6. Confronting the Devil
Throughout the biblical and patristic tradition two views of the devil can be discerned. The first is that the devil is not merely a personification of evil or something abstract, but a specific being who works to prevent human beings from being saved. The second is that the devil’s authority, power and energy are of limited strength since the Incarnation of Christ. God’s supremacy over the strength of the evil one is obvious throughout our Tradition.
Christ, as mentioned already, came to defeat the devil and to free man from his tyranny. This is clear from the miracles when people possessed with demons were healed. The demons themselves understood this, because at one point they said, “What have we to do with Thee, Jesus, Thou Son of God? Art Thou come hither to torment us before the time?” The healings of demoniacs are an expression of the eschatological destruction of the devil’s power. This destruction of satanic power was achieved through the Cross, as the Apostle Paul tells us: “Having spoiled principalities and powers, He [Christ] made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it [the Cross]” (Col. 2:15).
The sacred hymns give wonderful descriptions of the devil’s lamentation over the destruction of his sovereignty and power by the Passion of Christ. “Today Hades moans and cries, ‘My authority has been destroyed…my dominion has been swallowed up…I am deprived of those whom I ruled and all those whom I devoured in my strength I have vomited up../”
Christ gave authority to His Disciples to trample the devil underfoot. He declared to them that by His own power they were able to defeat Satan. “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19). He assured the Apostle Paul, “Unto whom now I send thee, …to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (Acts 26:17-18). The task of the Apostles, and the task of the Church through the Bishops, is to lead people out of Satan’s power and into God’s. St John the Evangelist, speaking about the spirit of the Antichrist who will come into the world, writes, “Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). St Paul’s prayer for the Christians of Rome is that “the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:20).
Satan now has very limited power and strength. The children of God, by the power of divine grace, are able to crush the devil. They can deal very easily with all his wiles. We find many examples of this in the lives of the saints. The life of St Antony, as described to us by St Athanasios, is typical. By the power of Christ, St Antony vanquished the devil, as did many other saints.
An example can be cited from the life of Abba Theodore. The Gerontikon tells us that when a demon appeared and wanted to come into his cell, the Abba bound him and “compelled him to stay outside the cell.” The same happened to a second demon. Later another demon came along. Seeing the others bound he asked them why they were standing outside. They replied, “He is sitting inside and does not let us enter.” When this third devil tried to go in, he too was bound by the prayers of the Elder. Then the three devils “afraid of the Elder’s prayers, begged him to let them go,” and Abba Theodore released them, saying “Go!” Therefore, “put to shame they left.” This is a very telling example. It shows that, by the power of Christ, the saints are stronger than the demons and can even bind them. The demons tremble before someone who is clothed in divine grace.
We shall now consider how we too can fight against the devil, overcome all his tactics, and escape from his tyranny. The Tradition of the Church sets out many ways of achieving this. A few of these are set out below.
As mentioned above, God has overcome the devil, so with the grace of Christ we too can overcome him. The devil can work in the soul of a person in whom Christ does not dwell. St Diadochos says, “The evil spirits lurk, acting through the compliancy of the flesh upon those still immature in soul.” The more infantile we are, the less we are fortified against the warfare of the demons. When, however, we have the breath of the Holy Spirit within us, the fiery arrows of the devil are quenched before they touch our heart. “For the breath of the Holy Spirit, arousing in the heart the winds of peace, extinguishes the arrows of the fiery demon while they are still in mid-air.” St Diadochos states repeatedly that, if the grace of Christ is active within us, the devil has absolutely no power over us. He writes, “so long as the Holy Spirit is in us, Satan cannot enter the depths of the soul and remain there.” St Nikitas Stithatos also teaches that the demons are very afraid of the grace of the Holy Spirit. “The spirits of evil are extremely frightened of the grace of the divine Spirit, especially when it is abundantly present in us or when we have been cleansed through spiritual reading and pure prayer.” He teaches that those who receive the grace of the Holy Spirit are not only fortified against attack, but frighten the devil. “Not only are they exempt from the dominion of the demons but they actually fill them with terror, since they share in the divine fire and are in fact called fire.” Any Christian who has the fruits of the Holy Spirit (the virtues) becomes strong and powerful and the demons’ arrows are obliterated even in his bodily senses. “The demonic arrows are quenched before they reach the body’s senses.”
We also need faith in God and faith that He will help us through the holy angels, the spirits of truth. Describing the work of the devil and his hatred towards man, the Apostle Peter says, “Whom resist steadfast in the faith” (1 Pet. 5:9).
