'Spiritual directors and gurus have always been listeners, but the language to which they listen is the 'forgotten language' of myths and dreams and symbols, the language of fundamental human experience,' Kenneth Leach in Soul Friend.
From ancient times, people of all religions have shown reverence for dreams and sought to understand their meaning. In the Christian tradition there is a particularly long history of respecting and working with dreams. Apart from well-known examples of dreams in the Bible, dream material is also to be found extensively in much early Christian literature:
Dreams and the Early Christian Writers
St Irenaeus (d. 202) said the dream was the means for him to maintain proper contact with God.
Tertullian (155-240 sometimes called the father of Western theology and the first theologian to use the term 'Trinity') often cites dreams, and wrote a psychological treatise on the soul called The Anima, in which he stated: 'Almost the greater part of mankind derive their knowledge of God from dreams,' and 'Is it not known to all the people that the dream is the most usual way that God reveals himself to man?'
St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) made careful note of many dreams as recorded in his Confessions and in De Trinitate.
Origen (184-254) equated dreams with the activity of the divine Logos in his work
Contra Celsum I. He wrote about dreams in several of his works emphasising the meaning of the visions in the Old Testament and stressing that every intelligent person regards the dream as a possible means of revelation.
Cyprian (200-258), the great African bishop, looked to his dreams for practical guidance in making immediate decisions and Synesius of Cyrene (373-414) wrote a detailed description of dreams in his De Insomniis describing the dream as an opening of the self to God and the spiritual world.
Athanasius (298-373), the champion of orthodoxy, asserted that in dreams the soul transcends the faculties of the body to hold divine communion with the angels (Against the Heathen).
Gregory Nazianzus (329-390), a Doctor of the church, explained that most of his inspirations came to him in dreams. And his close friend Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) also wrote a book on the development of humanity and spent an important part of it dealing with dreams.
And there is an abundance of dream material in the apocryphal early Christian material, perhaps the most important of which is The Shepherd of Hermas, which is based entirely on dreams and visions.
So, from its very beginnings, and throughout the history of Christianity, the dream has been a channel understood to be used by God to talk to his people. Other well-known more contemporary examples are:
John Newton (1725-1807) author of the popular hymn 'Amazing Grace' who had a dream whilst a seaman of a slave-trading ship that caused him to cease being a captain and become a clergyman instead.
St Thérèse of Liseux (1873-1897) who had a dream a year before her death whilst seriously ill and depressed, scared that she would die young. The reassuring dream took the weight from her mind and carried her with joy through the final year of her illness to death.
So we can see that in all ages dream work has been integral within the Christian tradition. The dream is understood as one way the mysterious shaping energies of the Creator urge us on towards the fullness of our unique being and purpose. Many people have found in dreams a deep connection to the sacred in their lives, and listening to our dreams is a very personal way of tapping into a source of rich inner wisdom.
However, the tools to work with and understand dreams have been somewhat lost in our contemporary Western world that draws so much of its current heritage from science, logic and reason. The language of myths, dreams and symbols has been described as God's 'forgotten language.'
In my next article in the series 'Working with Dreams in the Spiritual Life' I start to explore some basic ways we can begin to work with our dreams to try and discern any revelation they have to offer us.
But perhaps you find you don't remember your dreams?
We all dream whether we remember them or not. Science tells us that on a typical night our dream pattern occurs five to seven times. As the Psalmist says in Psalm
127: 'God pours gifts on the beloved while s/he slumbers.' If you are someone who rarely recalls your dreams, but would like to, here are a few tips to help:
Have a quiet relaxing evening, perhaps a warm bath. Being on retreat in reflection and solitude often makes us particularly receptive to dreams.
Think about the whole process of dreaming and your desire to welcome any dream that comes to you.
Prepare by placing a note book and pen by your bedside as a sign of expectation and intent.
Pray before you go to sleep, to have and remember your dreams, perhaps using something like the prayer below:
Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God,
As I go down into the deep of my own being.
Show me the hidden things,
The creatures of my dreams,
The storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts.
Take me down to the spring of my life,
And tell me my nature and my name.
Give me freedom to grow so that I may become my true self -
The fulfilment of the seed which you planted in me at my making.
Taken from a prayer by George Appleton.
Don't worry if you don't feel you remember a whole dream. You remember just what you need to remember for now. If there was some other aspect of the dream that was important, either the dream will recur or the important aspect will come up again in a subsequent dream.