By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
4. How the Devil Fights Human Beings
The devil uses many methods to oblige human beings to become his servants. This section will identify the particular ways in which he works.
Firstly, the devil has great fury and unquenchable hatred for human beings. Man is the recipient of God’s love. Christ assumed human nature and made it divine. Thus the devil has an overwhelming hatred for human beings and wants to make them his own. In his interpretation of the Gospel passage in which the demons asked Christ to let them enter the herd of pigs once they had left the possessed man (Matt. 8:31), St Gregory Palamas says that in this way the demons show that they have “evil intentions”. Also, according to his interpretation, the reason the Lord allowed them to enter the pigs and the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters” (Matt. 8:32) was “so we would realise who did this to the pigs, and that they would not have spared the man and refrained from sending him to perdition, had they not been invisibly held back earlier by God’s power.” In other words, Christ acted as He did in order to demonstrate that the devil is so enraged against human beings that, if He Himself did not protect them, the devil would like to wipe them out completely.
Because of this hatred, he is always on the lookout, trying to find someone in such a state that he can strike him. As the Apostle Peter vividly describes, “Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). With his centuries of experience, the devil does everything in his power to wound human beings. St Gregory the Theologian writes, “From all sides the evil one investigates you. He constantly watches where he may strike you, where he may hurt you, in the hope that he may find somewhere exposed and ready to be wounded.” The demons are our dreadful enemies. St Antony says “We have terrible and crafty foes – the evil demons.” It is not easy for those who do not have the grace of God to perceive how the devil thinks. There are many Christians who are inexperienced in this spiritual struggle and completely undefended by God’s grace, who “have not known the depths of Satan” (Rev. 2:24). According to the teaching of St John Climacus, all the devil’s warfare against us is due to three causes: our own negligence, our own pride, or the envy of the demons. “The first is pitiable, the second disastrous, but the third is blessed.” When the war is caused by the envy of the devil, it is blessed, because it is easier to deal with. If we do not offer the devil support or ways of getting inside us, he can do us no harm, however much he hates us.
One kind of warfare is waged through thoughts and the distraction of the nous. The devil endeavours to capture our nous, because that is where the process of sin begins. St Philotheos of Sinai writes, “Our enemy desires to overthrow our nous, and to make us eat the dust as he does.” The demons sow thoughts. The Gerontikon* mentions that Abba Arsenios saw “the seeds of the demons” in a brother. This refers to the thoughts sown within us to capture our nous. Many of our thoughts are satanic. When we refer to thoughts, we not only mean simple thoughts but more especially composite thoughts made up of conceptual images of things and passion. St Maximos the Confessor knows that the devil wages war on us either through things or through “our impassioned conceptual images of these things.” Thoughts are sown in us by the devil, even if the grace of God is still in our heart. St Diadochos of Photiki writes that, when the grace of God is present in man’s heart, the demons, like dark clouds, take the shape of different sinful passions, or “of all kinds of day-dreams, thus distracting the nous from the remembrance of God and cutting it off from grace.” The devil does everything possible to distract the attention of the nous from constant converse with God.
The devil also attempts to wage war on the heart through desires. After Holy Baptism the devil leaves the centre of the heart, where the grace of Christ now dwells, but he works in every possible way to obscure this grace. According to the biblical and patristic Tradition, the heart is the centre and core of our existence into which Christ and His word enter, so the devil strives to separate the word from our heart. “Then cometh the devil, and taheth away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). Satan enters the heart. “Then entered Satan into Judas…” (Luke 22:3). Of course St Diadochos of Photiki and the other Fathers do not accept the Messalian theory that Christ’s grace dwells in the same place as the devil. As mentioned earlier, after Holy Baptism God’s grace is present in the depth of the heart, whereas the devil acts externally in the pericardium. This is what the Apostle Peter meant when he said to Ananias, “Why hath Satan filled thine heart…?” (Acts 5:3).
As the passions are in the heart, the devil works through the passions. He stirs up the passions and attempts to set them alight. The demons of sensual pleasure, as St Gregory of Sinai teaches, approach in the form of fire and coals. “For the spirits of self-indulgence kindle the soul’s desiring faculty, while they also confuse the intelligence and plunge it into darkness.” Any sensation of burning, disturbance and darkness is due to the sensual pleasure of the passions. Monks who live the ascetic life in a community are attacked by the passions of gluttony and bad temper, according to St John Climacus. Generally speaking, the devil strives to make war on people with the passion closest to them, the one with the most power over them.
Apart from the passions, the devil also attacks human beings through the senses, even through the sense of touch. According to the teaching of St Maximos the Confessor, it can happen that the demons “touch members of the body during sleep, and arouse the passion of unchastity.” The passion stirred up in this way brings the memory of a woman into the monk’s nous. Sometimes this order is reversed. The fact is that the demons endeavour to inflame passions, sometimes even through agitating the body and its members. The ascetic tradition records many instances of the devil acting in this way. When an ascetic is very vigilant and does not allow the devil to work through the nous, the devil works in the opposite direction, stirring up the body to ignite sensual pleasure so that it captures his nous.
Another way that the devil acts is through trials and temptations. Everyone faces temptations and difficulties in life, because this life is a vale of tears. In particular, however, the devil attacks through temptations those in whom he cannot act in any other way. Christ said to the Bishop of Smyrna, “Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried” (Rev. 2:10). He is evidently referring here to persecutions that the devil was going to stir up with God’s permission. We see the same thing in the case of the illness of the woman who was bent over. In reply to the ruler of the synagogue, Christ said, “Ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16). The devil even creates illnesses to trouble man. There are some illnesses that are of satanic origin, so they cannot be cured just by drugs but need to be treated by other means available in the Church. The devil also creates external obstacles. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Wherefore we would have come unto you, even I Paul, once and again; but Satan hindered us” (1 Thess. 2:18). We have no way of knowing what these hindrances were, but the fact is that the devil devises many means of stopping a good work being done. He is so enraged against us that he even arouses our fellow human beings to wage war on us. St Maximos the Confessor says that, just as the devil fought against the Lord by means of the Pharisees, so he ceaselessly makes war on us through other people. In particular, he supplies “those who have no fear of the Lord” with arms to use against us.
If the devil wages war by means of thoughts, passions and desires, he fights against us even more through fantasy and imagination. God does not have a faculty of imagination, nor do the angels; only human beings and demons. Imagination is therefore a good conductor of satanic energy. Anyone who is in a constant state of daydreaming comes under severe pressure from the demons. The Gerontikon records that some brothers were on their way to meet St Antony to ask him if their fantasies came from the demons or were true. They had evidently had imaginary visions. On the way their donkey died. As soon as they met St Antony he asked, “How did the little donkey die on the way?” They were amazed that he knew, but St Antony replied that, just as the demons had revealed to him the death of the donkey, so their own visions came from the demons.
