We Either Flee Devils or Fight Them

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Remembering St. Antony on his feast day: St. Macarius fought the devils. Holden Caulfield fled them.

Toward the end of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield tells himself he will move out West and shut himself off from everyone and everything, possibly by posing as a deaf-mute.

If he pretends to be a deaf-mute, he reasons, people would have to write messages to him on a piece of paper, and then, after they got tired of it, he’d be finished with conversations for the rest of his life.

Holden, a radically-disaffected youngster, thought his move out West would contain the seeds of his salvation because it would take him away from a world that held scant meaning for him and from a world that quietly tormented him with a parade of everyday things that irritated him.

Holden’s dream of fleeing to a remote area is not unique. The allure of leaving everything behind has enticed men and women throughout history. Unfortunately, like Holden’s contemplated flight, many flee for all wrong reasons.

But that doesn’t mean the flight is always wrong.

Although some flights are the retirement of cranks, others are the fodder for saints—like the flight of the desert monks in the fourth century.

The Desert Exodus

Tradition and Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History tell us the desert exodus started in 250, when Christians fled to the desert to save their lives from the Decian persecution.

Approximately twenty years later, another man went to the desert for a different reason: St. Antony wanted to fight the devil on a more equal playing field.

So he gave away all his possessions, found a deserted fort in the desert, blocked the entrance, and stayed there for twenty years in solitary contemplation, coming out only after his friends smashed down the entrance and insisted he come out. When they saw Antony, they recognized the holiness he had attained. Word about the desert holy man spread quickly, and disciples flocked to live near him in the desert.

Desert monasticism was thus officially born, but the overall numbers in the desert remained relatively small until after 313, when Emperor Constantine began to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, thereby making the decadent and corrupt fruits of late Roman society available to Christians.

In the words of historian Warren Carroll:

“Rarely in history has there been a society so good to flee from as that of the later Roman empire. No Christian could feel at home in it.”

As a result, many Christians, in imitation of St. Antony, fled the empire’s physical comforts for the hardships of the desert. At the start of the fourth century there were only a handful of desert monks; by the end of the fourth century, there were tens of thousands.

This exodus to the desert was the beginning of the Christian monastic tradition that would play a crucial role in Christianity’s development. The major desert communities were in southern Egypt (St. Antony’s area, consisting mostly of hermits), Syria (with its “stylite” ascetics, like St. Simeon Sylites), Palestine (who followed the footsteps of John the Baptist and Christ’s forty days in the wilderness), and the area known as Scetis, a region west of the Nile delta, approximately equidistant from Alexandria to the north and Cairo to the east.

The asceticism of the desert communities was remarkably harsh, with many stories told of monks going long periods of time with little or no food (one story recounts how a monk broke open dried camel dung to pick out a few grains to eat).  They spent long hours in prayer, often standing for days. They deprived themselves of sleep (one of the most learned of the desert monks, Arsenius, said, “one hour’s sleep a night is enough for a monk if he is a fighter”).

And they grappled with devils. As with St. Antony, this was often the reason they went to the desert. And, once there, the battle was waged continuously and didn’t end until death. One mortally-weak desert father on his deathbed, for instance, saw a devil sitting by his window, so he told his disciples to bring him his stick, saying he needed to thrash the devil to show him he wasn’t too old and weak to fight.

St. Macarius’ Early Life and Exodus

This was the world of St. Macarius the Great.

Indeed, it was to this world that St. Macarius was a spiritual hero.

Born in approximately 300 in a village in Upper Egypt, as a young man he pursued sanctity in a village, where his simple existence earned him the label, the “anchorite.”

But one day, the villagers discovered that the village virgin was pregnant. She blamed Macarius. The villagers seized Macarius, hung pots with soot around his neck, and paraded him around the village, beating him almost to death, saying, “This monk has defiled our virgin!”

The villagers wouldn’t let him go until he pledged to keep her (the villagers apparently hadn’t heard Santana’s “One Chain (Don’t Make No Prison)”). Macarius agreed and sold all his baskets to buy food for his wife. He then retired to his cell and said to himself, “Macarius, you have yourself a wife; you must work a little more in order to keep her.”