Faith in God is necessary. One expression of this faith is an awareness that God is protecting us; another is the prayer that we offer at times of temptation. We shall say more about prayer elsewhere. The fact is that God sends His angels to keep us safe. Abba Moses was fiercely attacked by the demon of unchastity. He left his cell and did not want to go back to it. Then Abba Isidore took him up onto the roof. First he showed him a multitude of demons in the west, then he showed him the innumerable hosts of holy angels in the east, and said, “See, these are sent by the Lord to the saints to bring them help, while those in the west fight against them. Those who are with us are more in number.” The angels assisting us are more numerous in this difficult battle. Because, as Orthodox Tradition teaches, every human being has his or her own guardian angel, it follows that this angel helps us in all life’s difficulties. St John Climacus says that, when an evil spirit approaches, the body is afraid, whereas when an angel draws near “the soul of the humble is filled with joy.” As soon as we realise an angel is present we should hasten to prayer, because then “our good guardian has come to pray with us.”
The prayers of our spiritual father also help us in this struggle. By the power of his prayers we can easily deal with satanic activity. St John Climacus says that, when we are outside the monastery on some errand, we are protected by the hand of God, “perhaps through the prayer of our spiritual father, that the Lord may not be blasphemed through us.” The prayers of our spiritual father are indispensable in this difficult spiritual struggle and obedience to a spiritual Elder is an essential prerequisite for these prayers. Just as Moses was the good angel of the people of Israel who protected them from all harm, so too every Christian’s spiritual father is a good angel who protects him from all evil. As Moses set the Israelites free from Pharaoh, so our spiritual father sets us free from slavery to the Pharaoh of the nous, the devil. St Symeon the New Theologian sets out the analogies between the real Moses and the Moses of the nous. He writes characteristically:
“The father intercedes and God heeds
and tells His servant to take me by the hand
and promises to accompany us.
He [the father] rescues me from Pharaoh and the evils of Egypt, and has inspired boldness in my heart
and given me courage not to fear Pharaoh.”
And when all the powers of the evil one attacked him,
“I saw myself turned into light by the intercessions of my father
and suddenly they all withdrew, put to shame.”
As the demons are proud, and in fact they fell through pride, Christians are able to defeat them through humility. Humility is the virtue that burns them up. As St Hesychios the Priest says, humility is necessary “because… [the spiritual warrior’s] fight is against the arrogant demons.” St Neilos recommends, “Take care to be very humble and courageous, and your soul will escape the influence of the demons.” When someone’s soul is humble Satan cannot influence him. The devil has no authority at all over those who are humble. When the demons made war on Abba Arsenios, he cried out, “God, do not leave me. I have done nothing good in Your sight, but grant me in Your loving kindness to make a beginning.”
Because this is a dangerous war and we do not know when the devil will attack us, spiritual watchfulness is needed. In the language of the Fathers this is called vigilance or watchfulness (nepsis). This vigilance is frequently mentioned in Holy Scripture and denotes a person’s effort not to accept any thoughts and to be spiritually prepared to resist the devil. The Lord orders us to be watchful: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). The Apostle Peter exhorts, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). The Apostle Paul also urges his disciple Timothy, “But watch thou in all things” (2 Tim. 4:5). Christians must always be in a state of spiritual readiness, so that they can recognise the devil’s wiles and deal with them. We must be careful not to accept thoughts. The experienced fighter wards off every thought that comes to his nous and keeps it clear of all thoughts. St Hesychios the Priest speaks about this spiritual watchfulness, referring to it as attentiveness. He says that in warfare against the devil, attentiveness (among other things) is needed “in order always to keep the heart clear of all thoughts, even those that appear to be good.”
Vigilance must be linked with prayer. Christ said, “Watch and pray” (Matt. 26:41). Watchfulness chases away thoughts and prayer nourishes the soul and attracts the grace of Christ into the heart. This combination of vigilance and prayer is indispensable. When Christ spoke about the demon that had seized the young man He said, “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21). Prayer makes demons disappear. Because the demons fight against human beings, St Philotheos of Sinai urges, “We must always breathe God, so that we may go through each day without being wounded by the devil’s fiery darts.” We breathe God by means of prayer and in this way we go through life unharmed by the arrows of the evil one. St Neilos exhorts, “Stand fast, boldly affirming your faith and you will more easily confront your enemies.” When, however, we speak of prayer we do not mean just a formal prayer spoken at times of temptation, but unceasing prayer of the nous in the heart. At the moment when the devil arrives, the heart is automatically moved to pray and the devil is put to flight. Prayer that reaches the point of spiritual theorias chases the devil away. When the demons want to distract our nous, “through remembrance of our Lord Jesus Christ we should press on towards spiritual theorias” (St Hesychios the Priest). Uninterrupted prayer at the time of satanic attack drives the demons away, because they do not want us to win crowns from God in our battle against them. As St John Climacus says, through unceasing prayer the demons “will flee as though burnt by fire.” Noetic activity and natural theoria (beholding the inner essences or “logoi” of things) drive out the devil and puts him to flight. St Nikitas Stithatos says, “If, with the eye of the nous vigilant, you devote yourself to the noetic work of prayer and to musing on the inner essences of God’s creation, you will not be frightened by the arrow that flies by day, nor will they [the demons] be able to invade your inner sanctuary; for like darkness they will be repulsed by the light that is in you and consumed in the divine fire.”
