There are stories of saints who lived ordinary lives, and there are stories of saints who had fantastic lives. Today, you will find the story of a saint whose life stands out, even among other saints who had incredible experiences in life.
His name was St. Anthony of the Desert.
So much could be said about this man, but I mostly want to tell you today about one dramatic story from his life, where he battled evil beings. First though, if you have not heard of him much before, he is such a very special Saint. He is considered to be the father of Christian monasticism, having lived before the time of St. Benedict, who is perhaps better known in the West for his influence on Christian monastic life. From the start of his adult life St. Anthony had already begun to live as an ascetic, purposefully setting himself in seclusion to focus on unceasing prayer and growth in virtue.
He was not the first Christian monk, but he was the first to go live out alone in the wilderness. Much of his life was spent in the solitude in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. He lived on little, and ate now and then when trusted friends would bring him bread every so many days, or by some accounts, weeks. To most of us this might sound unhealthy.
On the other hand, he is said to have lived to be around 100 years old (c. 251-356).
That’s why, even among other saints, he stands out.
But again, today I want to focus on just one fantastic story from his life, about a great battle with actual demons. He had to deal with demons many times in his life, and while he is not the only saint known to have entered into spiritual combat with demonic entities, his is the only story I have come across where a saint had to literally contend with hordes of demons.
Now, some will say that these old stories are just fairytales, or that the demons in these kinds of stories are not real, that they just represent fighting with one’s own psyche. Others may point out that in many old hagiographic accounts of saints from the first few centuries after Christ the story details were often intentionally exaggerated just to extol Christians. However, accounts of St. Anthony’s life have been deemed reliable.
Consider this. Scholars today almost unanimously consider the recorded biography of St. Anthony to be a substantial historical record. That is because his biography was written by another saint, St. Athanasius, who was the bishop of Alexandria in the time of St. Anthony.
You see, while St. Anthony spent much time in seclusion, many people were attracted to his lifestyle and sought him out to ask for his counsel, some even to emulate him by living in the caves around the same desert mountains as him. So, ironically, his life was both secluded and yet also well-known to local Egyptians at the time. His reputation even began to spread around the world.
And while this is not always a favorite topic of conversation among the faithful, the fact is that the Church fully acknowledges the real existence of demons and their potential to come into the world seeking the ruin of souls. We don’t pray to St. Michael the Archangel for nothing.
Yet even so, even for me this story is a strange one. There are many stories of saints who had to contend with demons. But again, this is the only story I have found where a saint had to do battle with hordes of demons surrounding him. Perhaps there is some exaggeration to this story. And perhaps there is not. You can decide for yourself, I suppose, but either way, the story stands as it is, and from this story we can learn much.
A multitude of demons came and beat St. Anthony so badly that he could not move.
He was in a tomb at the time. Why in a tomb? At the time he was simply secluding himself in prayer. He was thirty-five by then. He had already been living ascetically, but was now beginning to challenge himself further. So he went out to the tombs and shut himself in a single tomb, alone.
According to St. Anthanasius’ account, St. Anthony’s presence in the desert bothered the evil one so much that he came with a multitude of his demons to cut St. Anthony with stripes. St. Anthony tells us that the blows were much more powerful than what any man was capable of delivering. He was in so much pain that he could only lay on the ground, speechless.
But the very next day St. Anthony’s acquaintance came to deliver his bread and found the poor saint looking practically dead on the ground. He carried St. Anthony’s body to the church in the nearby village. He laid the body on the ground there, where many villagers and family members of the saint sat surrounding what they may have thought was a corpse.
At midnight St. Anthony suddenly arose. He found all the family members and villagers there asleep, except for one friend who witnessed St. Anthony arise. Quietly, he requested that his friend carry him back to the tombs without awaking anyone. He was still too battered by the demons’ torture to stand up on his own, so his friend laid him back in the tomb, where St. Anthony simply returned to his prayer, alone.
Why would he return to the tomb? Reading about saints like St. Teresa of Ávila or St. Gemma Galgani, we see that when dealing with serious demonic attacks it is best to remain calm and keep humbly praying to God for deliverance from the situation and, if possible, maintain a faithful heart while throwing some holy water on the evil beings. In other words, it is not good to pridefully think that we, as physical beings, can fight evil spiritual beings. Here, though, St. Anthony was not trying to fight back against the demons out of pride. He was simply a man of great faith. To him, if the Lord would allow for such peculiar circumstances to happen like being attacked by a horde of evil beings – only to soon be saved by a friend, and then soon after be revived – there had to be a greater reason for all this.
So back again praying in the tomb, he shouted, “Here am I, Anthony! I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ!”
He did not pridefully proclaim his own strength. He only affirmed with complete honesty his love for Christ Jesus.
He even sang, “Though a camp be set against me, my heart shall not be afraid.”
Even though he was considered ignorant and uneducated, he was known to have a great memory for every bit of scripture he heard.
The enemy hated all this. Previously the enemy had even tried to tempt St. Anthony by lust, appearing to him as a temptress, but St. Anthony prevailed through faith, prayer, and fasting. Now even brute force did not seem to sway the saint.
