By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
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 uthe 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 the-oria 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 Ar-senios 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.