It is essential for us to realise that we ought not to be at all perturbed when the devil attacks. There is no need for agitation or fear, because the primary aim of the demons is to create panic, as in a panic-filled atmosphere they can do whatever they like. St Antony, a combatant in this great spiritual struggle, urges, “So then we ought to fear God only, and despise the demons, and be in no fear of them.” We ought not to be afraid of the evil demons. We have the strength of Christ and can easily annihilate them. St Neilos the Ascetic says, “Do not be scared of them. Pay no attention at all to their threats.” And St John Climacus says, “Do not be afraid of noisy toys.”
The sensation of fear that the demons provoke must also be faced with spiritual courage. St Nikitas Stithatos says that the demons, before engaging with someone, usually create fear in his soul. “But the soul filled with courage and valour by the Holy Spirit, will pay no heed to the bitter fury of their attack, but will dispel their fantasies and put them to flight solely by means of the life-giving sign of the Cross the invocation of Jesus our God.” Courage and valour are required, then the Christian will see the devil put to flight. The devil quickly flees from him and can do nothing to him.
We must, however, struggle against the devil. This contest requires spiritual armour and readiness to contradict his words and actions. Speaking about this struggle, the Apostle Paul exhorts, “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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.” He then goes on to list some of these items of spiritual armoury (Eph. 6:10-17). Resistance to the devil has to be powerful and continuous: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7). There is no need to make any concessions or to surrender any part of our being to the devil. “Neither give place to the devil” (Eph. 4:27). We have to fight, not only to wrestle with the demons, “but to wage war on the demons” (St John Cli-macus). As St John Climacus says, the place where the devil attacks us “is obviously the place where we are fighting the enemy most fiercely”, because otherwise he would be our friend.
One way of struggling against the demons is by contradicting them. The holy Fathers teach that while we are still beginners in the spiritual life we ought not to enter into conversation with the devil, because the devil, by using the arguments at his disposal and presenting himself as an angel of light, may trick us. Some saints, however, who possessed great spiritual assets, engaged in dialogue with the devil and defeated him. They have left us the following examples.
St John Climacus writes that if we have a blasphemous thought we should counter it by saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan! I shall worship the Lord my God, and Him only will I serve. Your labour and your words will return upon your head, and your blasphemies will come down upon your crown in the present and in the future world.” The same Saint mentions two other examples of this sort of retort to the devil. The demons appeared to a certain brother and praised him for his virtues. That brother immediately answered: “If you stop praising me and withdraw, then I shall conclude that I am great because I have made you depart. But if you continue to praise me, then from your praise I shall guess my impurity, for everyone that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord. So either go away from me, and then I shall become great, or else continue to praise me and with your assistance I shall obtain more humility.” Struck with bewilderment, they immediately vanished from sight. Another ascetic was striving to acquire humility. When the demons whispered praise in his heart, he stood up immediately and wrote on the wall of his cell the names of the highest virtues: perfect love, angelic humility, pure prayer, inviolable chastity and so on. When flattering thoughts came to him, suggesting that he had mastered a virtue, he would say “Let us go and be judged.” He would go to the wall, read the names of the virtues and say to himself, “When you possess all these, know that you are still far from God.”
St Hesychios the Priest says that, when someone realises the devil is approaching, “he should at once repulse him angrily.” In general, we ought immediately to reject any thought that comes from the devil. Anything whatsoever that the evil one offers should be thrown out at once. The devil may go away when he meets spiritual resistance.
This is a very difficult struggle, incomparable with any other. There are moments when a person becomes discouraged. Great patience is required together with courage, as we mentioned above. Patience brings spiritual health, which creates the essential prerequisites for the coming of Christ’s grace. Abba Arse-nios advised a certain brother to stay in his cell at these difficult times. The brother replied, “I am troubled by thoughts that say, ‘You can neither fast nor work. If, however, you visit those who are sick, that also is love.'” The Elder discerned “the seeds of the demons” in this thought and said to him, “Go! Eat, drink, sleep and do not work. As long as you do not leave your cell.” Abba Arsenios gave this answer because he knew “that patiently staying in the cell makes a man a monk.” Our effort to live a he-sychastic life in vigilance and stillness helps significantly in this painful struggle.
