temptation

How Do We Treat The Demons?

Over the past couple of years I have found a new life by reading and studying the wisdom of the desert Abbas and Ammas. There are many stories and "words" in this wisdom and I am not the first to explore this vast landscape. Through my studies I have come to see there is at least one thing that distinguishes that desert Abba/Amma from the student. And it is in how they each relate the the demons. 

The Torment of Saint Anthony - Michelangelo Buonarroti -  Kimbell Art   Notice how early in his life, Anthony might have prayed for the destruction of the demons as they pulled at him...

The Torment of Saint Anthony - Michelangelo Buonarroti - Kimbell Art

Notice how early in his life, Anthony might have prayed for the destruction of the demons as they pulled at him...

The Temptations of Saint Anthony - BOSCH, HIERONYMUS  Museo Nacional del Prado  ©   By the end of his life, Anthony learned to co-exist with the demons.

The Temptations of Saint Anthony - BOSCH, HIERONYMUS Museo Nacional del Prado©

By the end of his life, Anthony learned to co-exist with the demons.

Demons was a word to describe the different temptations these early hermits encountered. The demons tempted them to eat, drink, fornicate, wander, etc. There were as many demons as there were people who were tempted to abandon their quest of Love for God and all. 

Beginners would do, perhaps as we all might do, seek for ways to banish the demon. It makes sense that if you see a demon that you would want to banish and destroy it. Beginners would soon discover that the demons were too powerful to defeat. 

The more seasoned monks turned from trying to defeat the demons to tolerate them. It was a fact of life that temptations would come and it was a matter of keeping their rule of life that one could tolerate the existence of the demon. This is a significant turn in the life of the monk as they moved from desiring the death and destruction of the temptation to learning to keep it at bay.

However, the Abbas/Ammas took the next step. They did not tolerate the temptations they learned that the temptations were the way to love. That to disengage with the temptation or to even work for its destruction meant that the monk never experienced the Grace of God. 

This three fold movement - destruction, tolerance, embracing - requires a deep dedication and devotion to love even the most vile and evil. This does not mean the Abbas/Ammas delighted and let the temptation/demons do as they pleased. Abbas/Ammas fought with the demons all the time. It was in the fighting with the demons that the teachers came to see what the demons have to teach each of us. 

There are temptations in your life. There are people and forces in your life you may even call demonic or evil. And to be sure, there is evil in the world. There is evil in the world that is to be confronted - slavery, hate, enslavement, war, etc. These early monks were talking less about social evils as much as they were talking about the evils that come into our hearts. The desert wisdom is not clear on what to do in the face of injustice, Jesus had much to say about that. The desert wisdom is much more directive on what to do in the face of the demon of the soul. Do we desire it dead? Tolerate it's existence? Or can we cohabitate with it?

Three Temptations of Jesus - Relevancy, Spectacular, Powerful

Henri Nouwen writes in his book In the Name of Jesus there are three temptations Jesus faces in the desert with Satan. He frames them as:

Photo by  Darius Soodmand  on  Unsplash
  • Relevancy - turning stones into bread
  • Spectacular - leaping off the temple
  • Powerful - bowing to satan

Why is being spectacular a temptation? Nouwen writes about "after six years of training and formation, I was considered well equipped to preach, administer the sacraments, counsel, and run a parish. I was made to feel like a man sent on a long, long hike with a huge backpack containing all the things necessary to help the people I would meet on the road."

As he walked on this road, he discovered ht "did not have the power to draw thousands of people" and "could not make many conversations" or "were not as popular with the youth, the young adults or the elderly." Despite these truths, he still felt like he should have been able to do it all and do it successfully.

Many clergy feel that we have to be spectacular in order to grow the church. We are told to preach the best sermons each week, visit every person at home, respond to each crisis with care, speak truth to power, maintain boundaries and uphold a spiritual life while developing vibrant children's ministry and keep those graduating youth involved in the church. And if the church is not growing then we are failing.

So pastors and churches are tempted to do something spectacular that grabs the attention of people for a while. Of course when people respond to the spectacular there is the temptation to keep on doing the spectacular, so we do. One day our spectacular comes to an end and we crash. The pastor and church feel dejected and because numbers drop and people do not show up. When this happens clergy and churches grow in anxiety and fear of death.

The spectacular is tempting because it works to draw people in, but often the spectacular points people to elevate the the pastor or Church and overlook Jesus. The humble pastor and humble church are neither relevant or spectacular but are often called ineffective or bad thus adding pressure to fall into the temptation.

Three Temptations of Jesus - Relevancy, Spectacular, Powerful

Henri Nouwen writes in his book In the Name of Jesus there are three temptations Jesus faces in the desert with Satan. He frames them as:

  • Relevancy - turning stones into bread
  • Spectacular - leaping off the temple
  • Powerful - bowing to satan

Why is relevancy a temptation? "I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in the world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self."

He goes on to say, "The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God's Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life."

Finally he says, "The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the life of Jesus there." 

Photo by  Jordan Whitfield  on  Unsplash

As I read it, Nouwen is saying that more and more people are feeling irrelevant. People feel irrelevant as they watch automation take their manufacturing job. People feel undervalued at a their job that gives little to no benefits. People feel more replaceable than ever as the world changes faster and faster. The rise of the irrelevant is well underway and there is no place in the world that cares about irrelevance because we assess people's worth on how relevant they are. 

The Church and Church leaders are to stand with the growing number of people for whom irrelevancy is the norm. Relevant pastors will continue to peddle the wares of the culture that values relevancy. Success in the Church is not being more relevant. Success looks like being in solidarity with the irrelevant of the world. 

You know, like Jesus did. 

May we be like Jesus who resisted the temptation of to be relevant. May we be like Jesus who defined success by our willingness to follow.

Demons Don't Mess With Me!

As a child there were few people in the world as intimidating as Mike Tyson. No one messed with Mike Tyson. He was small, mighty, strong and fearless - all things that I desired to be physically. As I grew older I discovered that I was not the physical specimen that Tyson was so they physical strength was out of the question. However, I applied these same desired attributes toward my spiritual formation. That is I wanted to be as mighty, strong and fearless so that even the demons would be afraid to mess with me. 

St._Poimen_the_Great.jpg

Poemen

By St. Poimen Greek Orthodox Broterhood Arizona, USA

As I come into my thirty-sixth year of life, I can proudly say that demons do not mess with me, but not because I am strong and mighty.  

One of the desert teachers of Christianity from the late antiquity period was given the name Abba Poemen. Abba Poemen was asked by a student "Why do the demons attack me?"

Abba Poemen said to him, "Is it the demons who attack you? It is not the demons who attack me. When we follow our self-will then our wills seem like demons and it is they who urge us to obey them. If you want to know who the demons really attack, it is against Moses (another Abba) and those like him." - The Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward

I am less like Mike Tyson to the demons and more like "Glass Joe" - which is why the demons don't mess with me. I am easily overwhelmed by my own ego and self will to be any threat to a demon.