The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Single Monk

Posted on: May 11, 2007

I promised that I would do a series post on David Brakke’s highly engrossing book on demonology in early Egyptian monasticism, and in a rare show of dependability will do just that. Whether this will turn out to be a blog on every chapter remains to be seen, but so far I have not come across one that does not merit attention; indeed this first one will require two posts. I’ll tag each entry “Monks vs Demons” as an easy way to find them all, including my first post on the book. These will not be reviews but reports on the meat of each chapter and/or whatever I find notable. I hope to accurately relay what Brakke has so carefully studied but the best plan is always to read the book yourself. (It’s bound to be at your local university library and maybe your public one wouldn’t balk at making such an acquisition. It’s a bit pricey but hey if you’ve got it, buy it. Harvard Press thanks you.) I suppose many of my (few but cherished) readers may find this curious at best, but I am Queen here, and at the moment her majesty is into holy people hand wrestling demons in wells.

The books is divided into two sections, the first entitled “The Monk in Combat”. It covers the various prototypes of and for monks in direct relation to their demonology and how the ascetic lifestyle could be used for combat. These were founded in various philosophies, interpretations of theology, and ascetic examples that were used in monasteries at the time; this included the influential ideas purported by spiritual leaders later deemed heretics. We learn of this now through the biographies of famous monks (Athanisius’ Life of Anthony) or their own writings (Evagrius Ponticus).

The monk (Greek is monachos meaning the “single one”) is a familiar figure to us now but was a character that had to be imagined and created, which happened around the early 4th to 5th century. The same is true for the development of the idea of a demon as monks understood it — for them he was an adverse opponent, with shape-shifting powers who could inflict bodily harm. This is different than the “daemon” more familiar in folklore and paganism who was not necessarily evil and merely “filled the gap” between humans and gods. They did not hang about crossroad intersections or frequently possess farm animals but instead played a roll in the monk’s ethical life. They were used to address pressing intellectual problems and primarily waged mental attacks, tainting thoughts and provoking strife and turmoil with the brotherhood.

This combative concept has its root in the beginning of Christianity, first presented by Paul and his students. At that time it was believed that Armageddon would be here lickety split, and that Christians were locked in a spiritual battle against the dark forces. They were being attacked at all sides, spiritually and politically, from without and within, and had to remain alert. (What was old is new again.) Although Jesus and later his apostles literally cast out demons, for the average Christian it was a more abstract, moral battle. It was important to remain faithful in all one’s interactions with family, friends, slaves etc.

In proceeding years, more “intellectual” Christians abandoned the notion of an imminent apocalypse, they retained the image of the Christian in combat. This time she was a martyr standing true for her beliefs, no matter the risk. Considering the prosecution the group faced as a minority, its internal divisions, and hostile relationship with the Jews, this is understandable. On a more personal level their moral conflict was envisioned, by the author of Shepherd of Hermas who adapted from Jewish teachings, as a good and bad angel that always accompanied each individual.

The first major influential figure covered here is Origen. He came up with the idea that all created beings once shared an intellectual unity in the worship of God, as equals. Demons fell the furthest from God, then humans, then angels. This is why demons are so at tempting us and attacking our thoughts. Their organisational structure is that of an army, complete with ranks and regiments. Each regiment, one could say, specialised in a vice (gluttony, fornication etc.) They appear in the form of thoughts, although such evil thoughts could spring from ourselves as well. If we succumb to the external thoughts too often we would become enslaved. This was the demon’s primary goal, according toOrigen, to keep us from our spiritual ascent to God, to lead us from the virtuous path.

Paradoxically, the monks needed just such trials in order to spiritually progress; the ascetic lifestyle was perfect for this. Egyptians saw the desert as the special abode of demons and therefore an uniquely excellent place in which to reside, in order to battle and overcome demons. This was only one of the paths a monk could take to carry out his vocation. The monastic life was built on the basic relationship of teacher (advanced monk) and disciple (his pupil). For some this meant retreating into the desert and live a solitary existence with various monastic retreats, like Antony; to live on the edges of the cities by the rivers in loose communities where the members came together at least once a week to worship and eat; and in others large, formally structured groups were formed like the White Monastery, whose members numbered in the thousands, directed by Shenoute for almost eight decades.

Ammonas, a student of Antony the “reputed pioneer” of monastic withdrawal into the desert, sought to make this spiritual lifestyle superior to that of the city monks, to convince wayward students who wished to abandon it. Drawing on Origen’s teachings he stated that all thoughts come from three sources: demons, ourselves, and God, only the last being a legitimate source. Fighting Satan and his minions was central to a monk’s development, and city monks lacked not only the prime fighting location, but the hardy, difficult circumstances that form a true ascetic able to defeat such forces. Besides, since the secluded desert lifestyle was God’s will, any thought to the contrary was clearly invalid.

Antony himself did not make scuffles with Beelzebub in the hot sand quite so central to his monasticism, but he did compose and present a monk’s clear identity and mission. He accepted Origen’s idea of all rational beings once being a part of a singly unity, and that demons fell so far because of their grievous errors. As they are destined for hell they wish to take humans down with them. He emphasised the demons’ diversity and multiplicity vs the single, unified figure of the monk. Naming was a consequence of this diversity because it came about after the intellectual unity was shattered and rational beings were marked off into groups (archangel, principality, demon, human being etc.), given to them “based on the quality of their conduct”.

Demons were numerous and executed a diverse variety of deeds, hence the abundance of names for them. Although the foundation of this teaching is in Origen’s, how Antony interpreted it as a kind of secondary, masking feature that disguises our true and unified origin strongly evokes Valentinian thought.

UP NEXT: Valentinus on our borrowed names, Antony on fake Jesuses and how demons try to block our “restored unity” partly by hiding within our bodies.

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3 Responses to "The Single Monk"

Fascinating, imani!

Hope you don’t mind a comment by a stranger…if all of your entries are so thorough, I won’t have to read the book.

I wondered while I was reading whether these ideas haven’t persisted in some sublimated way. I have colleagues who act as though they were “Christian(s) in combat.” They are martyrs to belief and would regard following anything other than their convictions an unforgivable sin. But they aren’t God’s convictions but their own–at least they aren’t a demon’s! This trait doesn’t make them too pleasant to work with, but the trinity of Villain-Victim-Hero sometimes seems to have collapsed into one entity in our time. They are educators, so maybe they already see themselves as ascetic. Me, I must have been a monk in a former life because my self-loathing renders all these ideas distressingly sensible and familiar.

Thanks for doing this!

Thanks litlove. 🙂

Joefelso of course I don’t, you’re more than welcome to comment; everyone was a strange once. (Besides I’ve seen you at w’s place.)

As to your main point that’s exactly what I was referring to in my oblique “What was old is new again” interjection. As some denominations fervently support the idea that Armageddon is just around the corner the rhetoric has gained new ground again.

You’re welcome! And really, though my posts may seem very thorough I summarise, simplify and leave out an awful lot including non-Christian perspectives that are covered.

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