is part of our biology. It was that he was tempted to employ them outside their proper context. “What’s wrong with a bit of pleasure?” some may ask. Well it often involves fantasy about another person (living in delusion), it places the pleasure above love, and in many cases it leads to an addiction. Sexual addiction is something that can really make a mess of a young person’s life. Believe me, I am a university chaplain and I have seen how unhealthy it is.
The demon’s plan is to trip up Anthony just like how it trips up the lives of so many young people. Anthony, however, recognized the danger and went to an extreme not to fall into an act of self-fornicaiton. Saints Benedict and Francis are said to have thrown themselves in thorn bushes to remove their temptations. I don’t suggest this myself, but it seemed to work for them. Instead I recommend a snap of a thick rubber band worn on the wrist. Seeing how Anthony had neither thorn bushes nor rubber bands in his tomb he most likely threw himself against the walls. The aim was to get the mind to focus on the feeling of pain rather than pleasure. Only it worked too well for Anthony, he must have given themself a concussion hitting his head against the wall. Which is why my advice is if you are going to use negative reinforcement, please keep it simple and don’t hurt yourself.
We now come to the second truth, when you are down, turn to the church, it will be your support network. When Anthony was out cold a friend discovered him and brought him into his local church. Pope Francis has called the church “a hospital for sinners.” Christians like to view the Word of God proclaim there and the sacraments received there as balms for the sinner weary soul. Anthony in avoiding the sin of “self-abuse” ironically abused his own body. He sinned in damaging the good body God gave him. In church he comes to his senses. When he returns to the tomb to face the demons once again notice how things have changed. Instead of punishing himself to get rid of his urges he instead places his trust in God. He comes to understand that he alone cannot overcome sin, it is not through the grace of God.
The final truth is that spiritual growth always involves a sort of dying. When Anthony engages in this calling to live out the gospel as literally as he could, he saw that some things about his character had to die. It is indeed providential that he entered into a tomb to seek to become a new man in Christ. For Anthony he needed to die to his notion that he can fight off temptations through his own power, he needed God’s grace and he needed the help of others.
Monks of my congregation undergo their own tomb experience when they make their solemn vows. Before making vows, the monk lies on the church floor and is covered over with a funeral pall, symbolically being buried. Then, the monastic community calls upon the intercession of the saints and on God to aid the monk in keeping the vows. Once this call for grace is made, the pall is removed and a new monastic is born, one fortified enough to make vows that will last until for life.
Anthony was called “the Great” because he gave us so great an example to live our spiritual lives by. We should learn from him and die to our false notions of self-reliance and be willing to turn to God and to his church when our demons attack us. May Anthony himself intercede for us as we learn to be born-again in Christ.