The Way of Walter Mitty

November 12, 2012

A Homily on the Healing of the Gadarene Demoniac (Luke 8:26-39)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In 1939, the American writer, James Thurber, wrote a short story entitled The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.1 The narrative deals with an aging Walter Mitty on a trip into town with his overbearing wife. Walter is inept at many things; he is an absent-minded driver, he can’t handle simple mechanical tasks, and he forgets things easily. While he goes through a day of ordinary jobs and errands, he escapes into a series of romantic fantasies, each spurred on by some mundane reality.

The story begins with a commander trying to get a Navy hydroplane through a storm. The commander is a brave and unstoppable man and clearly has the admiration of his crew. This scenario, however, turns out to be little more than a fantasy in the mind of Walter Mitty, who isn’t so much piloting anything as he is driving his wife into town. His wife snaps him back into reality by blurting out, “Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!”

Soon, he drops his wife off to get her hair done and gets ready to do the list of errands she’s prepared for him. He drives past a hospital and launches into another fantasy, imagining he is a world-famous surgeon saving a famous dignitary’s life.

This flight of imagination is interrupted by a boy shouting at him to back up; he had entered the parking lot through the exit lane.

As he walks to the store, trying to remember what his wife told him to buy, he hears a newsboy shouting about a famous court trial, and this leads Mitty into another fantasy. He imagines himself as a great pistol shot being interrogated in a courtroom.

He snaps out of this daydream when he remembers what he is supposed to buy at the store. After his purchase, Walter goes to a hotel lobby to wait for his wife to finish at the hairdresser’s. He notices a magazine with pictures of German bomber planes on it, and envisions himself as a British pilot willing to sacrifice his life for his country. His heroic air mission is interrupted by his wife’s arrival, who scolds him for being so absent-minded.

The story concludes as he waits outside a drugstore, on the brink of yet another fantasy, while his wife is inside buying something. Thurber writes:

Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking… He put his shoulders back and his heels together. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

And so the story ends.

I must admit that for most of my life, I was something of a Walter Mitty; perhaps not as inept as him, but still prone to daydreams and fantasizing. It wasn’t until I entered the monastery and really began to try to pray that I realized how badly I had cultivated this habit. I can remember lying on my bed or couch, as minutes or even hours would pass, and I would be lost in a daydream, oblivious to my surroundings, always the hero of my own fantasy, the leading man of my own mental movie, the one who everyone else loved, respected and idolized. I can also recall driving down the highway in my car, and drifting off into a daydream, only snapping to eventually and realizing that I couldn’t recall the previous thirty minutes or hour, like I was on autopilot.

Today’s Gospel story about the Gadarene demoniac does not inform us about how the man became possessed. The story emphasizes Christ’s power over the devil and how Satan desires our destruction, which was evidenced by the demon-possessed swine rushing headlong into the lake and drowning. However, it is important for us to realize how someone can come under the influence of the demons, and how possession can and does take place.

There are a myriad of ways in which, as Elder Paisios of Mount Athos says, we can “give the devil rights over us,” but the way I wish to discuss today is one I did not know about before entering the monastery: the way of Walter Mitty.

Most of the monks here can probably recall our deputy abbot, Fr. Seraphim, relating to them the daydreaming trap known as “The grandmother’s picnic.” For those who are visiting or haven’t heard this before, here is a hypothetical scenario that will illustrate the basic idea:

While being idle (i.e., not praying), someone will find pleasure in daydreaming and recalling a wonderful time years ago that they had at a picnic at grandma’s. He will silently drift off in his mind to that distant day: ah… the beautiful weather, the delicious food, the games and singing, the family and friends he saw there… oh yes, and that guy, Jeff, was there. Jeff was a real talker. Boy, did Jeff talk his ear off at that picnic! That’s right! He’d forgotten about that. Jeff hogged conversations while endlessly teasing others. At one point, Jeff had made him look stupid. He had wanted to give Jeff a piece of his mind, but he couldn’t get a word in. Jeff kept trying to show him up. Come to think of it, Jeff did this on other occasions too. If he could go back to that picnic again, he would take his revenge with cruel and cutting words, and if that didn’t work he would throw him against the wall, punch him right in the mouth, and tell him to not to ever show his face at grandma’s picnic again!

At this point, our once peaceful daydreamer’s blood is now boiling, his heart is pounding, he’s angry and gnashing his teeth. Meanwhile, nothing in reality has changed as he sits in his chair alone, except that his thoughts and his heart are so worked up, it’s as if these events had really happened, much like the hermits that St John of the Ladder mentions who he had overheard heatedly arguing in their cells with their own imaginations. Meanwhile, the demons laugh at the man who has fallen into their trap.

