Monks vs Demons!
Posted April 21, 2007on:
That is and will be, by far, the coolest title to ever be on a post here; and Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity by David Brakke is and will be, by far, the coolest book I read this year.
It starts with the cover. I’m not a fan of Franciso de Goya’s portraits, with the one or two exceptions, but the etchings for his book Los Caprichos, are endlessly fascinated. (If we’re gonna talk portraits then it’s William Bouguereau.) I’ve always been attracted to narrative illustrations, both as companion to the text and on their own terms. The best of them not only complement but illuminate and complicate their verbal origins and I never get tired of exploring exactly how they work.
The etching on Spiritual Combat is Tale-Bearers: Blast of Wind, plate 48 from Caprichos, perfect for the book as it depicts an air-borne demon, air being the space between earth and heaven in which even an exceptional monk could never meet with it, harassing two hapless mortals. I’ve never read the Caprichos but the background in the painting ,combined with what I’ve read in Brakke’s, is suggestive of a desert. Deserts were seen as the particular dwelling place of demons and other evil spirits, at least in 3rd and 4th century Egypt.
David Brakke’s book focuses on the demonological narrative in monastic biographies and writings of this period because they were the most influential on the Byzatine east and Medieval west. Shenoute, a leader of a large community of monks in Upper Egypt, faced the dilemma of how to discipline a small group of monks who had committed a grave sin. In the middle of the night as he mused over what course of action to take, a man dressed as a “middle-ranking government official and accompanied by a subordinate” appeared out of nowhere and attacked him. Shenoute asked whether he was an angel, and asked for help with his current crisis but received no answer, and ultimately he defeated the stranger. His victory proved to him that the foe was a demon because he could not have defeated an angel, and the governmental garbs showed that the true source of his hesitancy to mete out full punishment to the monks was based on their high ranking family connections. They were expelled.
This is what it’s like to be a god-fearing monk living the ascetic lifestyle, every day!
Or not quite. It was far more likely for demons to insinuate themselves into your thoughts, to actually be the evil thoughts beckoning you from the path of the straight and narrow, reminding you of familial and gustatory pleasures, rather than actually try to sucker punch you. Brakke conscientiously charts the different ideas about the origin of heavenly beings, humans and demons from the writings of Valentinus and Origen to Antony the great, as we see through both his letters and his biography by Anthasius.
Unlike Alistair Sooke’s review in the TLS I haven’t it found Brakke’s diction particularly specialised at all, so far. You’ll never have to turn to Google as he lucidly explains the ideas of every figure relevant to his study, and shows how they merged together and evolved in Antony’s philosophy to influence the wider world of monasticism. It’s one of the best things about the book.
I may try to do a post on each chapter as I go along, or at least any section I find of particular interest. Although it not written in a “popular” style or seemingly aimed at a wide audience, the various Christian philosophies mentioned, the ideas of what is what to be a martyr at the time, how Christianity was set up against the pagan religions, and how that has echoed into the present day should be of infinite interest to any curious individual who is or was raised as a Christian.
Also, monks fight demons!