As a young man, St. Anthony, the earliest of the Desert Fathers in Egypt, took to heart a passage from Scripture in which Jesus instructed another young man, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Anthony, who lost both parents by the age of 20, sold off his father’s estate and dispatched his younger sister to a nunnery. Then, after giving away his fortune, he ventured out into the wilderness to find God, much as Moses and Elijah had done in ages past. However, in seeking to follow Christ, he found himself on an altogether different path. In order to have treasure in heaven, as it turned out, he first had to face down the devil.
Jesus, of course, had gone three rounds with the devil in the wilderness and had prevailed. In round one, Satan slyly suggested to Jesus that if he were the Son of God, he could turn stones into bread – this after he had been fasting for 40 days. Jesus didn’t bite, if you will excuse the pun. He parried with Scripture, a verse from Deuteronomy: "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'" Satan also proved adept at quoting Scripture, citing a passage from Psalms to incite Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus countered with another passage from Deuteronomy: "Again it is written, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'" Satan now played his trump card, promising all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would worship him. Delving once more into Deuteronomy, Jesus sent the devil packing with this: "Begone, Satan! for it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"
Satan apparently felt constrained to remain on his best behavior while tempting Jesus; not so with Anthony, who had removed himself to the desert west of Alexandria. When boredom, apathy and the enticements of the flesh failed to do the trick, the devil resorted to outright thuggery. Demons pummeled Anthony so badly at one point that his followers at first thought he was dead. Next he was attacked by demons who appeared as wild beasts. Only after they had done their worst and failed to intimidate him did the Lord put in an appearance, prompting Anthony to complain, in effect, “Where were you when I needed you?”
Jesus clearly knew whereof he spoke when he threw in the line for the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation.” Living in an age when the preferred method of handling temptation is to give into it, we may not appreciate how seriously people once took their struggles against sin. At stake was the eternal salvation of their souls, and Satan had the home field advantage. As Anthony expressed it, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, ‘What can get through from such snares?’” Fleeing into the desert might remove the distractions of the world, only to bring one face to face with the Evil One.
How literally should we take Anthony’s encounters with the devil? Doubtless they were real to him, as they were to his biographer and contemporary, St. Athanasius. However, we might be more comfortable thinking of Satan as a psychological projection. According to the depth psychologist Carl Jung, we all harbor a shadow self that embodies the darker elements of the human psyche that we can’t acknowledge in ourselves. In the company of others, we are inclined to project those qualities onto those we think of as our enemies. So then what happens when we remove ourselves from the distractions of the world? Under conditions of extreme deprivation and isolation, Anthony thought he had met up with the devil. But what he actually encountered was something altogether more fearsome: himself.
St. Anthansius, The Life of St. Anthony