All these tactics are not, however, enough for the devil, and he also uses other means of waging war. He tries to frighten people with external disturbances such as bangs and crashes. St Nikitas Stithatos says that those who make progress in the theoria of God are subject to the devil’s violent rage. One of the things the demons do is “terrify them with noises.” These noises are not caused by natural phenomena but by the action of the demons. That is why they provoke fear. St Neilos the Ascetic says that someone who practises pure prayer and struggles to keep his nous completely pure of every thought, and so prays without distraction, “will hear the demons crashing and banging, shouting and cursing.” Anyone who is occupied in pure prayer of the heart, however, is not at all bothered by these things, and is undisturbed, because he knows the devil’s wiles. When his nous comes to maturity through the grace of Christ, he is not in the least afraid. The demons often appear from the air, threaten him and attempt to capture his nous. “For they are trying to terrify you, to see if you take notice of them or scorn them utterly,” says St Neilos. No one need be intimidated. This is a trick of the evil one to distract the nous from prayer, because when someone prays with his nous he does great harm to the devil.
As well as banging and crashing, the devil also often appears in person. Such appearances differ on each occasion. St Neilos preserves the account that when a certain saint was praying intensely in the desert, “demons…for two weeks tossed him like a ball in the air, catching him in his rush-mat.” For a period of two weeks the demons threw him up into the air and caught him in his mat when he fell down, in order to distract his nous from prayer. They achieved nothing, however, and “were completely unsuccessful in distracting his nous from ardent prayer.” So fervent was his prayer, that the demons could not detach his mind from God. Also, it often happens that someone sees a drawn sword threatening him, “a torch thrust in his face”, or even “a loathsome and bloody figure” (St Neilos the Ascetic). Even in such cases there is no need to be afraid.
St Antony, who proved himself an expert fighter and opponent of the demons, lists many ways in which they appear. They change shape and imitate women, wild beasts, reptiles, gigantic bodies or troops of soldiers. They are “bold and very shameless.” They pretend to know what is going to happen in the following days, and appear to be “of a height reaching to the roof and of great breadth.” Mostly they appear as wild animals and reptiles.
The holy Fathers teach that the form in which the demons appear to us depends on which passions dominate us. They act “according to the state of the prevailing and active passion in the soul” St Gregory of Sinai says that the demons of lust take the form of pigs, donkeys, fiery stallions avid to mate, or of Hebrews. The demons of anger turn themselves into gentiles or lions. The demons of cowardice take the form of Israelites, those of licentiousness the form of Idumaeans, and those of drunkenness and dissipation the form of Hagarenes. The demons of greed appear as wolves or leopards, those of malice as snakes, vipers or foxes, those of shamelessness as dogs, those of despondency as cats, those of unchastity as snakes, crows or jackdaws. The carnal-minded demons who dwell in the air turn themselves into birds. Just as the soul is divided into three parts – the rational, desiring and incensive aspects – so the demons transform themselves into birds, wild animals and domestic animals.
St Neilos the Ascetic records that when a certain saint raised his hands to heaven to pray, the demons appeared as a lion which reared up and fixed its claws in his kidneys. “When the saint lifted up his hands, the evil one changed himself into a lion and raising its front legs, fixed its claws into the saint’s kidneys.” It did not go away until the saint lowered his hands when he finished praying. This demonstrates the great value of prayer. The devil is frightened of prayer, particularly noetic prayer, so he does everything to stop it. He takes the form of animals, as happened in Paradise, where he took the form of a snake. St Gregory Palamas says, “He pretended to be a twisting serpent…He did not himself become a serpent.” St Neilos preserves the account that John the Hesychast stayed still “in a state of communion with God, while a demon in the form of a dragon wound itself round him, chewed his flesh and spat it out in his face.” The devil in the shape of a dragon ate the hesychast’s flesh, but he remained fearless and undaunted “in a state of communion with God.” So great was his communion and union with God that the devil could not do anything to distract his nous from Him.
Apart from appearing in the form of beasts, he also appears in person. He showed himself before Abba Makarios with a knife, “wanting to cut off his leg.” The demons appeared to Abba Arsenios in his cell to trouble him.
Worst of all, the devil also appears in the form of angels, saints and monks, and even brings light. The Apostle Paul says that “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).
There are many such cases in the experience of the ascetics. According to the teaching of St Antony, the demons pretend to sing psalms, although they may not show themselves. They recall words from the Scriptures. In particular, when we are reading they repeat the words after us. While we are sleeping they wake us up to pray, with the aim of not allowing us any sleep at all. They appear disguised as monks and pretend to talk like pious men. St John Climacus says that, whether someone is asleep or awake, they appear in the form of angels or martyrs and grant him “a revelation of mysteries, or… spiritual gifts.” This happens mainly to those over whom the devil has gained power through pride and other passions. The aim is to deceive them and drive them mad: “so that these unfortunates may be deceived and completely lose their wits.” How can we distinguish between angels and demons? St John Climacus says that, when an evil spirit is invisibly present, “the body is afraid”, whereas when an angel appears, “the soul humbly rejoices.” Thus we recognise the presence of the devil from his energy.
The devil also appears as light. He tries to convince the person that he is God, the divine light. The devil’s light, however, is different. The teaching of the holy Fathers shows that the Light of God is without form, white and brings peace to the soul, whereas the devil’s light has shape and colour and disturbs the soul. According to the teaching of St Gregory Palamas, the light of the devil remains separate, illuminates from outside and, being created, has shape, form and colour. The evil spirit is not united with the souls of those who see it, but simply attached to them externally. Also, the light of the devil is not the result of the concentration of the nous and its return to the heart. The uncreated Light, by contrast, is united with man’s soul. It has no visible shape or form or colour. We should note that, according to the teaching of St Gregory Palamas, who expresses the truth of the Church, noetic hesychia – the return of the nous to the heart – leads a person unerringly to the vision of the uncreated Light, whereas “acting in every detail according to thoughts and concepts leads to error.” In response to the idea of [the heretic] Akindynos that he too had seen light, and that below the light and adjacent to it there was a face, St Gregory Palamas says that this is precisely what the light of the devil is like.
There are cases when the devil does not just appear to someone in order to frighten him, but gains power over him. This is what is meant by demonic possession. We are familiar from the Gospels with people possessed by demons and how they were healed. Interpreting the account of the possessed man who foamed at the mouth, gnashed his teeth and became rigid, St Gregory Palamas asks, “Why did he foam at the mouth and gnash his teeth and become rigid?” He then proceeds to answer the question as follows. When someone is possessed by a demon his brain suffers more than any other part of his body. The devil takes hold of the brain, the citadel, and from there he tyrannises the whole body. This conquest of the brain mainly affects the nerves and tendons, which explains the physical movements of those who are possessed. The whole passage from St Gregory Palamas will be quoted because of its importance:
“Of all the parts of the possessed man’s body his brain suffers most of all, since the demon uses the spirit of the soul within the brain as a vehicle, and from there, as from a citadel, exercises power over the whole body. When the brain is afflicted, it emits a frothy, phlegm-like discharge to the nerves and muscles of the body, blocking up the outlets of the soul’s spirit. As a result, shaking, collapse and involuntary movements affect all the parts of the body capable of independent movement, particularly the jaws, as they are nearest to the part originally affected. A lot of moisture is brought down into the mouth because of the size of its pores and its proximity to the brain. Because of the unruly movements of the body, it is impossible to breathe out all at once. The breath is mixed with the accumulation of moisture, so those afflicted foam at the mouth. Thus the man was foaming at the mouth and gnashing his teeth…”
The devil attacks a man by stages. He begins with thoughts, continues with desires and passions, and then goes on to personal attacks and complete domination of his victim. His rage against human beings is intense and his hatred terrible. In my opinion, contemporary psychology, which ignores the existence of the devil and does not want to acknowledge his hostile fury, is incapable of offering people effective help, as many psychological and neurological problems are the work of demons.
