Evagrius of Pontus, one of the most influential of the desert fathers and a student of Origen, wrote a book called Antirrhêtikos which is usually translated today as “Talking Back.” This book was meant to be a practical reference manual for contemplatives. The idea behind the book comes from the scriptures, specifically Jesus’ being tested in the desert during his forty days of fasting. At the beginning of his ministry, immediately after the Spirit descended upon him at his baptism, that same Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness where he was to face temptation and even the Devil himself.
This is, of course, also the story which this season of Lent is based on. For us remembering this story in our time of Lent, it is an inner desert we find ourselves in and there we will find many wild beasts, just like Jesus did, and we will also be ministered to by angels, just as Jesus was.
Evagrius, who lived in the desert so that he could face his own temptations and inner demons, modelled his spirituality on what Jesus did. First, he noticed that the temptations which the Devil brought to Jesus were temptations that all of us face. He was tempted to turn stones into bread and break his fast and all of us who fast also know this temptation. The instinctive drive to eat can easily become out of balance and a multitude of eating disorders can stem from it.
The second temptation which he faced was to test God and proudly prove that he could not be harmed. It is often easy to fall into the trap of believing that if we are spiritual people we will always be safe and we can act recklessly and God will fix our careless mistakes. But Jesus knew that was the Devil twisting the meaning of the scriptures.
The third temptation was to bow down and worship Satan and in so doing become king of the world and ruler over all. Many people throughout history have done this very thing and thought they would rule the world by means of war and slavery.
These temptations, which are all very human, are not the only temptations we face, but they are a few good examples of how we can be led astray if we are not careful. The vices which Jesus was being tempted to were being presented as good things, things which we need or deserve. Vices can present themselves as virtues if we are not in a place of interior balance and wholeness. Many people have done great evil and in their (perhaps willful) confusion have committed genocide in the name of Christ. Slavery was justified by a belief that Africans needed “to be civilised” and the genocide of Indigenous people around the world was done under the same “virtue.” We must be particularly careful that we do not allow ourselves to be tempted into thinking that vice is virtue simply because a clever twisting of the truth can seem to justify it.
When Jesus was faced with temptation he responded using scripture. And this, Evagrius teaches us, is how we are also to respond to the demons which we will face. These demons are the vices which we have accumulated throughout our lives. They can, at times, feel like they come from outside of us and control us even though they are only illusions. For Evagrius, demons and angels are thoughts which arise inside us.
Have you ever been sitting there minding your own business when suddenly an ugly thought comes up in your mind? A thought which you didn’t choose, which you would never choose? The fact that thoughts seem to happen to us rather than being chosen by us is why it makes sense to personify them as angels and demons – because they seem to have a life of their own. Which is why Evagrius says that,
“It is not in our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions.”
In this way of looking at the human condition there are three parts that make up what we think of as our mind. There is our conscious will which is our ability to choose things and create new possibilities and then there are the opposing forces of good thoughts and bad thoughts which seem to happen to us rather than being chosen by us. In modern language we might call these thoughts which happen to us our subconscious mind because they are part of us and yet are outside of the realm of our direct control. In the final analysis, the good thoughts and bad thoughts, or angels and demons, can only make suggestions – they do not have the power to force us in either direction but only to tempt us or guide us. Therefore, it is our task to know the angels and demons and to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves in dealing with them.
For Evagrius, as well as other writers of the early church, it is super important to address the demons as soon as they arise within us. The longer we allow them a space in our hearts and minds, the harder it is to get rid of them. An old anger which has been festering for decades is extremely hard to overcome. And even an anger an hour old is much more entrenched than one only thirty seconds old. And so, we must train ourselves to respond to these demons right away and that is why Evagrius wrote his book Talking Back.
Evagrius points out that searching the scriptures for a word to speak back to the demons may take quite some time, as there are many words in the bible and only some of them will apply to your specific situation. So, he made a reference manual of verses with eight categories where we can look up scriptural verses to talk back to these demons with. The eight categories are the eight vices, also called the eight demons, which later in Christian history evolved into the seven deadly sins. I personally feel like a great deal of nuance and subtlety was lost when the eight demons became the seven sins, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Evagrius has very specific entries in his book which were imminently practical. He has a scripture verse to use for when the demon of anger comes upon you because your cows won’t walk in a straight line. He has a verse to use when the demon of pride tells you that you don’t need to listen to your elders and the advice of the people around you. Some of them seem rather bound to time and place but some of them feel remarkably relevant to modern life and since the book isn’t designed to be read from cover to cover but rather to look up quickly a verse which can be used to respond to the demon at hand, we can take what is useful and leave the rest.
We may even choose to look up verses online with a quick google search. I often search something like “sadness scripture” or “anger scripture” and many many lists of short bible verses relating to the topic will appear. Most of the websites putting up these verses are more evangelical rather than contemplative, but they can still be very helpful lists for finding what you’re looking for.
With a verse chosen the task is then to speak it to the demon. Whenever the unwanted thought arises in your soul, immediately speak this phrase to it. Every time the thought comes up, speak the verse either out loud or in your mind. If the thought doesn’t leave then you can simply repeat the verse like a mantra until finally the demon gives up and goes to bother someone else.
It is a simple but effective practice. The trick to making it work is being able to spot the demons when they arise and to not be fooled by them. For this reason the desert mothers and fathers would often describe the demons through short sayings and teachings. Throughout Lent this year I will be writing articles about a few of the demons which the desert monastics describe. I will be drawing from Evagrius but also from his student John Cassian. It was Cassian who brought the desert way of life to the Celtic people and this way of understanding demons is foundational in Celtic monasticism.
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