Friday, July 17, 2020

Thoughts on Watchfulness and Vigilance After Watching "A Nightmare on Elm Street"

I was at my local drive-in theater a few days ago watching the 1984 original A Nightmare on Elm Street, which I've seen at least a dozen times over the years, though this was my first time outdoors in the woods. For those who don't know, the movie centers around the spirit of Freddy Krueger, who in life was a serial killer that targeted children, and who now uses a gloved hand with razors to kill his victims in their dreams, causing their deaths in the real world as well. The more I see this film, the more I see Orthodox Christian themes of watchfulness and vigilance that one often encounters in its literature.

Let us give as an example an obvious one. We read in Matthew 26:36-41 the following:

Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, “Sit here while I go and pray over there.” And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and He began to be sorrowful and deeply distressed. Then He said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.” He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What! Could you not watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Now watch this scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which Nancy voluntarily goes to sleep to confront Freddy Krueger in her dreams and asks her boyfriend Glen to stay awake as she does so in order to wake her up when things get dangerous. In the clip below, she is already dreaming and asking Glen to wake her up, but Glen has fallen asleep. When she wakes up and finds Glen sleeping, she complains to Glen who could not stay up for but a moment on her behalf. Watch this till the end:

It's as if in this scene Freddy Krueger is an image of the devil, Nancy is a Christ-figure, Glen is a negligent disciple, sleep is the means by which the enemy harms us, while watchfulness and vigilance are the means of keeping the devil/Freddy from harming us; and as we know, Glen dies in his sleep soon after. The Gospel of Matthew earlier gives us a similar image in chapter 24 verses 42-43:

Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.

This is when the teachings of the Church Fathers and Elders start racing through my mind, as I apply them to what I am seeing in the horror film. Among these are the following ten:

1. "Let your reclining in bed be for you an image of your declining into your grave — and you will sleep less." (St. John Climacus)

2. "He who fights this adversary by bodily hardship and perspiration is like one who has tied his foe to a dry branch. But he who opposes him by temperance, sleeplessness and vigil is like one who puts a dog-collar on him." (St. John Climacus)

3. "A vigilant eye makes the mind pure; but much sleep binds the soul." (St. John Climacus)

4. "Vigil is a ... deliverance from dream phantoms." (St. John Climacus)

5. "Long sleep is an unjust comrade; it robs the lazy of half their life, and even more." (St. John Climacus)

6. "Offer to Christ the labors of your youth, and in your old age you will rejoice in the wealth of dispassion. What is gathered in youth nourishes and comforts those who are tired out in old age. In our youth let us labor ardently and let us run vigilantly, for the hour of death is unknown. We have very evil and dangerous, cunning, unscrupulous foes, who hold fire in their hands and try to burn the temple of God with the flame that is in it. These foes are strong; they never sleep; they are incorporeal and invisible. Let no one when he is young listen to his enemies, the demons, when they say to him: ‘Do not wear out your flesh lest you make it sick and weak.’ For you will scarcely find anyone, especially in the present generation, who is determined to mortify his flesh, although he might deprive himself of many pleasant dishes. The aim of this demon is to make the very outset of our spiritual life lax and negligent, and then make the end correspond to the beginning." (St. John Climacus)

7. "If you want never to be wounded, do not succumb to sleep. There are only two choices: to fall and be destroyed, stripped of all virtue; or, armed with the intellect, to stand firm through everything. For the enemy and his host stand always ready for battle." (St. Hesychios)

8. "The experience of true grace comes to us when the body is awake or else on the point of falling asleep, while in fervent remembrance of God we are welded to His love. But the illusion of grace comes to us, as I have said, when we fall into a light sleep while our remembrance of God is half-hearted. True grace, since its source is God, gladdens us consciously and impels us towards love with great rapture of soul. The illusion of grace, on the other hand, tends to shake the soul with the winds of deceit; for when the intellect is strong in the remembrance of God, the devil tries to rob it of its experience of spiritual perception by taking advantage of the body's need for sleep. If the intellect at that time is remembering the Lord Jesus attentively, it easily destroys the enemy's seductive sweetness and advances joyfully to do battle with him, armed not only with grace but also with a second weapon, the confidence gained from its own experience." (St. Diadochos of Photiki)

9. "When you go to bed with a contented mind, recall the blessings and generous providence of God; be filled with holy thoughts and great joy. Then, while your body sleeps, your soul will keep watch; the closing of your eyes will bring you a true vision of God; your silence will be pregnant with sanctity, and in your sleep you will continue consciously to glorify the God of all with the full strength of your soul. For when evil is absent from man, his thank-fulness is by itself more pleasing to God than any lavish sacrifice." (St. Anthony the Great)

10. Again the brother said: ‘In my sleep I see many vain fantasies.’ And Abba Philemon said to him: ‘Don’t be sluggish or neglectful. Before going to sleep, say many prayers in your heart, fight against evil thoughts and don’t be deluded by the devil’s demands; then God will receive you into His presence. If you possibly can, sleep only after reciting the psalms and after inward meditation. Don’t be caught off your guard, letting your mind admit strange thoughts; but lie down meditating on the thought of your prayer, so that when you sleep it may be conjoined with you and when you awake it may commune with you (cf. Prov. 6:22). Also, recite the holy Creed of the Orthodox faith before you fall asleep. For true belief in God is the source and guard of all blessings.’" (Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

What we learn from all the above is that in our spiritual life, being watchful and vigilant can keep the devil from invading our thoughts involuntarily, but when we do sleep, the manner of our life and what we do with our thoughts while awake will determine how our sleep goes, whether we place a guardian over our thoughts as we drift away or not. If we are able to place the guardian over our thoughts so that our sleep may be as watchful and vigilant as if we are awake, then we have already figured out how to defeat the enemy in our most vulnerable state.

So the next time you watch A Nightmare on Elm Street, keep all this mind, and perhaps it will be profitable for you.