Into the Desert*

Some of you who are not fencers, maybe even some of you who are, may be wondering why, if fencing puts me through agonies such as I have been describing this past week, I do it at all. Surely there are more pleasant ways to spend my leisure time, if what I am looking for is a little fun. Why bring myself to the strip over and over again, night after night, year after year, if all I encounter there are the demons of pride, envy, gluttony, anger, lust, sloth and greed? Well, as the desert fathers who invented this list of deadly sins (more accurately, temptations) would put it, because that is where the demons are. How else will I learn to fight them?

I know, this may sound paradoxical. Why put myself in the way of temptation when, by avoiding the strip, I could so easily maintain my calm? Or could I? I would, of course, like to think I could, but then, how would I know unless I were brought to the test, for example, by having to stand in a long line at the airport waiting to hear whether the plane I was scheduled to travel on was ever going to arrive? Or by seeing one of my colleagues promoted before I was, despite all my publications, awards and years of service, simply for lack of an (oh, so coveted) outside offer? Not that I would ever be tempted by such circumstances to give into envy or rage. Not at all. But, then, if I never found myself in such situations (oh, that it were true), how would it be possible for me to know? More wisdom from my friend Badger, this time quoting the Buddhist teacher Charlotte Joko Beck: "Irritations are an opportunity to practice. It is easy to be all Zen and controlled when you are sitting (meditating), but what about real life? That person you really dislike--you should thank them. How can you practice controlling your temper if you are never angry? How can you practice patience if you are never irritated?"

Everyone knows the story of St. Anthony, right? How he gave up all his possessions and went out into the desert to live a life of fasting and prayer, only to be attacked over and over again by demons? Modern (i.e. post-Freudian) readers of his life as written by St. Athanasius have often been tempted to say: "But, of course; he was starving himself; he was young; he was living all by himself without family or friends. No wonder he had visions of demons tempting him to lascivious thoughts and appearing in the guise of beautiful women! These were not actual demons but figments of his own imagination. Clearly, he brought these attacks on himself. It was only because he disciplined himself so ferociously that he was assailed by such thoughts. Anyone who tried to live like this would have suffered the same thing." Well, yes, Anthony would agree; that was, after all, why he went out into the desert in the first place. To do battle with the demons, because the desert is where the strongest ones live.

Here, according to Evagrius Ponticus, are their names (and, yes, there are not seven as per the Deadly Sins, but eight): Gluttony, or the concern that one is doing damage to one's body by pursuing the ascetic life; Impurity, or lusting after others' bodies; Avarice, or the anxiety to care for one's old age, particularly shame at the thought of accepting aid from others; Sadness, or feeling sorry for oneself in the denial of one's desires; Anger, or wrath at the thought of those who have done one some injury; Acedia, or distraction and sloth, along with desire to abandon the ascetic life; Vainglory, or the desire to show off one's struggles and be commended by others; and Pride, or the conviction that one may be virtuous by one's own efforts without the help of God (Praktikos, 6-14). I hope that you are busy translating these into fencing terms: concern that all those lunges are playing havoc with one's knees, not to mention one's hip; lusting after others' actions; worrying about how expensive all the equipment is; fury at the director for missing one's perfect attack; feeling sorry for oneself for not having time to do anything but go to practice; working on one's blog or talking about it at practice rather than getting back on the strip; boasting about how hard one's been practicing; being convinced that it is possible to become a strong fencer solely by working hard. Sobering, isn't it?

Now, here's the thing: are these demons solely products of one's own mind or do they exist externally as well? Evagrius's description would seem to suggest that, somehow, they are both. Take, for example, his discussion of pride: "The demon of pride is the cause of the most damaging fall for the soul. For it induces the monk to deny that God is his helper and to consider that he himself is the cause of virtuous actions. Further, he gets a big head in regard to the brethren, considering them stupid because they do not all have this same opinion of him. Anger and sadness follow on the heels of this demon, and last of all there comes in its train the greatest of maladies--derangement of mind, associated with wild ravings and hallucinations of whole multitudes of demons in the sky" (Praktikos, 14) [1] How's that for a cautionary tale? If I don't deal with the temptation to think that I can act--or fence--well without God's help, that is, without surrendering my practice to God, I will lose my mind and begin to see demons everywhere, much as in Martin Schongauer's engraving of St. Anthony's temptation (above). But, then, wait; as St. Athanasius tells it, the demons really did attack Anthony, leaving him not just mentally, but physically battered and bruised. And Evagrius seems to be saying that pride is something that attacks the monk, not just something he feels.

I admit, it takes something of a leap to see the temptations that we experience in everyday life or, in more concentrated fashion, on the strip in this way. While angels may have thoroughly populated our gift shops and television series, most of us have a somewhat harder time thinking of demons as real, that is, as spirits whose presence might contribute to our feelings of anger, anxiety or despair. What resonates for me in Evagrius's discussion, however, is how, in his understanding, this process actually works. It is not just that there are demons out there tempting the monks; rather, the monks by their very thoughts attract the demons, who then assault the monks by intensifying the very feelings that the monks already have. What is significant is how the demons target their attacks: "The demons fight openly among the solitaries [i.e. the hermits], but they arm the more careless of the brethren against the cenobites, or those who practice virtue in the company of others. Now this second form of combat is much lighter than the first, for there is not to be found on earth any men more fierce than the demons, none who support at the same time all their evil deeds" (Praktikos, 5). Moreover, the stronger the monks get by way of their combat with the demons, the more powerful the demons who war against them become: "The greater the progress the soul makes the more fearful the adversaries that take over the war against her" (Praktikos, 59). Nor should the monk try to avoid such combat. Rather, it is the reason he has taken himself into the desert to begin with: "Wrestlers (παλαίοντες) are not the only ones whose occupation it is to throw others down and to be thrown in turn; the demons too wrestle--with us. Sometimes they throw us and at other times it is we who throw them. For, 'I shall crush them,' says the Psalmist, 'and they shall be unable to stand' [Psalm 17:39]. Again, 'Those who throw me down, and who are my enemies are themselves made weak and fall' [Psalm 26:2]" (Praktikos, 72).

Doubtless, one might still be wondering why it is necessary, not to mention desirable, to subject oneself to such trials, particularly since they only seem to become worse the more skilled at dealing with them one becomes. But, then, again, this is precisely the point, because, after all, what the monks are aiming for is nothing less than perfection, more particularly, to be able to "pray without ceasing," as the Apostle says we should (1 Thessalonians 5:17). "Reading, vigils, and prayer--these are the things that lend stability to the wandering mind" (Praktikos, 15). And, again: "prayer makes the spirit strong and pure for combat since by its very nature the spirit is made to pray" (Praktikos, 49). And the goal? "Perfect purity of heart develops in the soul after the victory over all the demons whose function it is to offer opposition to the ascetic life" (Praktikos, 60). Not to put too fine a point on it, it is our (monks', fencers') combat with the demons--our weaknesses and the spirits who encourage our weaknesses--that will ultimately make us strong. Of course, believing oneself strong enough to achieve victory over the demons is itself a temptation of the demon of vainglory, the only remedy to which is (you guessed it) "humility together with compunction and tears, longing for the Infinite God, and a boundless eagerness for toil" (Praktikos, 57). But, oh, what sweetness if one perseveres!

Okay, so perhaps even with the goal in mind of attending constantly to the presence of God it may still seem somewhat extreme to court combat with demons rather than to avoid it, but the point is we cannot avoid it (combat with demons, that is). Even if they are stronger in the desert where the monks (and fencers) go, they still assail those who live in the cities, they just use different tactics and blunter temptations. By going into the desert (a.k.a. onto the strip) to confront them, we control (insofar as we can) when and where we encounter them; we are expecting them, indeed, we want them to be there, so that we can wrestle with them and, in wrestling, cast them down. Yes, by putting ourselves in a situation to have to confront them, we encounter them in, as it were, a more purified form, with none of the contextual complications that make them harder to identify when we are out in the world. But, then, this is part of the benefit: we are aware that they are there, tempting us to give in to them. I know, I know, I have complained before about the way in which expertise in one activity (e.g. writing) does not translate into expertise in another (e.g. fencing) even on the level of knowing how to relax and concentrate, but in this instance I think the transferability of skills actually does apply because the skill is the same: how to deal with our thoughts about ourselves.

Perhaps, in fact, the demons are only a metaphor for the struggle that we have with ourselves, but this does not make them any less dangerous or important for us to fight. And, no, I don't believe that they will go away if we just ignore them or tell ourselves that we are born good and free from original sin. The very fact that they are there to tempt us with distractions, anxieties, envy and fears should be enough to make us wary of such claims of innocence and immunity. But if we have set ourselves the practice of wrestling with them in their most obvious forms--in all of the thoughts that we have on the strip about how we "should" win (pride) or how so-and-so had a lucky break (envy)--perhaps when they strike us off the strip we will be better able to deal with them when it really matters, not just in the desert of competition.

[1] All citations from the Praktikos trans. John E. Bamberger, Cistercian Studies Series 4 (Spencer, Mass., 1970).


  1. I am beginning to think the battle itself makes inner demons stronger. And you can't simply flee, because it is a race we can never win. As the Red Queen found, the faster you run, the faster you have to go to outpace them. Perhaps the trick is not to wrestle with these demons--anger, fear, pride. Instead, cease to struggle, and let them pass through. Anger at anger fuels anger. Fear is fed by fear, pride by the belief we can overcome it. By all means invite their attack-venture into the desert, onto the piste--and then breath, and watch, and accept what they are. Maybe without the energy of my resistance, they will weaken, and fade away.

  2. This is why we face them with humility, trusting not in our own ability to combat them, but rather in God. The greatest temptation, however, is always vainglory: thinking that since they have lessened their attack, they will not return. Thus, more practice in humility and letting go.


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist

RFB Meets EMJ and OBS

Why I Love Milo

Joking Matters