Battling The Devil

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A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is… A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in.

C.S. Lewis, from Mere Christianity


It has never been easy to be a teenager.  Crossing the border from childhood to adulthood comes with an assortment of demons to fight and when you are thirteen year old Michelangelo, the experience comes out in paint. That’s right, he was thirteen when he painted The Torment of Saint Anthony.

The church celebrates Saint Anthony today (January 17) and his life was instructive.  He inherited wealth from his parents at age twenty but gave it all away to live in simplicity and solitude, devoting himself to contemplation and prayer.  He is known for being the father of monasticism and for his ability to battle the devil against temptations of every stripe.

The Christian’s goal is to become more Christ-like everyday.  This is called sanctification and it has never been easy.  We live in a broken world in which sin and its consequence is all around us.  Thank God, the strength of the Christian  is with the Holy Spirit who stands ready to guide and empower our every step.  Jesus said “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

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Ephesians 6:12

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.

Dig Deeper

Art: The Torment of Saint Anthony by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564)

Currently on view at the Kimbell Art Museum 

This is the first known painting by Michelangelo, described by his earliest biographers and believed to have been painted when he was twelve or thirteen years old. Although Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculptor, he received his early training as a painter, in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio (c. 1449–1494), a leading master in Florence. Michelangelo’s earliest biographers, Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi, tell us that, aside from some drawings, his first work was a painted copy of the engraving Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons by the fifteenth-century German master Martin Schongauer. The rare subject is found in the life of Saint Anthony the Great, written by Athanasius of Alexandria in the fourth century, which describes how the Egyptian hermit-saint had a vision that he levitated into the air and was attacked by demons, whose torments he withstood. Created when he was informally associated with Ghirlandaio’s workshop and under the guidance of an older friend, the artist Francesco Granacci, Michelangelo’s painting earned him widespread recognition. Writing when Michelangelo was still alive, both Vasari and Condivi recounted that to give the demonic creatures veracity, he studied the colorful scales and other parts of specimens from the fish market. Michelangelo subtly revised Schongauer’s composition, making it more compact and giving the monsters more animal-like features, notably adding fish scales to one of them. He also included a landscape that resembles the Arno River Valley around Florence. The work is one of only four easel paintings generally regarded as having come from his hand and the first painting by Michelangelo to enter an American collection.

Literature and Liturgy: Saint Anthony

Anthony was born in Comus, Upper Egypt, in about 250. As a young man, he was much given to prayer, and one day—hearing the Gospel passage, “If you seek perfection, go sell your possessions, and give to the poor. You will then have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21) read in church—he immediately resolved to give away all that he had and to live as an ascetic. He found (269) a solitary place for himself near his village, and there spent his time in prayer, penance, and manual labor. About 285, he left for the Egyptian desert, where he lived as a hermit. In due time, stories began to spread about his holiness, his battles with the devil, and his miracles. The consequence was that other solitaries came to seek his advice, and eventually they built hermitages near his. Because Anthony now had disciples and became their spiritual guide, he formed (305) them into an organized group and led them along the way of perfection and holiness. But Anthony was made for the solitary life, and after about five years with his monks, he returned (310) to the Egyptian desert (between the Nile and the Red Sea), and there he received visitors and engaged in spiritual conversations. He is said to have twice visited Alexandria to preach against the Arians. He died at his desert hermitage in 356, at about the age of 105 years.

In the year following his death, St. Athanasius (see May 2) wrote his biography, Life of Anthony, in which Anthony is portrayed as the ideal monk and the “father” of Christian monasticism. This book had immense influence in the early Christian world, and it has always been valued as a spiritual classic. Since the fifth century, St. Anthony’s feast has been celebrated on January 17, as the date of his death.

Bibliography

Five key primary source documents for the desert fathers are these:
(1) Athanasius’s Life of Antony,
(2) The History of the Monks of Egypt (a.k.a, Historia Monachorum en Aegypto),
(3) The Sayings of the Desert Fathers,
(4) Cyril of Scythopolis’s The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, and
(5) John Cassian’s Conferences.

You’ll find portions of (2) and (3), as well as other ancient histories, in

Helen Waddell’s The Desert Fathers (Vintage, 1998);

Owen Chadwick’s, Western Asceticism (Westminster, 1958) contains translations of (3) and (5).

Benedicta Ward’s The Lives of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian, 1980) is a full translation of (2) and R. M. Price’s Cyril of Scythopolis:

The Lives of the Monks of Palestine (Cistercian, 1991) is what it says it is, as is Robert C. Gregg’s translation of Athanasius: The Life of Antony (Paulist, 1980).

In addition, you can find older translations of these documents on the Internet. The Christian Classics Ethereal Library (www.ccel.org) has Cassian’s Conferences (www.ccel.org/fathers/NPNF2–11/jcassian/conferen/), and The Ecole Initiative (www2.evansville.edu/ecoleweb/) has the Life of Antony, as well as many other minor works (e.g., lives of Paul of Thebes or Mary of Egypt).

Probably the most significant single work on the desert fathers has been an essay by Princeton historian Peter Brown: “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity.” He argues that these men were key figures in the transition from pagan antiquity to the Christian Middle Ages. The essay is reprinted in his Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (University of California, 1982), and a revised assessment can be found in Authority and the Sacred (Cambridge, 1995).

Also see Christian History Magazine-Issue 64: Anthony & the Desert Fathers: Extreme Faith (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1999).