That scenario is a PG-rated version of “the grandmother’s picnic.” It can get much worse, with the picnic arousing other memories or fantasies that in turn arouse different passions and take one far away from the innocent surroundings of food and family. I myself can’t recall picnicking with my grandmother, but I’ve fallen victim to this kind of trap many a time; I think most of the monastics, at least, will understand what I am talking about.

When we enter this spiritually passive state of daydreaming or fantasizing, we are playing with fire, and I mean demonic fire. Our adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. (I Peter 5:8) A mind or heart that is not sober or vigilant, that is prone to fancy and daydreams is open to the devil’s suggestions, and in some cases even possession. We are not, as the saying goes, “alone with our thoughts.” Our thoughts can either be assisted by grace through prayer and spiritual meditation, or they can be assailed by demons through the means just mentioned. I was not aware of this in the world, but in monasticism, this war with the thoughts is one of the primary ways in which the devil attacks monastics. St. Paul tells us in II Corinthians, Chapter 10:

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.

In Greek, the word “imaginations,” which St. Paul urges us to cast down, is logismoi; the singular form is logismos. This can be translated also as reasonings, speculations or thoughts, and in general the Holy Fathers describe logismoi as assaultive or tempting thoughts. Much has been said aboutlogismoi, and there are many different types, but the one I have chosen to emphasize is the issue of daydreaming and fantasizing.

This type of logismoi is like standing before a movie screen, only in our minds. Much like watching a real movie, daydreaming and mental fantasizing are very similar in their effect to hypnosis. Hypnosis should never be practiced by Orthodox Christians, no matter if someone tells you that it’s okay because it’s “self-guided,” or “light hypnosis,” or whatever. In hypnosis, the mind and the heart become passive, one’s spiritual weapons are laid aside, and the demons can enter in and begin to manipulate one’s thoughts and what one sees or feels. This is not just Christian hysteria—even secular hypnotists will tell you that sometimes their control of the person they’re hypnotizing is taken from them and another entity or spirit (i.e., what they won’t call the devil) takes over the session.

If this can happen in hypnosis, then, as the Holy Fathers tell us, and as many of us can attest to when reminiscing on things like bygone picnics and grandmothers, the demons can also plant thoughts and suggestions in our minds when we are passively daydreaming or fantasizing. Turning the mental movie camera on in our mind, the demons send in the actors to perform for us. Once this begins, it is very difficult to stop it, especially because the demons are appealing to our passions: anger, lust, envy, judging others, blasphemy, etc. At the root of all of these passions and at the root of all fantasizing is vanity and pride. Walter Mitty never imagined himself as someone of low estate, but as the hero, the conqueror, the most desirable and respected man, admired by all. This pride and vanity feeds our fantasies and gives the devil rights over us… that is, unless we cry out to God in prayer and make the effort to turn our minds and hearts to Christ and not to vain imaginings. If our hearts are turned to God in prayer and spiritual meditation, then we bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (II Cor. 10:5) and we become spiritual conquerors.

St. Nektarios of Aegina gives us the teaching of the Holy Fathers on the Kingdom of Heaven within us:

God reveals Himself to the humble, who live in accordance with virtue. Those who take up the wings of the imagination attempt the flight of Ikaros and have the same end. Those who harbour fantasies do not pray; for he that prays lifts his mind and heart towards God, whereas he that turns to fantasies diverts himself. Those who are addicted to the imagination have withdrawn from God’s grace and from the realm of Divine revelation. They have abandoned the heart in which grace is revealed and have surrendered themselves to the imagination, which is devoid of all grace. It is only the heart that receives knowledge about things that are not apprehended by the senses, because God, Who dwells and moves within it, speaks within it and reveals to it the substance of things hoped for.2

Fr. Maximos, in the book, The Mountain of Silence, also offers us insight into the war with thoughts:

Logismoi are much more intense than simple thoughts. They penetrate into the very depths of a human being. They have enormous power. Let us say that a simple thought is a weak logismos. We need to realize, however, that certain thoughts, or logismoi, once inside a human being, can undermine every trace of a spiritual life in its very foundation. People who live in the world don’t know about the nature and power of logismoi. That is, they don’t have the experience of that reality. But as they proceed on their spiritual struggle, particularly through systematic prayer, then are they able to understand the true meaning and power of this reality.3

Do not entertain thoughts about someone else you know who is a Walter Mitty type, prone to this kind of problem, for we are all guilty before God and need to repent and realize that this is a problem that we all struggle with.

Time does not permit to speak about how demons can physically manifest and even possession can take place through fantasizing, but I will mention two ways in which we can combat these traps that the devil sets for us.

One type of defense is spiritual meditation. The Psalmist writes:

For princes (i.e., the demons) sat and they spake against me, but Thy servant pondered on Thy statutes. For Thy testimonies are my meditation, and Thy statutes are my counselors. My soul hath cleaved unto the earth(i.e., in fantasies and daydreams); quicken me according to Thy word.(Psalm 118)

Meditation on the Scriptures, the lives of the saints, spiritual writings, God’s creation, and eternal things is indispensable. These thoughts should turn not into daydreaming but into focused and attentive prayer, which drives away superfluous thoughts.