5. The Devil’s Tactics
The devil does not just make war on human beings, but uses the most appropriate methods to defeat them. He uses many tactics. He is the most experienced general ever in the art of war. St Nicodemus the Hagiorite says on this subject,
“There are three reasons why the devil is very experienced and resourceful in the invisible war against human beings. Firstly, because he and the demons who serve him are by nature subtle spirits, so they are very ingenious in inventing strategies and devices beyond our comprehension. Secondly, because the devil and the demons are seven thousand three hundred years old, and over this long period they have become great experts in tactics. Thirdly, by fighting against all human beings from Adam until now, particularly against saints and hermits eminent in asceticism, and by being counterattacked by them, the devil and the demons have learnt new wiles and tricks from this experience and warfare. They are well-practised and have become highly skilled, as St Isaac the Syrian, St Symeon the New Theologian and St Makarios say.”
The devil is a very resourceful and adept fighter. He uses many tricks. That is why the Apostle Paul says, “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:11). Although he is ingenious and experienced, the Church too is highly experienced. Our Church’s experience of warfare against the devil is far superior. The saints, as members of the Church, were not only familiar with all the machinations of the evil one, but were able to bring them to nothing by the grace of God and their own personal struggle, and to attain to deification by grace.
Based on the experience and teaching of the saints, some of the many wiles used by the devil will now be identified.
He uses many snares to trap Christians and strives to find the appropriate method for each one. The Apostle Paul writes that a Bishop ought not to be a new convert, “lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim. 3:6-7). Elsewhere he speaks about escaping “out of the snare of the devil” (2 Tim. 2:26). The image of the snare comes from hunting wild animals. The devil, as a hunter of man’s soul, uses many snares to catch it. St John Climacus states that it is preferable to struggle with other people, who are sometimes fierce and at other times penitent, than with demons, “who are continually raging and up in arms against us.” We are usually upset when our fellow human beings trouble us, and regard it as a severe trial when they fight against us, whereas we pay little attention to the inner warfare waged by the demons, which is far more terrible. The experience of the Church has proved, however, that we ought to pay more heed to the demons’ warfare and take it more seriously.
The devil does not know which passion will defeat the soul and tests the person. He fights against him through various passions. “He sows without knowing what he will reap.” He sows impure thoughts, slanderous thoughts, and thoughts of all the other passions. He feeds it on whichever passion he sees it inclining towards (Abba Mathois). St Synklitiki teaches that, when the devil cannot move a soul with poverty, he sets riches before it as a bait. If he cannot achieve anything through abuse and insults, he tries praise and glory. When he is defeated by good health, he makes the body sick. When he is unable to deceive by means of sensual pleasures, he tries to do so through involuntary sufferings and sorrows. He devises many illnesses to compel a person to stop loving God. This shows that the devil fights us methodically. He attempts to find our weak point, so that he can focus all his aggressive rage there. In this way he takes control of a person, unless, of course, his victim knows appropriate ways to restrain him.
The wiles and tactics of the devil vary according to how someone lives and behaves. He does not fight everyone in the same way. For example, he has different ways of waging war on married and unmarried people, on hesychasts and members of monastic communities, on novices and those advanced in the spiritual life. There is an appropriate temptation for every way of life. In his biography of St Antony, St Athanasios writes that, when St Antony wanted to adopt the monastic life, the devil tried to put him off, “whispering to him the remembrance of his wealth, care for his sister, claims of kindred, love of money, love of glory, the various pleasures of the table and the other indulgences of life, and finally the difficulty of virtue and the labour it entails; he also suggested that his body was weak and it would take a long time.” In this case the devil presented obstacles, stirred up sympathy for a number of people and set out the difficulty or impossibility of pursuing virtue. It is significant that almost everyone finds it difficult to make progress in the spiritual life because of such thoughts, namely, that it is not feasible to acquire virtue or keep Christ’s commandments. The idea that such things are not for us, and are unachievable nowadays, is clearly from the devil.
St John Climacus says that monks living in communities are attacked particularly by gluttony and bad temper, and must struggle hardest against these passions. These are the means by which the devil attacks them. He instils in those living in obedience a desire to acquire great virtues that are proper to hesychasts. He gives inexperienced novices ideas of striving for things beyond their reach. If, says St John Climacus, you look into the minds of inexperienced novices, you will find many deluded ideas, such as “a desire for hesychia, for extreme fasting, for undistracted prayer, for absolute freedom from vanity, for unbroken remembrance of death, for continuous compunction, for perfect freedom from anger, for deep silence, for surpassing purity.” Of course such achievements are not out of the question, but when they are sought at the wrong time, particularly without the blessing of a discerning Elder, they are traps laid by the devil. Whereas the devil disturbs those living in obedience with the quest for hesychia, he troubles hesychasts with various thoughts and “extols the hospitality of those living in obedience, their service, brotherly love, community life and care for the sick.”
The devil wages war on those living under obedience in other ways as well. Sometimes he defiles them with bodily pollutions and makes them hard-hearted, and sometimes restless. Sometimes he makes them dry and barren, or greedy or lazy about prayer. At other times he makes them drowsy and confused. His aim is to give them the impression that they are gaining nothing by their obedience (St John Climacus). Our way of life determines how the devil attacks us.
How we are attacked also depends on the time of day. We face different sorts of warfare in the morning, the evening and during the day. There is a particular demon who is “the forerunner of spirits.” He attacks us as soon as we wake from sleep and “defiles our first thought”, the first thought that comes into our nous on waking (St John Climacus). The Fathers teach that we should give this first thought to God. If a person learns to pray as soon as he wakes up, to devote his first thought to God, he will remember God all day long. Because the devil knows this, he tries to defile our first thought.
There is also another demon, as St John Climacus tells us, who shoots evil and impure ideas at us when we lie down in bed, so that we fall asleep with these foul thoughts, have impure dreams, and are too lazy to get up to pray.
While we are asleep, demons come and attempt to defile a person with dreams and make him get up in a bad mood. There is another strange thing that also happens. While we are asleep the demons put the words of psalms into our mind, and we meditate on them in our sleep, “in order to lead us to pride” (St John Climacus). This can also come about through God’s grace or from continuous meditation on the psalms during the day. The devil, however, exploits this and devises a temptation of his own, so as to make us fall into pride. The holy Fathers teach that any achievement that does not cause pride and self-esteem comes from God, whereas anything that causes pride is from the devil.
The sort of warfare waged in the daytime is different from that waged at night. St Neilos mentions that at night the demons try to disturb the spiritual teacher by appearing to him. By day, however, they attack him through other people, through circumstances, slander and various dangers. It is clear that the devil makes war, either in person or through other people, on those who are spiritual, especially teachers and guides, because they disrupt his plans.
