Friday, November 18, 2005


One of the most radical and uncomfortable aspects of monastic spirituality as formulated by the Fathers is its demonology. Evagrius and Cassian, for example, speak very frankly about the suggestions that demons make to us that cause us to sin. One of my teachers in theology suggested when reading these authors to substitute 'hang-ups' for 'demons' and indeed, there is much about that approach that is helpful for starters. And yet there are some advantages to viewing the problem of sin as stemming from demonic suggestion rather than personal deficiency (aside from the advantage that comes of describing things truthfully, if indeed demons are behind sinful thoughts, as I believe they are).

First of all, the teaching that my thoughts are not all from me separates the sin from the sinner. Often we are ashamed to admit bad thoughts, even under seal of confession. We believe that they originate from us and therefore there is something fundamentally wrong with us--one of the Devil's great ruses! The monastic fathers insist that no, even the greatest saint is tormented by temptation, sometimes worse than beginners at prayer. The question is whether or not we consort with the thought or turn it away. This allows the human person to remain a good and beautiful creation: susceptible, yes, because of Original Sin to the suggestion of crafty spirits, but not deformed in the way that many Christians view human nature.

Secondly, monks have long been unfairly suspected of Pelagianism, the heresy that says that we can achieve our own salvation by good works. However, once we grasp that not only the suggestions to sin, but even the suggestions to repent in large part do not come from within us, but come from demons or from God, we see immediately that salvation from sin is through grace and not through the effort to make ourselves perfect.

These thoughts (I hope from God!) came to me as we prayed Psalm 101 at Vigils this morning, praise Christ. How wonderfully this reads as a parable on the soul (I include my interpretive comments in brackets), so much better than if we take it to be about other sinners:

"I will hate the ways of the crooked [of the demons]
They shall not be my friends. [I won't entertain their suggestions]
The false-hearted must keep far away;
the wicked I disown.

The man who slanders his neighbor in secret [the demon who suggests bad things to me about my neighbor]
I will bring to silence. [I will focus instead on the log in my own eye!]
The man of proud looks and haughty heart
I will never endure.

I look to the faithful in the land [the saints]
that they may dwell with me. [that I may live aware of the Communion of Saints]
He who walks in the way of perfection [this is Jesus Christ]
shall be my friend [I invite Him to dwell in my soul]

No man who practices deceit
shall live within my house [think of our Lord's parable about the demon driven out who invites seven worse spirits to the clean and swept 'house']
No man who utters lies shall stand
before my eyes [All demons are liars]

Morning by morning I will silence [I make a good resolution each day]
all the wicked in the land,
uprooting from the house of the Lord [the soul is the temple of the Holy Spirit]
all who do evil [the Devil cannot coexist with God].

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Origen of Alexandria
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