• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr
  • YouTube
Thinking Out Loud


by Michael Jinkins | Mar 03, 2015

PandaemoniumPandaemonium is the opposite of Serenity. And, as John Milton, who gave us the term, knew, Pandaemonium is the domain of all the demons. But we don't really like to talk of demons, do we?

Modern. Educated. Sophisticated folk that we are. With Rudolf Bultmann and his minions, we have so thoroughly demythologized Christianity that we have a hard time reading many of the Gospel stories about Jesus with a straight face.

Yet the stories remain, starting with the reading often associated with the commencement of Lent: Jesus' earthly ministry begins with a demonic confrontation that in many ways defined his life. "Then Jesus was driven into the desert where he was tempted by the devil." (Matthew 4:1)

We sometimes forget this, but Jesus was an exorcist. "When [Jesus] came to the other side [of the lake] to the territory of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs who were coming from the tombs met him. They were so savage that no one could travel by that road." (Matthew 8:28) And to ignore or interpret away the stories of Jesus casting out demons is to miss something at the heart of his identity as God incarnate.

Indeed, Jesus's teachings take for granted the realm of personal evil. "When an unclean spirit goes out of a person it roams through arid regions searching for rest but finds none. Then it says, 'I will return to my home from which I came.' But upon returning, it finds it empty, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and brings back with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they move in and dwell there; and the last condition of that person is worse than the first." (Matthew 12:43-45)

Strange as it may seem, even after the horrors of two world wars and the Holocaust, after decades of existence under the threat of nuclear annihilation, and even in the shadow of international terrorism, we modern Western Christians seem a bit too smug to imagine that the biblical writers might have been less naive than we. So we avoid speaking of demons because we think that their absence from our philosophy makes us more responsible rather than less so.

John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, in his introduction to The Praktikos of Evagrius Ponticus (to which I referred in last week's blog on "Serenity"), depicts modern society's attitude toward demonology by quoting Paul Valery, whose version of the Faust story has Faust informing Mephisto that the devil's "reputation in the world is not so grand as it used to be."1 Frankly, if I were a demon, I think I might prefer for people not to believe in my existence. More room for mischief!

Evagrius's concept of demons is theologically astute and psychologically subtle. At certain points he reminds me of C.S. Lewis, who firmly believed in demons as fallen angels and enemies of God's goodness and self-giving love. From Lewis's perspective, demons are characterized as "entirely practical," simply motivated by a "fear of punishment" and "a kind of hunger." They also lack "a sense of proportion" about themselves and an inability "to see themselves from the outside." The defining sin of demons, we should remember, is pride. Thus, Lewis writes: "we must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance and resentment.” (C.S. Lewis, Foreword to the 1960 edition of The Screwtape Letters, originally published in London by Geoffrey Bles in 1942, xi-xvii)

This last sentence is crucial, I think, for any of us who want to encourage spiritual and psychological health in ourselves and in our communities of faith. For Lewis, the fallen angels cultivate in humans all of the sins that make them miserable. They seek to multiply the misery they feel and the fear in which they exist. They wish to replicate among humans the characteristics of hell. The fact that a community is labeled “Christian” only makes it a more delicious target for the demons.

Evagrius observes that while the demons attack the solitary holy men and women (hermits) directly in a kind of hand-to-hand combat (the story of the Desert Father, St. Anthony, as pictured memorably by Salvador Dali and portrayed by Gustave Flaubert comes to mind), demons work through the weaker and less mature members of communities to bring chaos and destruction. (Evagrius explicitly mentions monasteries, but all sorts of Christian fellowships and churches could be included.)

The demons feed on human misery, anger and malice, and seem utterly powerful. But there is one thing the demonic powers cannot abide, as Christian thinkers such as Evagrius, C.S. Lewis, Martin LutherSir Thomas More and G.K. Chesterton all agree, and that is being mocked and scorned. (Lewis, xiii) It may be surprising that Evagrius speaks at times so light-heartedly as he explains the serious business of defeating demons. But he would readily have understood what Chesterton centuries later would say with such wit, that the devil fell through force of gravity and angels fly because they take themselves lightly. A sense of humor sets the powers of hell into a frenzy like poking a wasp's nest with a stick.

Our minds can be such fertile ground for demons to set up shop and do their work. According to Evagrius, the only way to find peace is (metaphorically) to knock some demonic heads and take names. Naming demons correctly, it turns out, is especially crucial, according to Evagrius because we need to understand the nature of the spiritual forces assailing us. Fashionable or not (and in his own fourth century AD it was fashionable) he invests considerable energy in naming demons, describing their ways, and finding effective means to counter their wiles. For Evagrius, demons are slippery characters: he variously describes them as "temptations," "evils" or "spirits." He does the opposite of demythologizing the demons into non-existence. He enriches his complex psychological analysis of our humanity with a distinctively theological language. He speaks the names of the demons, and as he does so, we recognize them: Gluttony, Impurity, Avarice, Sadness, Anger, Acedia, Vainglory and Pride. Like a skilled stalker, he learns their ways. And he tracks them into their lairs.