The devil’s tactics also depend on what stage of the spiritual life a person has reached, especially in prayer. The ultimate aim of the demons is “that the wretches should separate human beings from God.” They strive to stop those who pray with the nous in the heart from receiving simple impressions of things perceptible to the senses. That is to say, they struggle and fight to create fantasies and imaginary images of things perceived by the senses, to prevent the nous being pure during prayer. The devil fights those with spiritual knowledge “so that impassioned thoughts may linger on in them.” He continuously makes war on them in the hope that impassioned thoughts will stay with them. As for those who are still at the first stage of the spiritual life, praxis, he attacks them to make them commit sinful acts (St Maximos the Confessor).
The devil’s tactics also vary according to the state a person is in and whether he has already sinned or not. St Ephraim the Syrian says that, before the sin is committed, the devil makes it seem very small. In particular, he makes the sin of sensual pleasure seem so trivial before it is committed, “that it almost seems to the brother that it is no different from pouring out a glass of cold water on the ground.” After the sin has been committed, however, he makes it seem huge and stirs up waves of thoughts in order to push the sinner into despair.
It is not only sin that the demons present in a different light before and after a fall; they do the same with God. St John Climacus says that before committing sin the cruel enemy of our salvation makes God appear very merciful and so loving that He will forgive the lapse. After the sinful act, however, he presents God as “a just and inexorable judge.”
The devil devises many ways of leading us astray. St John Climacus says that the devil usually digs three pits. First of all “[the demons] endeavour to prevent good being done.” They stop us doing good and fulfilling one of Christ’s commandments. If they fail to persuade us not to do good, they come and try to ensure “that it should not be done according to the will of God.” If they fail to achieve anything by this method, they draw near and “praise us for living a thoroughly godly life.” They attempt to bring us down through pride. In sometimes happens that the demons strive either to force us to sin or else, if this fails, to make us pass judgment on those who are sinning (St John Climacus).
The devil is very ingenious. He will stop at nothing in order to achieve his aim. His skill in warfare includes traps “from the right hand side”. He attempts to instil in us thoughts of excessive asceticism. The devil’s aim is to induce us to do things beyond our strength so that we lose heart “and give up doing even what is within our power” (St John Climacus). The holy Fathers are familiar with this tactic of the devil. Abba Poimen says, “All excesses are demonic.” St Neilos, experienced in this type of warfare, says that, when a person’s nous prays purely and dispassionately, the demons do not approach from the left hand side by attempting to suggest unclean thoughts. Instead, they attack from the right. “They suggest to [the nous] an illusion of God’s glory in a form pleasing to the senses, so as to make it think that it has realised the final aim of prayer.” They offer the nous false visions to make it proud, imagining that it has reached the stage of prayer in the heart and achieved the purpose of prayer. The experience of the Church has shown that we should never attach importance to such visions and fantasies, and that, when we pray purely, we should not entertain even the slightest thought that our nous will soon counted worthy of seeing the uncreated Light. Prayer must be linked with profoundest repentance.
If the devil manages to persuade someone to commit a sin, he then uses another tactic. He attempts to convince him that he should not confess it to his spiritual guide, that it is nothing and does not need to be confessed. He tells him that lots of people do worse things than he has done. The devil strives particularly to ensure that blasphemous thoughts are not revealed. Blasphemous thoughts “remain with many to the end of their lives.” We know, however, that nothing gives the demons and thoughts such power over us as “nourishing and hiding them in our heart unconfessed” (St John Climacus). What happens with blasphemous thoughts happens with every thought and passion. The devil does everything he can to ensure that thoughts remain unconfessed, and the longer they remain concealed, the stronger the passions and the domination of the devil become in us.
Often the demons withdraw and there is a pause in the invisible warfare. St Hesychios the Priest says that the envious demons “sometimes hide themselves and cease from spiritual battle.” Their aim is to make us careless and to seize our nous when the opportunity arises. Their cunning is amazing. As St John Cli-macus says, the demons hide themselves for a while and do not attack us, in order to make us careless, regarding major passions as trivial, so that “we become incurably sick.” It also sometimes happens that all the demons withdraw, the person is unaware of any warfare, and his body and soul are at peace. Then, however, they let loose the demon of pride “which takes the place of all the rest.” The demon of pride is capable on its own of replacing all the other demons.
St John Climacus also refers to something else that happens. The devil can produce physical anomalies. Often he comes and sits on someone’s stomach and does not allow him to sate his appetite, even if he eats the whole of Egypt and drinks the whole Nile. Then after eating, “this unclean spirit goes away, and sends against us the spirit of fornication, telling him of our condition, and saying: ‘Catch, catch, hound him; for when the stomach is full, he will not resist much.'” It is a fact that when someone’s stomach is full, the demon of fornication does not find it difficult to bring about his destruction.
This warfare “from the right hand side” which we have mentioned also includes good thoughts that the devil produces during prayer. Sometimes when we are praying, particularly when we are engaged in noetic prayer, the devil comes and brings us good thoughts, suggestions for charitable activities and good ideas. His aim is to distract our nous from pure prayer. This is very cunning and evil. St Neilos teaches that, when the demons see that someone is eager for true prayer, “they suggest thoughts of supposedly necessary things.” Once prayer is finished, however, they themselves remove from the person’s memory the thoughts he had earlier while praying, and “incite the nous to go in search of them; and when it fails to find them, it becomes very depressed and miserable.” At other times the demons bring good thoughts, then later argue against them. Their reason for doing this is to convince us that “they know even our innermost thoughts” (St John Climacus). The devil attempts to present himself as a prophet who knows many things, including what is going to happen in the future. This is one of his tricks, however. The demons do not know our future. As St John Climacus says, “The demons know nothing about the future from foreknowledge, because if they did, the sorcerers would also be able to foretell our death.” The saints are well aware of this tactic. Those who constantly obey the devil are under the impression that he is a prophet. “A demon is often a prophet to those who believe him” (St John Climacus).
Apart from everything mentioned above, we should look at the particular tactics which the devil uses in order to distance a person from God. Some of them may seem clever, but in reality they are senseless. Christians who strive are more intelligent than the devil and are able to annihilate him as did the saints, who by the grace of Christ destroyed all the stratagems and wiles of the devil.
We shall look first at the wiles of the devil as described by St John Climacus, who was highly experienced in warfare against the demons. The points referred to in the following paragraphs are taken from The Ladder of St John Climacus.
The demons work with the aim of misleading human beings and attempt to do this in a variety of ways. Some of them exalt us and others humble us. Some harden us and others comfort us. Some bring us darkness and others pretend to illuminate us. Some make us indifferent and others spiteful. Some make us miserable and others cheerful. We need to know which demon is at work in each case.
The demons often make people weep when they are in the middle of the city and surrounded by noise, “to give those who live near the world the idea that turmoil does them no harm.” They create the illusion that it is possible to experience contrition in the midst of uproar. This sort of contrition, however, is of satanic origin. This does not mean that it is impossible to live in the world and experience contrition. The devil is aiming here particularly at monks, who leave their quiet retreats on account of this delusion and move to noisy and worldly places.
The demons sometimes fight a ridiculous battle with us. When we are sated with food they move us to contrition and when we are fasting they harden our hearts. Their purpose is to give the impression that someone can eat and also be contrite. Tears of this sort, however, are false.
