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Patristic Experience Concerning Bad Thoughts and Demonic Influences

October 12, 2012

Saint Peter once wrote, “Be sober [watchful], be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” It is a curious saying, because it’s hard to miss a roaring lion, but without watchfulness and wakefulness, when we are distracted and sleepy, we don’t see or sense that roaring lion. But when we become aware of the ravaged landscape of our minds and lives or the minds and lives of others, we can’t help but wonder how such devastation could have taken place. Part of the answer is carelessness; another part of the answer is mistakes; still another part is human selfishness; and yet one final factor in the equation is a spirit that opposes God and all that is good, a spirit that materialists naively deny, but that Scripture attests to as the tempter or the devil.

Some of the fathers also speak about the devil’s role in temptation and the war of the thoughts. For example, once, Saint Andrew was sitting with his disciple Epiphanius, talking about the salvation of the soul. Just then, a demon approached Epiphanius and began setting traps to distract his thoughts, but did not dare to approach Saint Andrew. Saint Andrew cried out: “Depart from here, impure adversary!” The devil drew back and replied maliciously: “You are my adversary, such as no other in all of Constantinople!” Saint Andrew did not drive him away immediately, but permitted him to speak. And the devil began: “I feel that the time is coming when my work will be finished. At that time, men will be worse than I, as children will be even more wicked than adults. Then I will rest and will not teach men anything anymore, since they themselves will carry out my will in everything.” Saint Andrew asked him: “In what sins do your kind rejoice the most?” The devil replied: “The service of idols, slander, malice against one’s neighbor, the sodomite sin, drunkenness and avarice-in this we rejoice the most.” Saint Andrew further asked him: “And how do you tolerate it when someone who first served you rejects you and your works?” The devil replied: “You know that better than I do; we find it difficult to tolerate, but we are comforted by this: we will probably bring them back to us-for many who have rejected us and turned to God have come back to us again.” After the evil spirit had said this and much more, Saint Andrew breathed on him and he disappeared.

This story about Saint Andrew the Fool for Christ reveals a great deal about the nature of bad thoughts and the role of the demons in proposing them to us.  First, there is an intimation in the story that the demon did not dare approach Saint Andrew with bad thoughts, because of the Saint’s deep humility, constant watchfulness, and dispassionate state.  Second, the demon aimed at setting a trap for Epiphanius, Saint Andrew’s disciple, by distracting the disciple from the Saint’s instruction. This is instructive for us because it shows that the demons do not tempt us with distractions or thoughts in their overtly evil and ugly essence, but rather disorients the soul by directing her focus away from the clearly good and holy to seemingly pleasant things that are in fact the bait on the devil’s hook. And like Epiphanius, don’t distracting thoughts seem especially present in Church? Third, just telling the devil to depart does not end the warfare. Were Saint Andrew not a vessel of humility, the devil’s response—that the Saint was like no other in all of Constantinople—could have led the Saint into pride. Extensive dialogue with demonic thoughts is rarely advised by the fathers. Only the spiritually advanced and spiritually healthy, such as Saint Andrew, dare to do so with the intent acquiring spiritual knowledge for the benefit of others. I address this issue in Ancient Christian Wisdom, “Notwithstanding the patristic caveat to beginners concerning rebuttal as a way of coping with bad thoughts, rebuttal remains an important method in the believer’s struggle. After all, on the very threshold of Christian life before the neophyte enters the nave for holy baptism, he is asked to renounce “Satan, and all his angels and all his works and all his service and all his pride.” Renunciation presupposes a readiness for rebuttal. Christ’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness is the prototypical New Testament example of wisely responding to a bad thought disguised in the raiment of scripture by citing another biblical passage whose truth exposes the devil’s wiles. For the church fathers, Christ’s responses were recorded in the gospels to teach the faithful how to reply to tempting thoughts.” Finally, the evil spirit disappeared when Saint Andrew breathed on him, making the sign of the cross with his head. This powerful gesture is taken from the baptismal service and part of the symbol of the believer’s covenant with Christ. With he power of the Cross, the single-mindedness of baptism, and one’s very breath in the service of Christ alone, the Saint was ultimately victorious, instructing us in the way to our own victory by humbly relying on the Cross, constantly recommitting ourselves to our baptismal promises, and letting our every breath praise the Lord with unceasing prayer.

And what of the spiritual knowledge that the Saint acquired in his discourse? First, everyone can be tempted by the devil, including innocent children. Second, when we give into the temptations of the devil repeatedly, those ways of reacting become ingrained habits and then no devil is necessary to continue to entice us, we entice ourselves. Third, the devil especially gloats over sins that involve the misuse of the reasoning faculty, the aggressive faculty, and the desiring faculty. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, it is noted that “the devil uses the desiring and aggressive faculties together with the five senses to overcome the rational aspect, so that people will act unjustly, foolishly, licentiously, and cowardly.” Thus, the watchful believers are ever mindful to how they use their minds, what they fight for, and what they desire, bringing reason, desire, and determination to the service of Christ. Fourth, even though a person may make progress, the battle is never over until one’s last breath. This realization also helps keep us humble and watchful.

And so let us strive to be humble and watchful, so that we may hear the lion’s roar and move to the only place of safety and refuge, the victor over all the wiles of the devil, our Lord Jesus Christ.

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