The Desert of our Souls

There is an ancient practice which is described most thoroughly by Evagrius, but which permeates the whole desert tradition. This practice is called “talking back” or antirrhetikos in Greek. Evagrius of Pontus wrote a book with that as a title. The structure of that book became the foundation for the later Irish penitential tradition. You can read more about this practice from the perspective of Evagrius by clicking HERE. Evagrius, like all the other desert monks, was inspired by the story of Jesus fasting in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. Here is the version of the story which can be found in Matthew 4:1-11. 


Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” 

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.


In Cassian’s conference with Abba Serapion, we are given a spiritual interpretation of this story which we will use to frame this practice and its intended purpose. Serapion teaches that Jesus’ temptations directly mirrored those of Adam in the garden of Eden. Adam was tempted first by gluttony in the form of the apple. Jesus’ first temptation was also gluttony when Satan invited him to turn stones into bread.

Adam’s second temptation was to vanity, when the tempter said to him, “your eyes shall be opened” implying that he would become renowned as wise. Jesus’ second temptation was also vanity when Satan took him to the top of the temple where he could be seen and admired by others.

Adam’s third temptation was to pride which is why the snake said to them that they will be like gods, knowing good and evil. Jesus’ third temptation was also to pride when Satan invited him to possess the entire world by worshipping him. Serapion concludes by saying, “Thus, having been attacked by these very same temptations, he taught us also by his own example how we should conquer the tempter.”

Adam represents human nature, the fall represents the wounds which we are afflicted with, and Christ, as the New Adam, represents the way in which we can undo the damage of our fall from grace. The fallen nature of the human being happens within our souls and by imitating Christ we are able to become new Adams. We are able to restore the image of God within us which has been obscured behind the fog of ignorance and folly. Adam gave into temptation and suffered because of it, Christ was tempted in every way which we are and yet he did not give into the counsel of Satan. We are to imitate Christ so that we can be made new. 

The three temptations which Adam and Jesus faced are representative of the entire list of demons. They represent the first and final of the vices, encapsulating the whole spectrum. Click HERE to learn about the eight vices. The desert monks believed that the first temptation we must overcome in the spiritual life is that which arises from our embodied nature.

The practice of self control begins with the stomach and the stomach here represents all of the vices of the body. The second and third temptations which Adam and Jesus faced were the last two vices in the list, vanity and pride. These two temptations affect even the most advanced monks and, when they have been overcome, the curse of Adam is lifted. The contrary of these vices is humility and so humility is what restores the image of God within us. 

Turning to more practical interpretations of this story from the gospels, we can see that Jesus gives us an example of how we are to talk back to these demons which we encounter in the wilderness of our souls. When Satan presented Jesus with temptation, Jesus responded by quoting scripture. Because the demons are actually our habitual thought patterns, the way in which we restore them to harmony is by untangling the webs of false beliefs which they weave around us. Jesus replaced his bad thoughts with good thoughts from the scriptures.

This is Evagrius’ practice of talking back and the Celtic practice of penance – to refute our unhealthy beliefs by replacing them with healthy ones. We seek to know the truth and trust that the truth will set us free. The penitential of Finnian reminds us that penance is about replacing unhealthy thoughts with healthy ones when it says, “By contraries, as we said, let us make haste to cure contraries and to cleanse away these faults from our hearts and introduce heavenly virtues in their places.”

It goes on to say that we must replace sadness with joy, envy with love of neighbour, and greed with generosity. We talk back to the vices (represented by the symbol of demons) using the voice of the virtues (angels) which are their opposites. All of this is symbolised in the story of Jesus in the wilderness by the last line of the passage from Matthew above, “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.”

The purpose is not to exist in eternal inner conflict with our demons but rather to replace them altogether so that we may be cared for by the angels instead. The angels appear when the demons leave. This entire narrative is summed up so succinctly in the gospel of Mark, “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” If we are willing to face the wild beasts then we will be waited upon by angels.

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