In addition to all the above, asceticism is required in all aspects of our lives. St Antony teaches that the more the demons attack us, the more we too “intensify our ascetic effort against them.” By asceticism we mean the struggle to keep Christ’s commandments. Asceticism, that is to say, “a good life”, is necessary because the demons “fear the fasting of the ascetics, their vigil, their prayers, their meekness, their quietness, their contempt for money and vainglory, their humility, their love of the poor, their alms, their freedom from anger, and, most of all, their devotion to Christ.” All these virtues, which are the fruit of the All-Holy Spirit, are spiritual weapons that make up the spiritual armoury by which we are able to extinguish “the fiery darts of the evil one.”
Discretion is an essential weapon in this battle. St John the Evangelist and Theologian urges, “Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1). We need discretion not only to distinguish between what is uncreated and what is created, but also to identify correctly which demon we should concentrate on fighting because, as mentioned already, many demons attack us simultaneously. St John Climacus says that the warrior ought to know which enemies to pursue at a distance, and which to allow to wrestle with him. Sometimes “the fight is rewarded with a crown” and sometimes “refusing to fight leaves us inexperienced. ” It can happen that by avoiding fighting the devil we remain untried and immature spiritually. Or we may allow him to approach, wrestle with him and receive crowns from God. The opposite can also happen. We can seek to fight him because of our lack of discretion and our superficiality, and this can have terrible repercussions in our lives. For that reason the virtue of discretion and, above all, God’s illumination are needed in this struggle. Through discretion we are able to come to a clear understanding of how this war is waged.
Since the devil works through the passions and every passion has its corresponding demon, anyone who wants to fight against the demons must struggle mostly against the passions through which the demons work. St Maximos the Confessor teaches that the demons are weakened “when the passions in us are reduced through keeping the commandments”, and are destroyed “when they are finally routed by dispassion, for then they no longer find any means of entering the soul and fighting against it.” The struggle to acquire this blessed state of dispassion is basically a struggle against the demons. As St John Climacus says, “Someone who has defeated the passions wounds the demons.”
We must never accept appearances of the demons in person or any kind of vision. The holy Fathers are emphatic on this point. St Neilos the Ascetic recommends, “Take care that the evil demons do not deceive you with some vision. Be on your guard, turn to prayer and make supplication to God.” As mentioned above, the devil transforms himself into an angel of light. The Apostle Paul was aware of this tactic of the devil and wrote, “Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).
St Nicodemus the Hagiorite refers to cases of demonic apparitions and sets out how to deal with them. A few examples follow.
Abba Abraham was singing at midnight and the demons appeared in order to delude him. His cell was filled with light; the devil appeared and said, as though God were speaking, “Blessed are you, Abraham. No one can compare with you, because you have fulfilled all my commandments.” Then Abba Abraham shouted loudly, “May your darkness go with you into perdition, liar and deceiver. I am a sinful man.”
The devil appeared to St Symeon the Stylite full of light and accompanied by red horses and said to him, “The Lord has sent me, His angel, to carry you away as I carried away Elijah. Climb into the chariot so we can go to heaven. All the angels and saints want to see you.” Then St Symeon made the sign of the Cross and it became clear that it was the devil.
The devil appeared to Abba Arsenios and said, 7 am Christ.” Abba Arsenios replied, 7 do not want to see Christ in this world but in the world to come.”
Abba John saw a radiant chariot and horses, and heard a voice saying, “You have done everything well. Acknowledge me now as your king and worship me.” Then Abba John replied, 7 shall worship the Lord my God and Him only shall I serve.”
The devil also appeared in the form of Christ to St Pachomios and said, “O Pachomios, I am Christ and I have come to you, my faithful friend”, to which St Pachomios replied, “Christ is peace, but you have filled me with confusion.” He made the sign of the Cross and the devil disappeared.
There is an account of a monk named Valens who accepted a vision of the devil and thought he was Christ. He bowed down in worship before the devil. When the time came for the Fathers to receive Holy Communion, all the others partook but he said, “I do not want to receive Holy Communion because I have seen Christ.” Then he went mad and the brethren tied him up “as insane and out of his mind.”
