Friday, June 29, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

In the very early days of Christianity, the heroes of the followers of the then tiny sect weren't athletes or actors, they were hermits.  Sealed away in remote caves, sitting on top of towering platforms or cloistered in beehive-like structures, the men and women who chose to seek communion with Christ to the utter disavowal of all the world were the one's to watch, and emulate if one had the mettle.

Thus it should come as no surprise that we still know, or at least are familiar with, the story of Saint Anthony the Hermit and the unrelenting torture he experienced at the hands of the Devil.

Saint Anthony banished himself to a rocky outcropping in the Egyptian desert where, as the eloquent Peter Stanford notes in his book The Devil: A Biography, he never washed or changed clothes, choosing instead to use all his resources to fight the unholy fiend.

The first account of Anthony's struggles against Satan were recorded by Bishop Athanasius.  Set down around 360, approximately four years after the hermit's death, the tale became a sensation among the faithful.  It made Anthony a favorite saint in a time when martyrs were more highly thought of than just about any other holy person around.  Anthony, as God's luchador, became sort of martyr in his own right.  Paraphrasing Athanasius' description of the saint's struggles would be criminal, and so here is the meat of the Bishop's interpretation:

[The Devil] harassed [Anthony] day and night, and he persecuted him sometimes to such a point that Anthony took up the posture of a wrestler.  The Devil sent him obscene thoughts; Anthony repulsed them by his prayers.  The Devil made himself tender and caressing; Anthony, shamefast, protected his body by faith, prayers and fasts.  The Devil took the form of a woman; he reproduced her gestures.  But Anthony remained faithful to Christ...  Finally the dragon, seeing that he could not overthrow Anthony, was seized by rage.  He appeared to Anthony as he is in reality, that is, in the form of a black child; ceasing to attack by thought alone, he took a human voice and said: "Many are they whom I have deceived, whom I have thrown down: but I have been able to do nothing against thee."  Anthony asked him, "Who art thou - thou who speakst thus?" The Devil replied in a groaning voice: "I am the friend of fornication. I lay my snares before the young to make them fall into this vice, and I am called the spirit of fornication..." Anthony, after giving thanks to God, replied to his enemy confidently: "Thou art utterly contemptible; thy spirit is black and thou art like a child without strength. Henceforth I will disturb myself no more because of thee, for the Lord is my help and I can despise my enemies."  

And that did the trick.  The Devil, curiously no more ominous than a "black child", departed the hermit's cave never to return.  Stanford responds to this with an incredibly insightful observation that seems to ring true in reference to fundamentalists Christians in our time:

The mark of goodness, of winning God's favor, had nothing to do with practicing the gospel virtues of loving your neighbor, being charitable, and attending the sacraments, but rather lay in one single feat: repulsing the Devil.

And today you may call the Devil what you will: a woman's right to a safe abortion, anything to do with LGBT individuals or groups, evolution and other pesky scientific facts, etc.  Repulsing "Him" trumps "Christ's teachings" every time. 

Header: The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Jean-Francois Millet via Wikiart  


Timmy! said...

I think I'd rather just fornicate, Pauline... But then, I believe that as Jason Newsted of Metallica fame once said, "Anything with Devil or Satan in it... is good."

Pauline said...

It's just so darn hard being human. And even before the "Devil", it always was...