The demons are extremely deceitful. They suggest to us the idea that there is no need for us to separate ourselves from worldly people, particularly if we are thinking of becoming monks, “telling us that we shall receive a great reward if we can look upon women and still control ourselves.” The devil creates the thought that we shall have a greater reward if we reside in places which provide satisfaction for our senses, provided we retain our purity. Obviously the purpose of this is to make a person postpone his withdrawal from the world, and later to enslave him to those things towards which he thought he could be dispassionate.
A discerning Elder gave the following account. When he was at a gathering, two demons, the demon of self-esteem and the demon of pride, came and sat on either side of him. The first urged him to mention a vision or something he had accomplished in the desert. When he rejected this provocation, the other demon praised him for this achievement: “You have become great by conquering my shameless mother.” One demon accused the other in order to lead the ascetic into sin.
St John Climacus saw the demon of self-esteem suggesting thoughts to one brother, and revealing the thoughts of this first brother to another brother so that he would be praised as a thought-reader. The demon of self-esteem even touches the body and produces palpitations to create a sense of the advent of grace. One demon can chase away another. A certain monk was angry, but when visitors arrived he pretended he was meek in their presence. Thus one demon (the demon of self-esteem) drove away another (the demon of anger).
The demon of love of money often feigns humility, whereas the demon of self-esteem urges a person to give alms. The demon of self-indulgence works in the same way. For instance, it sometimes happens that the demon of love of money suggests to someone that he should not give alms so as not to fall into self-esteem, and thus he pretends to be humble. Similarly, the demons of self-esteem and self-indulgence urge us to give alms, as this increases their freedom of action. True almsgiving is possible when a person has been purged of the demons of avarice, self-esteem and self-indulgence.
Often the demons prevent us from doing easier and more beneficial things, and urge us to do what is most laborious. They act in this way because they know that when we are tired we are discouraged from continuing our spiritual journey.
Someone told St John Climacus about one of the devil’s evil tactics. The demon of the flesh often withdraws, goes into hiding and suggests to a monk the thought that he is devout. Sometimes the demon also gives him abundant tears, particularly when he is talking to women, and suggests to him that he should converse with them about the remembrance of death, judgment and chastity. The devil does all this is in order to persuade women to pay attention to the monk and to draw near to the wolf, mistaking him for a shepherd. Then, having acquired familiarity and boldness, “the unfortunate monk would suffer a fall.” The devil exploits even the most sacred things in order to make someone fall into carnal sin.
When we attempt to leave a group of people where someone is telling jokes, the demons fight us in two ways. Their first method is to suggest the thought, “Do not hurt the feelings of the person speaking”, or “Do not give the impression that you love God more than they do”, in order to make us stay. The other thought they suggest is that we should leave, but in such a way that we will fall into vainglory. In other words, the second thought says to us, “Be off! Do not delay! Otherwise at the time of prayer the jokes will recur to your mind.” It urges us not just to depart but to try to break up the evil gathering by mentioning the Judgment and the remembrance of death. In this case we should choose the second option, because it is preferable for us to be sprinkled with a few drops of self-esteem, in the hope that others may benefit. St John Climacus refers to all these points.
There are similar examples in the Gerontikon which reveal the devil’s particular tactics. St Makarios once went to sleep in a temple where there were skeletons of idolaters, one of which he used as a pillow. The demons envied the Saint’s boldness and wanted to frighten him. They called out as though to a woman, “Lady, come with us to bathe”, and another demon replied in a woman’s voice, as though from the dead body, “I have a stranger on top of me and cannot move.” They did this to alarm the Saint, “but the Elder did not take fright.”
St Neilos the Ascetic writes that sometimes the demons “split into two groups.” While some of them are troubling a person, the others, in the guise of angels, rush to his aid when he calls for help. Their aim is to deceive their victim into thinking they are really angels. At other times the demons hurl thoughts at us, while at the same time apparently urging us to pray against them or to contradict them. Then they go away. They do this in order to give us the impression that we have begun to defeat them and that they are now afraid of us.
St Nikitas Stithatos says, “Before getting involved with the soul and defeating it, the demons often disturb the soul’s perception and snatch sleep from our eyes.” In other words, they stop us sleeping in order to make us agitated. As we know, when people are unable to sleep they become bad-tempered, unless they know how to use this state for prayer. Often the demons “keep us awake with some commotion or other, thinking by such means to make our life more difficult and painful.” At other times, however, the devil makes us fall asleep when we are praying. Because he knows the harm prayer does him, he makes us drowsy.
Only a few of the teachings of the saints on the subject of the devil’s technique have been recorded. There are many more. Anyone fighting this battle will inevitably experience the vicious attacks of the devil. He will feel his presence. Often he will sense his power and his smell. The ascetics have described many such cases. These are not delusions or the personification of certain inner experiences, but reality, because the devil exists and is the worst enemy of our salvation. An ascetic on the Holy Mountain told me, “If someone stays on the Holy Mountain for ten years, he will understand by then what the devil is.” Those of us who live in the world are unable to grasp this, because he keeps us near him with very little force. He does not have to make a special effort. He has made us his servants by external incentives, while creating the illusion that he does not exist.
Anyone who struggles to be purified from the passions and practises noetic prayer will become aware of the devil’s evil power, but will also experience God’s love. At the exact moment that the devil attacks he realises how much God loves him. God’s love amazes him. He realises that, whatever the devil may do, he (the devil) is actually assisting in our salvation against his will. The more we hate him, the more fiercely we fight him. As St Gregory Palamas says, “The devil is always co-operating with God’s will, without wishing or intending to do so.” That is why another God-bearing saint said, “Evil collaborates with good, although its intentions are bad.” Without wanting to and without fully realising it, the devil becomes a collaborator with God’s will for our sanctification and salvation. Nevertheless, we need to know how to wage war on the devil and what spiritual means the Church possesses for destroying all his traps.
6. Confronting the Devil
Throughout the biblical and patristic tradition two views of the devil can be discerned. The first is that the devil is not merely a personification of evil or something abstract, but a specific being who works to prevent human beings from being saved. The second is that the devil’s authority, power and energy are of limited strength since the Incarnation of Christ. God’s supremacy over the strength of the evil one is obvious throughout our Tradition.
Christ, as mentioned already, came to defeat the devil and to free man from his tyranny. This is clear from the miracles when people possessed with demons were healed. The demons themselves understood this, because at one point they said, “What have we to do with Thee, Jesus, Thou Son of God? Art Thou come hither to torment us before the time?” The healings of demoniacs are an expression of the eschatological destruction of the devil’s power. This destruction of satanic power was achieved through the Cross, as the Apostle Paul tells us: “Having spoiled principalities and powers, He [Christ] made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it [the Cross]” (Col. 2:15).
