Maerten de Vos, The Temptation of Saint Anthony
As Lent begins, the gospel focuses on Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. Mark does not give us the content of the testing that Jesus endures, like Matthew or Luke. But what Mark does, in a few lines, is give us something of an icon of the spiritual life. Jesus is there in the wilderness, tempted by the Evil One and assisted by angels. This is a battle, and one of supernatural proportions. And it is only beginning. It will continue throughout the gospel as Jesus will wrest the power of the Evil One away from him.
Curiously, Mark alone, among the gospels mentions Jesus being present among wild beasts. We know what the angels and demons are about. But what are these wild beasts? Firstly, they recall another man who was among wild beasts – Adam. Adam was created free. And he was meant to live in communion with God and rule over everything. He had to name the beasts – which meant that he ruled over them. With Adam’s disobedience though, all of this perfectly formed creation falls apart. This creation falling apart is also a mirror of what happens with Adam himself. He is no longer free. He finds that he is at the mercy of all kinds of forces too big for him. The beasts cannot be tamed anymore.
The Church Fathers often recognised in these wild beasts the forces within one’s own soul – called the passions. The passions are disordered movements. St Maximus the Confessor defined them as ‘a movement of the soul contrary to nature, either in irrational love or senseless hate of something’. Such a soul was ‘impure, for it [was] filled with thoughts of cupidity and hate’. We recognise this in our day to day lives – the people around us will often recognise it even more. ‘Just say this to him and watch him blow up!’ or ‘That person at work, she always manages to irritate me. I just have to see her face and I start getting annoyed…’ or ‘I don’t know, any time I hear that kind of noise, I’m filled with fear, I do stupid things’. Even those in long-term relationships, husbands and wives. See how often, all your arguments, whatever they start about, often come back to the same thing. Different situations, but the same triggers. When these passions are at work within us, we are miserable. We are not free.
Some spiritualities will say that the answer is to suppress or extinguish your desiring life altogether. But your feelings are not bad in themselves. They are there for a purpose. Your desires were meant to cause you to love God and neighbour, in that order. To love everything rightly. Your feelings of anger and repulsion were meant to move you away from evil and resist injustice. All of these were meant to be in our control, under the control of our reason, our intellect. But these irrational feelings or energies can be easily aroused and they immediately seize control from the intellect. That’s when we end up saying ‘What I did…that wasn’t me!’. And that’s true – that’s not meant to be us, but these driving forces are within us, unless overcome. Man in this, is between the angels and demons – as in the gospel. The angels are ruled fully by their intellect; in communion with God, they are free. Demons, on the other hand, having rebelled against God are ruled completely by hatred and bitterness. Man’s situation is unstable; there are moments where he walks with clear insight, only to be overcome the next, yielding to grasping or resentful obsessions.
It was to set these right that the Desert Fathers and Mothers, much like Jesus, went out to the wilderness to practice their spiritual discipline. Here they lived, prayed and battled with demons. Their disciplines were to restore their humanity to the original condition intended by God. This is what Adam had and what Christ came to restore. The best written account of this is the Life of Antony, a biography of St Antony of Egypt, written by St Athanasius (a good translation here). This became a default manual of spirituality for the early monks. It’s influence in the Church can be seen even by all the art it has inspired (search for ‘temptation of Antony’)’ and is well worth reading over Lent.
The Fathers eventually grouped these passions into eight categories of thoughts or powers: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride. Most of us would readily recognise this from our more familiar list of ‘Seven deadly sins’, which is what it evolved into, in the West. In being labelled as ‘sins’ however, they lost the psycho-dynamism of the original categories of the Fathers, becoming something static. We tend to think of sins as something we do; we confess when we become aware of them. The passions are not sins in that sense. They are patterns of thoughts, and a sickness of the soul.
The Life of Antony shows demons hard at work, trying to subvert and draw the monks away from their harsh monastic life. Many of the desert monks experienced attacks by demons of a supernatural nature. The regular operations of demons, however, were to excite the passions, stirring up these thought patterns to force one to consent to sin. In this light, the monks spoke both of these passions and of demons almost interchangeably. This might seem like sensationalising people’s “normal” experiences, but they were not sensationalising them; they were unmasking them. The desert is the place where the face of the enemy is unmasked. Here, the true, deadly nature of the passions and the scope of the battle is seen. It is so, because in the desert all our coping mechanisms are removed.
We all experience different sets of these passions in our lives. We have different mechanisms to compensate for them. We might drink to feel calm when excessively worried or angry, we might give take out our anger on someone who can’t respond in like, we could eat excessively when bored. But in the desert, these are wilfully removed. And this makes the wilderness a dangerous place. We are already aware of this. Throughout lockdown, mental health charities have been sounding the alarm as to how much harm lockdowns could do to people when you take their support (or compensation) systems away from them. Far more dangerously, we know that there has been a huge surge in cases of domestic abuse and violence. There have been large numbers of babies being harmed, even killed. This is the wilderness. The secular culture understands the dangers but can’t articulate its nature or it’s solution. But this desert experience is at the heart of Lent. We can’t all go away to a desert, but the things we give up, our fasting, are all meant to remove our compensation mechanisms that keep our vices hidden.
To do this battle can be frightening. We are faced with an enemy many times more powerful than us, and knows all our weaknesses. But the fathers took it up courageously, because they knew that the battle had already been won. Jesus won the battle through the power of the Spirit. And this Spirit comes to accompany us in our struggles. This battle he began in the wilderness, Jesus would complete on the Cross. That body, he gives us in the Eucharist. This is the food for our Lenten journey, medicine for the sickness of our soul. Here, our humanity can be restored.