He worked night and day and sent the proceeds to her. When it came time to deliver the baby, the baby wouldn’t come out.  After a lot of pain, she confessed that she had lied about Macarius. Upon hearing this, the villagers started to visit Macarius and do penance before him.

That freaked him out. The false accusation and the resulting bondage was acceptable, but people prostrating themselves before him?

He fled to Scetis.

Macarius in the Desert

Once in Scetis, Macarius was quickly surrounded by disciples who recognized his excellent judgment and unusual capacity for discernment. In a time and place that treasured elderly wisdom, the young Macarius received the honorable nickname, “the aged youth,” and became the confidant to many souls.

After approximately ten years at Scetis, he received the gift of healing and forecasting the future and worked many miracles. He was eventually ordained a priest.

He gained repute as a great orator, preaching at various locations in Egypt. At one point, Macarius, preaching in loyalty to the Catholic Church, incurred the disfavor of the Arian bishop, Lucius of Alexandria, who exiled the elderly Macarius to an island in the Nile. After returning from his exile, he died in the desert, at approximately 90 years of age.

The Macarius Legend

Although he left no writings and was largely lost in the anonymity of the blazing desert, we have numerous stories about Macarius and the other desert fathers. These stories were passed down for years orally among the desert faithful, and were eventually reduced to writing.

Under such circumstances, it is possible that some of the stories became confused or improperly attributed to the wrong monk (this is especially possible with Macarius because he is often confused with his younger namesake, Macarius of Alexandria), but the stories are reasonably reliable and, in any event, accurately convey the personality of the monks.

The stories about Macarius are numerous. They attest to an intense humility and kindness, and to a life full of charitable works—though, typical of holy men, few knew about Macarius’ acts of charity (in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “The holy man always conceals his holiness; that is the one invariable rule.”

When a monk grew ill, for instance, he asked Macarius to get him some sherbet, so Macarius walked over a hundred miles to Alexandria to get the sherbet, but concealed his journey from the other monks.

In another story, we’re told Macarius didn’t want to drink wine, but he accepted it when offered to him by his brethren for their sake (how many times similar circumstances confront Christians today). But he took a silent pledge to himself: For every cup of wine he took, he would deprive himself of water for a day. This continued until one of his disciples noticed what was happening and feared he might die from dehydration. Word spread, and the brethren stopped offering him wine.

Macarius and the Devils

The stories about Macarius, as with other desert fathers, are full of references to devils. Macarius spoke with them and fought with them.

In one story, Macarius ran into a devil on the road, who repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, tried to slash Macarius with a scythe. The frustrated devil then told Macarius that his great humility protected him from the blows.

In another story, Macarius saw Satan walking with a jacket full of temptations for some brothers down the road. Macarius asked Satan whether he had much success at that community, and Satan told him of one monk who always fell prey to the temptations. Macarius went and spoke to the monk and offered some simple advice. The next time Satan appeared to the monk, his efforts failed.

The stories about Macarius’ confrontations with the devils generally are not spectacular: They do not involve violent exorcisms and they do not feature feats of glory in the battleground of the supernatural. In fact, the stories are quite ordinary. And they should be. Battles with devils are an everyday affair, and they are waged over the little, ordinary things in life.

Macarius and Holden Caulfield

Modern-day cynics discount the existence of active devils, but they were real to Macarius and the other desert fathers, whose virtue of discernment allowed them to see the devils—like a man sees the intricacies of a leaf under a microscope, whereas another man sees just another leaf.

Through a quiet life of contemplation, they saw the roots and sprouts of the sins that course through the human heart. As they grew to understand their sins, they came to see their enormity and complexity, and eventually saw the evil presence—Satan and his legion—that made the sins so active and vigorous.

And here lies the vivid difference between the escapism of a modern like Holden Caulfield and the flight of an ancient like St. Macarius. The modern doesn’t believe in devils, so he intuitively—fearfully—flees from an invisible enemy that attacks him but that he can’t see.