The sacred hymns give wonderful descriptions of the devil’s lamentation over the destruction of his sovereignty and power by the Passion of Christ. “Today Hades moans and cries, ‘My authority has been destroyed…my dominion has been swallowed up…I am deprived of those whom I ruled and all those whom I devoured in my strength I have vomited up../”
Christ gave authority to His Disciples to trample the devil underfoot. He declared to them that by His own power they were able to defeat Satan. “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19). He assured the Apostle Paul, “Unto whom now I send thee, …to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (Acts 26:17-18). The task of the Apostles, and the task of the Church through the Bishops, is to lead people out of Satan’s power and into God’s. St John the Evangelist, speaking about the spirit of the Antichrist who will come into the world, writes, “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). St Paul’s prayer for the Christians of Rome is that “the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:20).
Satan now has very limited power and strength. The children of God, by the power of divine grace, are able to crush the devil. They can deal very easily with all his wiles. We find many examples of this in the lives of the saints. The life of St Antony, as described to us by St Athanasios, is typical. By the power of Christ, St Antony vanquished the devil, as did many other saints.
An example can be cited from the life of Abba Theodore. The Gerontikon tells us that when a demon appeared and wanted to come into his cell, the Abba bound him and “compelled him to stay outside the cell.” The same happened to a second demon. Later another demon came along. Seeing the others bound he asked them why they were standing outside. They replied, “He is sitting inside and does not let us enter.” When this third devil tried to go in, he too was bound by the prayers of the Elder. Then the three devils “afraid of the Elder’s prayers, begged him to let them go,” and Abba Theodore released them, saying “Go!” Therefore, “put to shame they left.” This is a very telling example. It shows that, by the power of Christ, the saints are stronger than the demons and can even bind them. The demons tremble before someone who is clothed in divine grace.
We shall now consider how we too can fight against the devil, overcome all his tactics, and escape from his tyranny. The Tradition of the Church sets out many ways of achieving this. A few of these are set out below.
As mentioned above, God has overcome the devil, so with the grace of Christ we too can overcome him. The devil can work in the soul of a person in whom Christ does not dwell. St Diadochos says, “The evil spirits lurk, acting through the compliancy of the flesh upon those still immature in soul.” The more infantile we are, the less we are fortified against the warfare of the demons. When, however, we have the breath of the Holy Spirit within us, the fiery arrows of the devil are quenched before they touch our heart. “For the breath of the Holy Spirit, arousing in the heart the winds of peace, extinguishes the arrows of the fiery demon while they are still in mid-air.” St Diadochos states repeatedly that, if the grace of Christ is active within us, the devil has absolutely no power over us. He writes, “so long as the Holy Spirit is in us, Satan cannot enter the depths of the soul and remain there.” St Nikitas Stithatos also teaches that the demons are very afraid of the grace of the Holy Spirit. “The spirits of evil are extremely frightened of the grace of the divine Spirit, especially when it is abundantly present in us or when we have been cleansed through spiritual reading and pure prayer.” He teaches that those who receive the grace of the Holy Spirit are not only fortified against attack, but frighten the devil. “Not only are they exempt from the dominion of the demons but they actually fill them with terror, since they share in the divine fire and are in fact called fire.” Any Christian who has the fruits of the Holy Spirit (the virtues) becomes strong and powerful and the demons’ arrows are obliterated even in his bodily senses. “The demonic arrows are quenched before they reach the body’s senses.”
We also need faith in God and faith that He will help us through the holy angels, the spirits of truth. Describing the work of the devil and his hatred towards man, the Apostle Peter says, “Whom resist steadfast in the faith” (1 Pet. 5:9).
Faith in God is necessary. One expression of this faith is an awareness that God is protecting us; another is the prayer that we offer at times of temptation. We shall say more about prayer elsewhere. The fact is that God sends His angels to keep us safe. Abba Moses was fiercely attacked by the demon of unchastity. He left his cell and did not want to go back to it. Then Abba Isidore took him up onto the roof. First he showed him a multitude of demons in the west, then he showed him the innumerable hosts of holy angels in the east, and said, “See, these are sent by the Lord to the saints to bring them help, while those in the west fight against them. Those who are with us are more in number.” The angels assisting us are more numerous in this difficult battle. Because, as Orthodox Tradition teaches, every human being has his or her own guardian angel, it follows that this angel helps us in all life’s difficulties. St John Climacus says that, when an evil spirit approaches, the body is afraid, whereas when an angel draws near “the soul of the humble is filled with joy.” As soon as we realise an angel is present we should hasten to prayer, because then “our good guardian has come to pray with us.”
The prayers of our spiritual father also help us in this struggle. By the power of his prayers we can easily deal with satanic activity. St John Climacus says that, when we are outside the monastery on some errand, we are protected by the hand of God, “perhaps through the prayer of our spiritual father, that the Lord may not be blasphemed through us.” The prayers of our spiritual father are indispensable in this difficult spiritual struggle and obedience to a spiritual Elder is an essential prerequisite for these prayers. Just as Moses was the good angel of the people of Israel who protected them from all harm, so too every Christian’s spiritual father is a good angel who protects him from all evil. As Moses set the Israelites free from Pharaoh, so our spiritual father sets us free from slavery to the Pharaoh of the nous, the devil. St Symeon the New Theologian sets out the analogies between the real Moses and the Moses of the nous. He writes characteristically:
“The father intercedes and God heeds
and tells His servant to take me by the hand
and promises to accompany us.
He [the father] rescues me from Pharaoh and the evils of Egypt, and has inspired boldness in my heart
and given me courage not to fear Pharaoh.”
And when all the powers of the evil one attacked him,
“I saw myself turned into light by the intercessions of my father
and suddenly they all withdrew, put to shame.”
As the demons are proud, and in fact they fell through pride, Christians are able to defeat them through humility. Humility is the virtue that burns them up. As St Hesychios the Priest says, humility is necessary “because… [the spiritual warrior’s] fight is against the arrogant demons.” St Neilos recommends, “Take care to be very humble and courageous, and your soul will escape the influence of the demons.” When someone’s soul is humble Satan cannot influence him. The devil has no authority at all over those who are humble. When the demons made war on Abba Arsenios, he cried out, “God, do not leave me. I have done nothing good in Your sight, but grant me in Your loving kindness to make a beginning.”
Because this is a dangerous war and we do not know when the devil will attack us, spiritual watchfulness is needed. In the language of the Fathers this is called vigilance or watchfulness (nepsis). This vigilance is frequently mentioned in Holy Scripture and denotes a person’s effort not to accept any thoughts and to be spiritually prepared to resist the devil. The Lord orders us to be watchful: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). The Apostle Peter exhorts, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). The Apostle Paul also urges his disciple Timothy, “But watch thou in all things” (2 Tim. 4:5). Christians must always be in a state of spiritual readiness, so that they can recognise the devil’s wiles and deal with them. We must be careful not to accept thoughts. The experienced fighter wards off every thought that comes to his nous and keeps it clear of all thoughts. St Hesychios the Priest speaks about this spiritual watchfulness, referring to it as attentiveness. He says that in warfare against the devil, attentiveness (among other things) is needed “in order always to keep the heart clear of all thoughts, even those that appear to be good.”