“You see,” the evil one said, “that neither by the spirit of lust nor by blows did we stay the man, but that he braves us. Let us attack him in another fashion.”
The devil and his demons made an entrance which shook up the whole place like an earthquake, coming into the tomb as if breaking through the walls, appearing in the forms of all sorts of beasts. There were lions and bears, leopards and wolves, serpents and asps, scorpions and bulls. They all tried to threaten the saint, the bull brandishing its horns, the serpent writhing around, and the lion letting out a great roar. However, when the wolf tried to run up to the saint, it could not reach him, as if it were being restrained.
Still St. Anthony laid there in pain. His body hurt, but his mind was clear and his spirit was faithful. As much as the gang of demons tried to attack the saint, they could not succeed this time.
St. Anthony mockingly said, “If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord has made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers – and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.”
The saint clearly understood the true nature of the situation.
He continued, “If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack, but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.”
The evil beings were angered at their inability to harm the saint. They were grinding their teeth in vexation at how their attempt to scare a single man only turned into their own self-mockery.
Then St. Anthony, looking up, saw that the roof of the tomb had suddenly disappeared. A ray of light shined down upon him. The demons vanished. St. Anthony’s pain suddenly stopped, and the roof returned.
St. Anthony caught his breath and asked, “Where were you? Why did you not appear at the beginning to make my pains cease?”
A voice said to him, “Anthony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight, wherefore you have endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succor to you (always be at your aid) and will make your name known everywhere.”
As St. Anthony got up he felt different. His body felt stronger than it was before.
And then – after all that – being the kind of man that he was…St. Anthony simply prayed.
What Does This All Mean?
At first this story of battling demons may sound epic, like the stories of heroes, but in the end this is just the story of a single night in the life of a man who lived into his hundreds. St. Anthony’s life may sound extreme to us, but to him it was normal. He was only living in the way he felt compelled to live, and he was able to do what he did by the grace of God.
Today we complain about the distractions in our society that make it hard for us to pray, but here was a man who prayed even amidst demonic wild beasts. Such was the resolve of his faith in God.
Today we complain about the prevalence of sexual imagery in society, but St. Anthony battled with the spirit of lust itself and conquered through prayer, fasting, and faith.
Today when we are threatened with violence we often try to flee or fight, but St. Anthony, when being tortured and then threatened again by demons, only remained as he was and prayed.
But like us, St. Anthony wanted an answer from the Lord, to know what was the reason for his suffering that night. Could we respond to the Lord like St. Anthony, though? He received a direct answer from the Lord, but afterwards made no extra commentary. He only returned to prayer. Knowing St. Anthony, though, even if he had not received a direct answer…
He would have only returned to prayer.
The Lord has made St. Anthony’s story so widespread so that we could all learn from his example. Most of us may never be called to live quite like St. Anthony, but all of us are called to grow to possess the same saintly heart of faith that he had. So if this story today has touched you, I hope you will consider learning more about St. Anthony and his spiritual life in the desert. You can find so many stories about his life here at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2811.htm.
The Next Generation
But even after his death and over a millennium later, there is more to his story. Today there is a modern monk who became inspired to live just as St. Anthony, literally living in the same mountains, in the same desert. His name is Fr. Lazarus Al-Anthony, an Australian man who was once a Marxist philosophy professor. After a long and inspiring conversion process, he has become a modern desert hermit whom we can learn from today. According to Fr. Lazarus, St. Anthony has even blessed his endeavors by appearing to him in the desert.
Even before Fr. Lazarus began living in the desert alone, when he was once inside the historic cave of St. Anthony in Egypt – praying and asking St. Anthony if he too could live as the saint once did – Fr. Lazarus suddenly heard a voice from behind him, though there was no one there. The voice spoke to him in Arabic, but Fr. Lazarus did not know the language, so he asked a local monk about the phrase he had heard. The monk told him it meant, “I love all my children.”
Just as St. Anthony became known throughout the world so as to extol the faithful and inspire the faithless, today Fr. Lazarus has gained attention in various documentaries and has even been featured on the Christian Youth Channel on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4TDuIOmYcg.
Listening to his testimonies makes for a very powerful experience, just like hearing the stories of St. Anthony, so powerful that the BBC channel did a special called “Extreme Pilgrim” featuring Peter Owen, a vicar in the Church of England.
Peter Owen went to spend three and a half weeks in self-retreat in Fr. Lazarus’ cave: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDJx2qNDPCk.
Later, after his time there, he gave a presentation on his experience. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNucGMrtBvc&t=28s.
Peter commented that, “…I had completely underestimated how difficult it would be – I had this very … romanticized notion of, ‘Yes, of course, I can be like one of the Desert Fathers, living in the cave.’ But the reality is brutal and difficult and very, very testing indeed – and I recommend it to anyone over the age of 18. . . We should all do it once in our life. Take one month out. . . just to reflect on what on earth this experience is all about and where we are within that place, how we are feeling, what we have swallowed, the good stuff and the bad stuff.”