Making Space for Mystics and Madness

Here’s another bit of writing from one of my classes this semester, this one from the Pastoral Care and Mental Illness course I’ve been taking.  This particular course has had some interesting overlap with another of my classes: Desert Discipleship, which explores the legacy of the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries of Christianity.  In this assignment, which I conceived as an article for a church newsletter, I propose a connection between schizophrenia and the legacy of St. Anthony.  Enjoy!

st-anthony-the-great-3St. Antony, also known as Anthony the Great, was a Christian monk who lived in Egypt in the third and fourth centuries. He renounced the wealth left to him by his parents and chose to live an ascetic life in the desert, fasting and meditating on Christ. Antony became a wise and famous figure of Egyptian monasticism, but more than anything, he was known for his battles with demons.

St. Athanasius, the fourth century bishop of Alexandria, described these battles in The Life of Antony, which quickly became one of the most popular books in Christian history. Many modern readers will find these accounts more than a little odd, but there was something about Antony’s life and his battles with the demons that earlier generations undeniably found compelling. Athanasius describes how Antony withdraws further and further into the desert, at one point enclosing himself in a deserted barracks and receiving stores of food only twice a year. Athanasius writes:

Those friends who came to see him, since he would not allow them to come inside, often remained outside day and night. They heard what sounded like mobs of people creating a ruckus and crashing around inside, letting loose their pitiful voices and crying out, “Get away from what belongs to us! What are you doing in the desert? You will not be able to endure our connivings!” Those outside at first thought some people… had gotten inside by means of ladders… but when they knelt down to look through a hole in the wall, they did not see anyone. (Athanasius, 2003, p. 89)

1an33__24635_1405404609_900_900Antony instructs his followers to be wary of these demonic voices, telling them that they fill one’s head with “filthy thoughts” and cause “apparitions,” that “they pretend to frighten us by changing their shapes and taking on the appearance of women, wild beasts, reptiles…” (Athanasius, 2003, p. 113)

Hundreds of people flocked to the desert to be taught by Antony, to the point that Athanasius writes that they “forcibly tore down his door and forced him to come out.” (Athanasius, 2003, p. 91) Reading this in the 21st century, I have a hard time imagining this happening in our day. Even though the Christian church has centuries of history and tradition of mysticism and mystery, I can’t imagine people rushing out to sit at the feet of anyone who heard voices and saw apparitions and warned others about demons putting thoughts into their heads today. Can you? If St. Antony lived today, many folks would probably be pretty quick to label him a schizophrenic. They would probably say that he was crazy. Continue reading

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