Vigilance must be linked with prayer. Christ said, “Watch and pray” (Matt. 26:41). Watchfulness chases away thoughts and prayer nourishes the soul and attracts the grace of Christ into the heart. This combination of vigilance and prayer is indispensable. When Christ spoke about the demon that had seized the young man He said, “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21). Prayer makes demons disappear. Because the demons fight against human beings, St Philotheos of Sinai urges, “We must always breathe God, so that we may go through each day without being wounded by the devil’s fiery darts.” We breathe God by means of prayer and in this way we go through life unharmed by the arrows of the evil one. St Neilos exhorts, “Stand fast, boldly affirming your faith and you will more easily confront your enemies.” When, however, we speak of prayer we do not mean just a formal prayer spoken at times of temptation, but unceasing prayer of the nous in the heart. At the moment when the devil arrives, the heart is automatically moved to pray and the devil is put to flight. Prayer that reaches the point of spiritual theorias chases the devil away. When the demons want to distract our nous, “through remembrance of our Lord Jesus Christ we should press on towards spiritual theorias” (St Hesychios the Priest). Uninterrupted prayer at the time of satanic attack drives the demons away, because they do not want us to win crowns from God in our battle against them. As St John Climacus says, through unceasing prayer the demons “will flee as though burnt by fire.” Noetic activity and natural theoria (beholding the inner essences or “logoi” of things) drive out the devil and puts him to flight. St Nikitas Stithatos says, “If, with the eye of the nous vigilant, you devote yourself to the noetic work of prayer and to musing on the inner essences of God’s creation, you will not be frightened by the arrow that flies by day, nor will they [the demons] be able to invade your inner sanctuary; for like darkness they will be repulsed by the light that is in you and consumed in the divine fire.”
It is essential for us to realise that we ought not to be at all perturbed when the devil attacks. There is no need for agitation or fear, because the primary aim of the demons is to create panic, as in a panic-filled atmosphere they can do whatever they like. St Antony, a combatant in this great spiritual struggle, urges, “So then we ought to fear God only, and despise the demons, and be in no fear of them.” We ought not to be afraid of the evil demons. We have the strength of Christ and can easily annihilate them. St Neilos the Ascetic says, “Do not be scared of them. Pay no attention at all to their threats.” And St John Climacus says, “Do not be afraid of noisy toys.”
The sensation of fear that the demons provoke must also be faced with spiritual courage. St Nikitas Stithatos says that the demons, before engaging with someone, usually create fear in his soul. “But the soul filled with courage and valour by the Holy Spirit, will pay no heed to the bitter fury of their attack, but will dispel their fantasies and put them to flight solely by means of the life-giving sign of the Cross the invocation of Jesus our God.” Courage and valour are required, then the Christian will see the devil put to flight. The devil quickly flees from him and can do nothing to him.
We must, however, struggle against the devil. This contest requires spiritual armour and readiness to contradict his words and actions. Speaking about this struggle, the Apostle Paul exhorts, “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” He then goes on to list some of these items of spiritual armoury (Eph. 6:10-17). Resistance to the devil has to be powerful and continuous: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7). There is no need to make any concessions or to surrender any part of our being to the devil. “Neither give place to the devil” (Eph. 4:27). We have to fight, not only to wrestle with the demons, “but to wage war on the demons” (St John Cli-macus). As St John Climacus says, the place where the devil attacks us “is obviously the place where we are fighting the enemy most fiercely”, because otherwise he would be our friend.
One way of struggling against the demons is by contradicting them. The holy Fathers teach that while we are still beginners in the spiritual life we ought not to enter into conversation with the devil, because the devil, by using the arguments at his disposal and presenting himself as an angel of light, may trick us. Some saints, however, who possessed great spiritual assets, engaged in dialogue with the devil and defeated him. They have left us the following examples.
St John Climacus writes that if we have a blasphemous thought we should counter it by saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan! I shall worship the Lord my God, and Him only will I serve. Your labour and your words will return upon your head, and your blasphemies will come down upon your crown in the present and in the future world.” The same Saint mentions two other examples of this sort of retort to the devil. The demons appeared to a certain brother and praised him for his virtues. That brother immediately answered: “If you stop praising me and withdraw, then I shall conclude that I am great because I have made you depart. But if you continue to praise me, then from your praise I shall guess my impurity, for everyone that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord. So either go away from me, and then I shall become great, or else continue to praise me and with your assistance I shall obtain more humility.” Struck with bewilderment, they immediately vanished from sight. Another ascetic was striving to acquire humility. When the demons whispered praise in his heart, he stood up immediately and wrote on the wall of his cell the names of the highest virtues: perfect love, angelic humility, pure prayer, inviolable chastity and so on. When flattering thoughts came to him, suggesting that he had mastered a virtue, he would say “Let us go and be judged.” He would go to the wall, read the names of the virtues and say to himself, “When you possess all these, know that you are still far from God.”
St Hesychios the Priest says that, when someone realises the devil is approaching, “he should at once repulse him angrily.” In general, we ought immediately to reject any thought that comes from the devil. Anything whatsoever that the evil one offers should be thrown out at once. The devil may go away when he meets spiritual resistance.
This is a very difficult struggle, incomparable with any other. There are moments when a person becomes discouraged. Great patience is required together with courage, as we mentioned above. Patience brings spiritual health, which creates the essential prerequisites for the coming of Christ’s grace. Abba Arse-nios advised a certain brother to stay in his cell at these difficult times. The brother replied, “I am troubled by thoughts that say, ‘You can neither fast nor work. If, however, you visit those who are sick, that also is love.'” The Elder discerned “the seeds of the demons” in this thought and said to him, “Go! Eat, drink, sleep and do not work. As long as you do not leave your cell.” Abba Arsenios gave this answer because he knew “that patiently staying in the cell makes a man a monk.” Our effort to live a he-sychastic life in vigilance and stillness helps significantly in this painful struggle.
In addition to all the above, asceticism is required in all aspects of our lives. St Antony teaches that the more the demons attack us, the more we too “intensify our ascetic effort against them.” By asceticism we mean the struggle to keep Christ’s commandments. Asceticism, that is to say, “a good life”, is necessary because the demons “fear the fasting of the ascetics, their vigil, their prayers, their meekness, their quietness, their contempt for money and vainglory, their humility, their love of the poor, their alms, their freedom from anger, and, most of all, their devotion to Christ.” All these virtues, which are the fruit of the All-Holy Spirit, are spiritual weapons that make up the spiritual armoury by which we are able to extinguish “the fiery darts of the evil one.”
Discretion is an essential weapon in this battle. St John the Evangelist and Theologian urges, “Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). We need discretion not only to distinguish between what is uncreated and what is created, but also to identify correctly which demon we should concentrate on fighting because, as mentioned already, many demons attack us simultaneously. St John Climacus says that the warrior ought to know which enemies to pursue at a distance, and which to allow to wrestle with him. Sometimes “the fight is rewarded with a crown” and sometimes “refusing to fight leaves us inexperienced. ” It can happen that by avoiding fighting the devil we remain untried and immature spiritually. Or we may allow him to approach, wrestle with him and receive crowns from God. The opposite can also happen. We can seek to fight him because of our lack of discretion and our superficiality, and this can have terrible repercussions in our lives. For that reason the virtue of discretion and, above all, God’s illumination are needed in this struggle. Through discretion we are able to come to a clear understanding of how this war is waged.