In a blog, it is impossible to go into detail about each of these demons or temptations, but I would like to suggest the relevance of Evagrius in his reflections on just four of those he names.

1. Avarice
"Avarice," Evagrius writes, "suggests to the mind a lengthy old age, inability to perform manual labor (at some future date), famines that are sure to come, sickness that will visit us, the pinch of poverty, the great shame that comes from accepting the necessities of life from others."(17)

As someone who often wonders if, when I eventually retire, I will outlive my savings (a worry that is no less potent just because its possibility resides in the future) his words hit home, although I had never named this worry as Avarice. And certainly I never thought I was dealing with a demon. But for Evagrius, Avarice is a demonic power because it preys upon the mind by taking all the joy out of the present, infecting each day with anxiety in anticipation of the future. The demon comes disguised as responsibility or self-sufficiency or independence. And who does not admire these qualities. But like a con-man, the demon assumes the appearance of someone we can trust in order to defraud us of our Serenity. Evagrius's treatment of the subject of demons reminds us of Augustine's insight that every sin is a distortion or corruption of a good; the higher the good, the greater the sin.

Yes, it is wise and prudent to invest for the future. Yes, we should do so with thought and care so as not to be a burden to others. And, yes, the alternative to doing so is irresponsible. But, the wisdom of this ancient theologian might just help us stay sane in the face of an unknowable future. It is possible to plan for the future without becoming fearful, grasping (avaricious) and so anxious and fearful that no one wants to share our company now.

2. Sadness
"Sadness tends to come up at times because of the deprivation of one's desires. On other occasions it accompanies anger." (17) Like a depth psychologist, Evagrius looks deeply into the root causes of our sadness. And like a Stoic philosopher, Evagrius encourages us not to place ourselves at the mercy of external circumstances. We should hold all the things of this world with love, but lightly, as a gift we have been given, but only for a brief season. Thus Evagrius would encourage us to rejoice in all things that come our way, in the knowledge that our lives belong (in life and in death, in fortunate moments and in distressing times) to the God who can be trusted to do better things than we can ask or imagine.

3. Anger
Anger is a particularly dangerous demonic spirit for Evagrius. It is "the most fierce passion" which boils and stirs up wrath "against one who has given injury" or a perceived insult. Reading Evagrius, I am reminded that in some Asian cultures, anger is seen as a kind of madness, a form of insanity. This is easy to believe for anyone who has ever been confronted with someone in the grips of uncontrollable fury. But Evagrius takes us deeper into the dynamics of anger and, with astonishing pastoral sensitivity, he discerns something that many of us miss, especially in the heat of the moment. The soul of the angry person, Evagrius believed, is characterized by profound sadness. What we may witness in some social setting as toxic anger spewed forth from one person onto others, may originate in self-contempt, in wounds too deep for any of us to fathom, reachable only by God's grace.

There are ranks among the demonic legions of anger (resentment, indignation, and hatred, included), and they can only be dealt with by cultivating meekness, humility, i.e., a proper sense of proportion regarding ourselves in the presence of God, the ability to see ourselves more objectively but with grace. Knowing ourselves as small and flawed but loved and forgiven by God, we can afford to think largely of others.

4. Acedia
Perhaps Evagrius is most eloquent in his analysis of the demon Acedia. He calls it "the noonday demon." One might also call this "the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill" demon.

"This demon," Evagrius writes, "drives [the person] along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life's necessities, more readily find work, and make a real success of himself."(18-19) The person under the spell of Acedia exists in a constant state of resentment against the present time and place, and the people who co-inhabit both with him, yearning for an elusive "elsewhere" among people who will finally appreciate him and his gifts.

Interestingly, Evagrius says that wrestling with this demon over time produces "a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy." This makes me wonder if Evagrius himself (whose life took him from Pontus to Constantinople to Jerusalem to Alexandria, from the highest heights of Hellenistic intellectual culture to the simple hermits of the Egyptian desert), didn't perhaps know this demon intimately throughout his own life.

The means by which we route all the demons are the Means of Grace, particularly the Eucharist and meditative prayer. Praying the Psalms, calling on God for help, practicing contemplation on the love of God, giving alms to the poor, these may seem commonplace, but these are the powerful weapons Evagrius encourages us to use against our own demons. And along with these, he invites us to submit to careful self-examination, observing when we are most subject to which temptations, how we feel when we are in the thrall of a particular demon, and how we have found our way out of its clutches.

After reading Evagrius, I had a whole new perspective on why we begin Lent with the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This is a story of our lives.

1Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters On Prayer, translated and with an introduction by John Eudes Bamberger (Trappist, Kentucky: Cistercian Publications, 1972).

Leave a comment

  • 1044 Alta Vista Road |
  • Louisville, KY 40205 |
  • 800.264.1839 |
  • Fax: 502.895.1096 |
  • Site Map
© Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary