Last week, we read about Antony’s “terrifying struggle in solitude, his reduction to a condition of utter helplessness.” Only afterwards was Antony able to emerge with a love capable of “holding everything and everyone.” Matthias Grünewald’s portrayal of Antony’s temptation by horrific demons in the Isenheim altarpiece would be unbearable if it were not for its proximity to the depiction of the crucified Christ, over whom death has no mastery despite the agony of Good Friday. I wonder if all of this makes sense to many of us at St Blog’s. We seem to spend most of our energy determining the right political positions and theological orthodoxy, and then ensuring that these boundaries will be patrolled. But the devil, Athanasius tells us, tempted Antony by “suggesting memories of his possessions, the guardianship of his sister, the bonds of kinship, love of money and of glory, the manifold pleasures of food, the relaxations of life, and, finally the rigors of virtue and how great the labor is that earns it.” I don’t mean to question the importance of social justice or church doctrine; only their adequacy.
Since Lent is fast approaching, we should look closely at the need for inner struggle in our own lives. The following will be drawn from an essay by the patristics scholar and Methodist minister Frances Young. Rev Young reminds us that the ancient world emphasized struggle on the battlefield and in athletics. The Letter to the Hebrews thus counsels Christians to “persevere in running the race (agon)” (12:1) before them, and St Paul tells the Corinthians, “I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27). This theme is carried over in the Fathers; besides Athanasius’ story of Antony’s confrontation with demons, we can remember Theodoret’s description of the Syrian monks. For him, these ascetics are heroes “who have undertaken a campaign against evil and paganism, a combat with the devil who is overcome by their exorcisms and cures, a race in which they will win an imperishable crown; for they are imitators of God’s prophets, indeed the imitations of Christ himself.”
That last line reminds us that the Christian agon requires a very different strategy than what we might expect. The twenty monastic virtues recommended in the Apophthegmata Patrum for struggle against demons include quiet, patience, and humility. Our opponents are also quite different than what we might expect: Abba Poemen reminds us, “Our own wills become demons,” and Abba Sisoes points us (as will John Wesley) to the Epistle of James, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (1:14). This is not something that we seem to talk about at length. But again and again we read of inner struggle. John Wesley was influenced by the Macarian homilies – his heart “sang” when he read Macarius on a boat in Georgia in 1736, even as he was “not a little affrighted by the falling of the mast.” Macarius spoke of a “battle on a double front.” We must battle against “the attraction of worldly bonds and from sinful passions.” We must also battle against our own natures “for a certain hidden and subtle power of darkness is revealed that has been entrenched in the heart.” Well, who wants to fisk themselves?
This process of discipline does require a good deal of patience and hope. It will be more difficult for some than others. Although Christians are “possessed of so much joy and comfort,” Macarius says, “they are yet in fear and trembling.” We can anticipate heaven in this life, but it is “purchased only with labor and pains, and trials, and many conflicts.” Throughout all of this, we are always completely dependent on the grace of our merciful God. But if we should grow careless or complacent, or fail to constantly seek help from God, we will fall.
John Wesley was influenced by others, including John Chrysostom. Chrysostom also spoke of struggle, and how we may triumph over its anguish through prayer, since Christ is alongside us. Chrysostom writes of Jesus, “He anointed us as we went into the combat, but He fettered the devil; He anointed us with the oil of gladness, but He bound the devil with fetters that cannot be broken to keep him shackled hand and foot for the combat.” But it might be more from the Macarian homilies that Wesley grasped that theology must be practical, and it must move us towards perfection: we really are to become “the pure habitation of the Holy Spirit.”
This striving towards perfection should not be romanticized. Rev Young reminds us that it is always “something dynamic – not a state attained, nor something absolute, but something always improvable: indeed ‘one perfected in love may grow in grace far swifter than he did before.’” And nobody is ever wholly free from temptation. There is no ground for arrogance. Wesley is perhaps best known for his conversion experience at Aldersgate in 1738. Wesley then famously wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Perhaps less well known is that he was soon “most buffeted with temptations” that simply would not leave. But Wesley overcame his doubts by remembering St Paul’s words, “Without were fightings, within were fears” (2 Cor 7:5). Wesley realized that there was no escape from the agon, but he could still be victorious by trusting in the wounds of Christ and rejoicing in his Savior.
Rev Young tells us that Christians need to continue to struggle with pride, anger, love of the world, and other temptations: “They may be sorrowful, grieved, under a fiery trial, yet that is God’s way of refining faith. Trials increase faith, hope, love, and advance holiness of heart. The important thing is to endure to the end through watching and praying. As long as we are in the world we cannot escape the subtleties of Satan. We have the first-fruits of God’s Spirit; but the harvest is not yet. And Christians are open to attack precisely where their strength lies: by concentrating on their guilt and sinfulness rather than the hope of the gospel; by letting their confidence in God’s salvation wane. This is perhaps Wesley’s version of the sin of akedia.”
There are many things to learn at St Blog’s. But perhaps we – especially myself, I hasten to say – need to relearn two Greek words that Wesley quoted: agonizesthe eiselthein. They mean “striving as in an agony,” and that striving, Wesley would tell us, is a seeking after the “holiness without which no man can see the Lord.” Without it, I fear, Athanasius’ harrowing depiction of an Antony “speechless from the tortures,” lying alone on the ground, will never make any sense to us. And – I fear this even more – we will then never become anything like the Antony that emerged from the desert. I am sure that I am being unfair; let me just remind you (and myself) that Lent is fast approaching.