A few weeks ago Wifey mentioned she’d read that the Desert Fathers used the terms “demons” and “thoughts” interchangeably. This idea intrigued me and so I persuaded Wifey to find out more by picking the brain of Jonathan over on: A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons.
Here’s Jonathan’s response which is quite lengthy but packed through with good things:
I do not have a vast knowledge of the Desert Fathers, though even if I did it wouldn’t necessarily do much good: what the ascetics can teach us comes through experience of their life – as much as is possible for us – rather than reading about it, or even “observing” it close up. Without that experience, a lot of what the Desert Fathers (as opposed to the other Fathers of the Church who were pastors and wrote specifically for the laity) teach is, quite frankly, impenetrable. This is before we get into issues of translations!
This can often lead to misunderstandings, and I think that to say “demons” and “thoughts” were interchangeable for the desert fathers is not quite right, although there is some truth in it. From the hagiographies of the desert fathers (which are much more accessible than their “sayings”) it is clear that those ascetics who most ardently strove for uninterrupted communion with God saw – and even sometimes interacted with – demons. The vision of a demon as some horrible creature is not an “immature” view of fallen angels but one that was usually only granted to the most clairvoyant of elders. The best example is Anthony the Great, the founder of Christian monasticism of the eremitic kind. He often saw demons flying in the air (Eph 2:2). St Anthony was physically attacked by demons, wounding his flesh, which proves their reality! Of course, demons do not attack most people in this way, because revealing themselves so clearly is the last resort of creatures that have chosen the darkness and rejected the light of God. It is the holiness of the Saint that causes them to see demons, where most people are unaware of their presence. Other ascetic saints have been granted (by God) visions of the demons attacking other monks – invisible to the person under attack. It was St Sergius of Radonezh, or perhaps St Nilus, who in a monastery refectory saw demons on certain members of the brethren, and as one demon touched a monk’s mouth he would yawn, and as one touched a monk’s belly he would suddenly take an extra piece of bread from the table, and so on.
This last vision does show how demons usually attack people, particularly Christians: not through “possession”, but more through subtle means used to stir up bodily passions. When I was last at the St John the Baptist monastery in Essex, I did notice that one of the monks, during the Divine Liturgy, would always subtly cross his mouth each time he yawned - obviously having been advised that tiredness, hunger etc during the services is some sort of assault. This is an important part of Christian anthropology that differs from secular forms. The Christian tradition teaches that desires and thoughts can come from “outside”. In the desert fathers’ literature they’re often called “assaults” and are considered as demonic in origin, though not demons themselves, who are fallen angels who therefore have their own will and intellect.
Obviously desires and thoughts can, and usually, come from within us. Bodily desires help to keep us physically well (telling us when to eat, sleep etc), and thoughts are what we use to reason, make decisions, and all other manner of normal things. However, I certainly have experienced a thought “pop into my head” and then immediately been repulsed by it: my (counter) thought is “where did that come from”? I’m no expert, but I suppose modern psychology would attribute this thought to the sub-conscious: in other words they are, ultimately, our own creation. But Orthodox spirituality does not recognize such a thing, as great and profound the depths of the human heart may be. What Orthodox spirituality does teach is what we intuitively know: that thoughts sometimes do “pop into our head”, and they are not from us, but from somewhere outside. In short, they are intrusive thoughts, or assaults. Other times intrusive thoughts – during prayer for example – come from memories being “stirred up”, but again this language reveals much: the memories may be from within us, but who is stirring them up if we have not willed it?
The desert fathers, because of their clairvoyance, have seen more clearly the approach and assault of spiritual forces against a Christian who wishes to pray, and have written about the development of sin from within a person.
The first stage is the intrusive thought, which “pops into our head” – a mere suggestion of doing something. This is not a sin, but if within us there is some part of the heart that is not cleansed, then the suggestion will take root and turn into a temptation. The person then begins to contend with the temptation – weighing up the pros and cons of the suggestion. This is also not a sin, because the temptation can be rejected in the mind, but this is already a dangerous place to be in. Without being rejected the temptation becomes a desire, and the person will find a way to carry out the evil deed suggested. This is a sin which must be repented of – it is committing the sin in thought – although even here there is the possibility that the person will not – in the end – carry out the deed. The next stage is to commit the sin in deed as well as thought. If this sin is not repented of then it may completely “possess” the person and become habitual, like a second nature.
This description of the way an intrusive thought develops into full-blown sin does sound like the “thought” is its own person, a demon in itself. But really the power of the thought and the way it develops comes from man’s own creative act of imagination: taking the thought, interacting with it, debating it, forming it into a plan, and then slavishly following it as though it were a real master, and not an idol of the human intellect. Nevertheless, the original thought that caused all the problem was external: an assault from the demons, though perhaps not a demon itself. Some icons show demons as black little creatures with bows and arrows. The arrows are often labeled with various passions. Perhaps this is a useful way of looking at it.
The experienced desert fathers could recognize an intrusive thought straight away, and simply ignore it. Those who are given over to passions and sin see these thoughts as “good ideas” they’ve had themselves and move straight from “assault” to committing a sin in a heartbeat. For Christians not well-practiced in prayer like myself, often the intrusive thought becomes a full-blown temptation before I’m even aware of it, and so I struggle with rejecting a shameful number of urges and desires.
I hope you and Stuart can glean something useful from what I’ve written, which I realize is too long. The answer to this question is much simpler than I have made out and can be summed up by the two Gospel commandments: Love God with all your body, mind, and spirit, and love your neighbour as yourself. To fulfill the second commandments means rejecting all thoughts that impede it being carried out; to truly fulfill the first commandment means rejecting almost *all* human thoughts and imaginations (even seemingly good ones) as the greatest of ascetic Saints did, and resting solely in the presence of God. Either way, making fine distinctions between demons and their “weapons” becomes unimportant, as it is best to simply avoid intrusive thoughts as though they were demons!!