The second way to combat the fantasies and the demonic suggestions is, of course, the Jesus Prayer.4 When we catch our minds wandering or daydreaming, let it be a reminder that we aren’t praying. Many of us might say, “But my mind is so taken away by this type of daydreaming and fantasizing; I can’t seem to help it and I despair of ever gaining a victory over them, even for 10 minutes!” I knew someone who shared with me how they were so prone to fantasies and daydreams that they would cry and groan from how much it tormented them, and one time, a saint he had been praying to appeared before his vision, interrupting his fantasy and clearly spoke to him about what his mind should be occupied with; and the evil fantasy disappeared instantly. And other people have told me that the demons would physically manifest before them because they had let their fantasies so preoccupy them that the boundaries were blurred between the physical and the spiritual world.

Maybe we will never gain complete victory over this problem, as with any passion that afflicts us. Many people feel despair and think that God will be severe with them for not having conquered this passion or other passions before their death. But St. John Chrysostom encourages us that though we may not be victorious in this life, we should not despair and give up. He writes:

He that wrestles is still held fast, but it is enough for him that he has not fallen. When we depart hence, then, and not till then, will the glorious victory be achieved. For instance, take the case of some evil lust. The extraordinary thing would be, not even to entertain it, but to stifle it. If, however, this be not possible, then though we may have to wrestle with it, and retain it to the last, yet if we depart still wrestling, we are conquerors.5

Let me conclude with a story that my godfather told me that will illustrate the importance of keeping our thoughts on God at all times, as much as we are able.

My godfather, who is an Orthodox deacon, developed a condition know as carotid artery hypersensitivity. The carotid arteries are large veins that run up through our necks pumping blood to our brain. This disease in its normal state causes dizziness and light-headedness due to the arteries being constricted, prohibiting blood from flowing to the brain in a normal way. In my godfather’s severe condition, it can be fatal as the heart can stop pumping. One way to keep the heart pumping is to insert a pacemaker. After a number of dizzy spells and confusion while teaching his students in school, he went to the hospital to get checked out. The doctor wanted to see how severe his condition was, and so, to check his response, he poked his finger onto my godfather’s carotid artery on his neck. To everyone’s shock, my godfather died instantly; he flatlined. The staff acted quickly to resuscitate him by pumping his heart, and within 15 seconds or so, they brought him back to life. As he came to, he recalled that nobody was concerned for him, but they were across the room, comforting a nurse who was in hysterics and screaming, because this kind of thing had never happened to her before.

All of that to say, my godfather, who had no idea that he was going to die at that instant, related to me that right before the doctor poked his artery, he was looking up at the ceiling and thinking to himself, “Oh, look at those ceiling tiles. Isn’t that interesting. Those are just like the ones in my classroom.” And then he died. He says that he had no recollection of leaving his body during that time, or of any images being present before him. But his whole being and focus was wrapped up in this useless thought about… ceiling tiles! He took this last thought with him into eternity, and it stayed with him. He later told me, “Thank God I wasn’t angry at someone at that moment, or off in some sinful fantasy or reverie! It showed me how our minds should always be praying, always on the eternal.” He says that every night, while he’s asleep, his heart nearly stops beating three different times, and that his pacemaker gets it pumping again. But for the pacemaker, he would long ago have died. He concluded by telling me, “Every night now, Imake sure I close my eyes with prayer on my lips and in my mind and heart, for I never know if I’m going to wake up the next morning.”

As Church Tradition has preserved the words of Christ, “As I find you, so shall I judge you,” so let us not be caught up in Walter Mitty-type fantasies and daydreams, but watch and pray and heed St. Paul’s wisdom written to the Philippians:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Phil. 4:8)

Amen.

—A sermon delivered at Holy Cross Monastery on October 29/November 11, 2012, Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost.

1 See James Thurber, The Thurber Carnival. (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999), pp. 55-60. Online versions available at All-Story and http://bnrg.cs.berkeley.edu/~randy/mitty.html.

2 Constantine Cavarnos, St. Nectarios of Aegina, vol. 7, Modern Orthodox Saints (Belmont, Massachusetts: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1981), pp. 155-6.

3 Kyriacos Markides, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality, First Image Books ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2002), p. 118.

4 Also called the Prayer of the Heart, the Jesus Prayer is a brief prayer that is centered on the name of Jesus Christ, and which is used especially (though not only) by Orthodox Christian monks and nuns. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner,” is perhaps the most common form of the Jesus Prayer in Russian Orthodox monasticism.

5 St. John Chrysostom, “Homily XXII on Ephesians,” in Homilies on the Epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 2nd ed., vol. 13, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series (repr., Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), p. 162. Online version available at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

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