Since the devil works through the passions and every passion has its corresponding demon, anyone who wants to fight against the demons must struggle mostly against the passions through which the demons work. St Maximos the Confessor teaches that the demons are weakened “when the passions in us are reduced through keeping the commandments”, and are destroyed “when they are finally routed by dispassion, for then they no longer find any means of entering the soul and fighting against it.” The struggle to acquire this blessed state of dispassion is basically a struggle against the demons. As St John Climacus says, “Someone who has defeated the passions wounds the demons.”
We must never accept appearances of the demons in person or any kind of vision. The holy Fathers are emphatic on this point. St Neilos the Ascetic recommends, “Take care that the evil demons do not deceive you with some vision. Be on your guard, turn to prayer and make supplication to God.” As mentioned above, the devil transforms himself into an angel of light. The Apostle Paul was aware of this tactic of the devil and wrote, “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).
St Nicodemus the Hagiorite refers to cases of demonic apparitions and sets out how to deal with them. A few examples follow.
Abba Abraham was singing at midnight and the demons appeared in order to delude him. His cell was filled with light; the devil appeared and said, as though God were speaking, “Blessed are you, Abraham. No one can compare with you, because you have fulfilled all my commandments.” Then Abba Abraham shouted loudly, “May your darkness go with you into perdition, liar and deceiver. I am a sinful man.”
The devil appeared to St Symeon the Stylite full of light and accompanied by red horses and said to him, “The Lord has sent me, His angel, to carry you away as I carried away Elijah. Climb into the chariot so we can go to heaven. All the angels and saints want to see you.” Then St Symeon made the sign of the Cross and it became clear that it was the devil.
The devil appeared to Abba Arsenios and said, 7 am Christ.” Abba Arsenios replied, 7 do not want to see Christ in this world but in the world to come.”
Abba John saw a radiant chariot and horses, and heard a voice saying, “You have done everything well. Acknowledge me now as your king and worship me.” Then Abba John replied, 7 shall worship the Lord my God and Him only shall I serve.”
The devil also appeared in the form of Christ to St Pachomios and said, “O Pachomios, I am Christ and I have come to you, my faithful friend”, to which St Pachomios replied, “Christ is peace, but you have filled me with confusion.” He made the sign of the Cross and the devil disappeared.
There is an account of a monk named Valens who accepted a vision of the devil and thought he was Christ. He bowed down in worship before the devil. When the time came for the Fathers to receive Holy Communion, all the others partook but he said, “I do not want to receive Holy Communion because I have seen Christ.” Then he went mad and the brethren tied him up “as insane and out of his mind.”
Because the saints have the grace of Christ they can distinguish between spirits. They can discern whether light is from Satan or from God. We discussed the difference in an earlier section and shall see it again here, as described by St Paul of Mount Latros. The light of the devil “is like fire and smoke, and resembles visible fire. When it is seen by someone whose soul is humble and purified, he finds it disgusting and repulsive.” The Light of God, by contrast, “is most lovely and pure, and wherever it shines it sanctifies. It fills the soul with light, joy and delight and makes it gentle and charitable.”
In cases of fierce satanic attack we need to visit experts, in other words, saintly people, who are familiar with the wiles of the devil and can guide us safely along this difficult path. This is what St Mark the Ascetic recommends. If we do not possess “the lamp of true knowledge, because our nous has not yet reached maturity”, then as far as possible “we should seek and strive to meet those with knowledge.” Spiritual fathers are scientific experts on this spiritual struggle and are the only appropriate people to guide us and determine our battle strategy. Turning to them for advice must, of course, be linked with confession, because all the opposing forces of the devil are put to flight by confession.
In cases where the devil has acquired considerable power over us, particularly when he has captured our citadel — the brain — and from there totally controls us, we need to seek refuge in the Church and with the Priests, and to undergo exorcism. There are special prayers by which the Priest beseeches God to drive the devil out of us. Some people resort to practitioners of magic in order to be delivered from demonic forces. That, however, is a delusion of the devil to draw them even closer to him. He may pretend that he has gone away or, even worse, that one demon can drive out another. Contemporary ascetics have revealed that every practitioner of magic is directed by a particular type of demon. Such a practitioner may cast out other demons, but at the same time he makes the person a servant of his own demon. Thus the domination of Satan continues indefinitely. The holy Fathers advise that those in the power of demons should to turn to Priests, who will read the appropriate prayers of exorcism for them from the Prayer-Book. Then, depending on their faith and repentance, and God’s will and providence, they will see many results.
Apart from everything already mentioned, it should be noted that the sacramental life of the Church is a strong weapon against the devil. Through Holy Baptism the devil is driven out of a person’s heart, through Holy Chrismation he is sealed with the seal of the Holy Spirit, and through the Divine Eucharist all the powers of Satan are destroyed. The whole sacramental and ascetical life lived within the Church is an experience of the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, and provides us with the strongest weapons for overcoming the devil and avoiding all his wiles.
Everything set out above reveals certain facts that I think should be highlighted as conclusions.
The devil exists and works to separate us from God. Satan acts mainly in those who accept him, who are spiritually defenceless, but he makes war on all Christians, particularly those striving to attain to deification. Although he fights against everyone externally, he cannot act inwardly in everyone.
As time passes he becomes more terrible in his warfare. When a brother asked Abba Sisoes, “Did Satan persecute the ancients like this?”, he replied, “He does more now, because his time is drawing near and he is agitated.” The nearer we come to the Second Coming, the more agitated he becomes.
The power of Christ is stronger that the power of the devil. A Christian who is empowered by the grace of God has absolutely nothing to fear. He is strong in Christ. As the Apostle Paul declares, “I can do all things through Christ Who strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).
The devil’s power should not frighten us; instead, the love of God, which defeats every hostile force, should empower us.
The task of the Clergy is not to spread panic about the wiles of the devil, but to prepare the faithful to put on the whole armour of God, so that they will overcome and annihilate the power and stratagems of the devil. Unfortunately nowadays we see a trend towards panic. We observe the phenomenon of widespread discussion about the Antichrist but very little about Christ: lots of anti-christology and not much Christology. Many people speak about the Antichrist, without taking care at the same time to prepare the faithful for war with the Antichrist. They neglect to train Christians in the method of the Orthodox faith, which means purification, illumination and deification.
In the Revelation of St John there is a magnificent image. St John the Evangelist saw the Lamb opening the first of the seven seals. “And I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and He that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto Him: and He went forth conquering, and to conquer” (Rev. 6:1-2). The triumphant victory of Christ is apparent throughout the book of Revelation.
The defeat of Satan is also clear from the Revelation of St John: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:9-11). The Lamb is victorious over the beast of the Revelation. The people of the Lamb overcome the dragon and celebrate in heaven. There is nothing terrifying for men and women of God. They are strong and powerful. What was said of the Bishop of Pergamon also applies here. God said, “I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast My name, and hast not denied My faith” (Rev. 2:13). Someone can live where Satan has his throne, and yet uphold the name of Christ and not deny his faith. This is achieved by the power of Christ.
May we be numbered among these victors, those who are prepared to bear the name of Christ. Then the words of Christ will apply to us: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that received it” (Rev. 2:17).
Read Part 1 Here
—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. The Science of Spiritual Medicine
—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. The Science of Spiritual Medicine