Because the saints have the grace of Christ they can distinguish between spirits. They can discern whether light is from Satan or from God. We discussed the difference in an earlier section and shall see it again here, as described by St Paul of Mount Latros. The light of the devil “is like fire and smoke, and resembles visible fire. When it is seen by someone whose soul is humble and purified, he finds it disgusting and repulsive.” The Light of God, by contrast, “is most lovely and pure, and wherever it shines it sanctifies. It fills the soul with light, joy and delight and makes it gentle and charitable.”
In cases of fierce satanic attack we need to visit experts, in other words, saintly people, who are familiar with the wiles of the devil and can guide us safely along this difficult path. This is what St Mark the Ascetic recommends. If we do not possess “the lamp of true knowledge, because our nous has not yet reached maturity”, then as far as possible “we should seek and strive to meet those with knowledge.” Spiritual fathers are scientific experts on this spiritual struggle and are the only appropriate people to guide us and determine our battle strategy. Turning to them for advice must, of course, be linked with confession, because all the opposing forces of the devil are put to flight by confession.
In cases where the devil has acquired considerable power over us, particularly when he has captured our citadel — the brain — and from there totally controls us, we need to seek refuge in the Church and with the Priests, and to undergo exorcism. There are special prayers by which the Priest beseeches God to drive the devil out of us. Some people resort to practitioners of magic in order to be delivered from demonic forces. That, however, is a delusion of the devil to draw them even closer to him. He may pretend that he has gone away or, even worse, that one demon can drive out another. Contemporary ascetics have revealed that every practitioner of magic is directed by a particular type of demon. Such a practitioner may cast out other demons, but at the same time he makes the person a servant of his own demon. Thus the domination of Satan continues indefinitely. The holy Fathers advise that those in the power of demons should to turn to Priests, who will read the appropriate prayers of exorcism for them from the Prayer-Book. Then, depending on their faith and repentance, and God’s will and providence, they will see many results.
Apart from everything already mentioned, it should be noted that the sacramental life of the Church is a strong weapon against the devil. Through Holy Baptism the devil is driven out of a person’s heart, through Holy Chrismation he is sealed with the seal of the Holy Spirit, and through the Divine Eucharist all the powers of Satan are destroyed. The whole sacramental and ascetical life lived within the Church is an experience of the redeeming sacrifice of Christ, and provides us with the strongest weapons for overcoming the devil and avoiding all his wiles.
Everything set out above reveals certain facts that I think should be highlighted as conclusions.
The devil exists and works to separate us from God. Satan acts mainly in those who accept him, who are spiritually defenceless, but he makes war on all Christians, particularly those striving to attain to deification. Although he fights against everyone externally, he cannot act inwardly in everyone.
As time passes he becomes more terrible in his warfare. When a brother asked Abba Sisoes, “Did Satan persecute the ancients like this?”, he replied, “He does more now, because his time is drawing near and he is agitated.” The nearer we come to the Second Coming, the more agitated he becomes.
The power of Christ is stronger that the power of the devil. A Christian who is empowered by the grace of God has absolutely nothing to fear. He is strong in Christ. As the Apostle Paul declares, “I can do all things through Christ Who strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).
The devil’s power should not frighten us; instead, the love of God, which defeats every hostile force, should empower us.
The task of the Clergy is not to spread panic about the wiles of the devil, but to prepare the faithful to put on the whole armour of God, so that they will overcome and annihilate the power and stratagems of the devil. Unfortunately nowadays we see a trend towards panic. We observe the phenomenon of widespread discussion about the Antichrist but very little about Christ: lots of anti-christology and not much Christology. Many people speak about the Antichrist, without taking care at the same time to prepare the faithful for war with the Antichrist. They neglect to train Christians in the method of the Orthodox faith, which means purification, illumination and deification.
In the Revelation of St John there is a magnificent image. St John the Evangelist saw the Lamb opening the first of the seven seals. “And I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and behold a white horse: and He that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto Him: and He went forth conquering, and to conquer” (Rev. 6:1-2). The triumphant victory of Christ is apparent throughout the book of Revelation.
The defeat of Satan is also clear from the Revelation of St John: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:9-11). The Lamb is victorious over the beast of the Revelation. The people of the Lamb overcome the dragon and celebrate in heaven. There is nothing terrifying for men and women of God. They are strong and powerful. What was said of the Bishop of Pergamon also applies here. God said, “I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast My name, and hast not denied My faith” (Rev. 2:13). Someone can live where Satan has his throne, and yet uphold the name of Christ and not deny his faith. This is achieved by the power of Christ.
May we be numbered among these victors, those who are prepared to bear the name of Christ. Then the words of Christ will apply to us: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that received it” (Rev. 2:17).