I can see it now, as vividly as if it were yesterday.
My mother is taking my baby brother Larry and me on a morning walk around Morrisville. Larry is in a stroller. I’m 3 years old and walking beside Mommy and Larry. We cross Main Street and turn left on Mill Street. We pause in front of a telephone pole while Mommy leans to re-button Larry’s shirt. I point to the looming pole.
“Remember,” I ask, “when I climbed to the top?”
Mommy stands and smiles.
“But you were right here,” I insisted.
Mommy sighed and we began walking again. End of conversation.
But I did climb the pole! I remember it so well.
And Mommy was there and Larry was there …
It was, of course, a dream. The walk with Mommy and Larry was a daily event, and during nap time I dreamed I had climbed the familiar telephone pole.
And what a vivid dream it was! Even now, nearly three decades after my mother’s death, the memory of this dream invokes the clearest image I have of her as a pretty young woman.
But at 3, I hadn’t sorted out the difference between dream memories and real memories.
The psychiatrist C.G. Jung raises the question of whether we ever really sort it out. Dreams, Jung said, are windows between our conscious reality and our unconscious spirituality.
“The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul,” Jung wrote in The Meaning of Psychology for Modern Man (1933). Our daily waking experiences overwhelm our ability to remember everything, so we remember some, forget others and lose track of everything else that has happened to us.
“But in dreams,” Jung said, “we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man … there he is still in the whole, and the whole is in him … It is from these all-uniting depths that the dream arises, be it never so childish, grotesque, and immoral.”
Dreams, Jung believed, are spiritual glimpses into memories our brains have forgotten but our souls retain forever.
But Jung cautioned those who would interpret dreams that these glimpses are not always understandable. “The dream is often occupied with apparently very silly details,” he wrote in On the Psychology of the Unconscious (1953), “this producing an impression of absurdity, or … so unintelligible as to leave us thoroughly bewildered.”
About 20 years ago I had a dream that was remarkable in its length, plot, color, detail, and unintelligibility – and remarkable in that I have retained so much of it over so many years.
I’m in the large reception hall of a great house. The floor is marble, the dark wood walls are elegantly polished, and a vast staircase spirals upwards toward a dim yellow light. As I watch passively, several two-dimensional heralds who look like fugitives from a stained-glass window enter from the right, their glass feet clicking against the marble floor. The heralds trill their trumpets shrilly and begin to march up the staircase. Pope John Paul II enters from the right and follows the heralds upstairs. The Pope looks harried and tired as he makes his way up the steps. He is surrounded by hundreds of people of all races and ages, chirping in cacophonic unison. Some are in modern dress, others wear medieval rags, some are adorned with armor, and still others look like cartoons and computer-generated grotesqueries. Their noise intensifies as they process up the stairs. The Pope turns to look at me. He shakes his head and shrugs. As he continues up the staircase, I notice he is wearing black pumps with two-inch heels.
What the heck was that all about? Was I receiving a divine revelation about Pope John Paul, perhaps a message from on high that the church needs to welcome and affirm all God’s people? Or was it silly nonsense, “producing an impression of absurdity”?
Beats me. Jung said he could not interpret his own dreams, and he pointed out in Psychology and Religion (1938) that the church was reluctant to interpret random dreams.
“In spite of the Church's recognition that certain dreams are sent by God,” Jung noted, “she is disinclined, and even averse, to any serious concern with dreams, while admitting that some might conceivably contain an immediate revelation.”
Dreams play a profoundly dramatic role in many biblical narratives, so the church has to take them seriously.
In today’s narrative, our friend Jacob – the “Heel” of the “Hairy and Heel” brothers we met last week – is on the run, fearing for his life.
After using a bowl of steaming lentil soup to coerce his brother Esau’s birthright from him, Jacob goes on to seal the deal.
Covering himself in hairy animal skins to simulate his brother’s hyper hirsuteness, Jacob presented himself to his blind, dying father. It’s a good thing for him that Isaac was blind, because Jacob must have looked like one of the gorillas in the Nairobi Trio.
But the ruse worked. Isaac, thinking the prickly hairs beneath his fingers belonged to his elder son, gave the younger son his blessing – and, along with his blessing, all his sheep, goats, tents, and worldly possessions.
Giggling and cackling to himself – and persisting with the Nairobi Trio analogy – Jacob has figuratively drummed his mallets on the derby of his betrayed brother.
Esau, whose digestive system has processed the fateful lentil soup ages ago, is understandably furious. In fact, the usually slow-thinking Esau has a plan for regaining his lost fortune: he will kill his brother.
As the scene opens in today’s scripture, Jacob is on the run. In his exhaustion, he falls asleep.
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
And the LORD stood beside him and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:12-15)
The dream message was so reassuring Jacob had no thought that it was a Jungian impression of unintelligible absurdity. He believed it was a message from God.
Our first thought is to wonder why such a good thing should happen to such a bad patriarch. Whatever the angels on the ladder were intended to symbolize, Jacob believed they were signs that God intended to use him for great purposes.
Subsequent scholars suggested many other interpretations. Hebrew sages suggested the Angels were souls, descending from heaven to dwell in newborn babes, and ascending to heaven at the close of life.
Christian sages have interpreted the ladder as Christ himself, and God’s message is that Christ is the bridge between earth and heaven. The dream is an image of Christ as the means of reunion between earth and heaven.
It’s not likely the original authors of Genesis had any such thought when they reported the tale of Jacob’s dream thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. But, as Jung suggested, the interpretation of dreams is anyone’s guess.
But getting back to why such a nice dream is happening to such a bad patriarch: perhaps the dream offers some good news for all of us.
Jacob, fearing he is about to be murdered by his brother is wracked with guilt about the terrible things he has done. He understands he has done nothing to win God’s favor and may believe he is condemned to wander the barren earth as a wanted man.
That would make sense given the ancient Hebraic understanding of a vengeful God.
But Jacob’s dream is also a new stage in God’s gradual revelation of God’s nature. It is God’s message to Jacob that he doesn’t have to earn God’s love through his behavior. God is revealing to him that no matter who he is, what he has done, or why he has done it, God’s love for him is unconditional.
There could not possibly be better news for Jacob, or for any of us. Which of us would deserve God’s love if it were conditional on our good behavior?
But in the depths of Jacob’s despair, when be believed his evil schemes had ruined his life and forfeited his soul, God opened a pathway to heaven and told Jacob he was loved.
And God has the same message for each of us, no matter how far we sink in discouragement and guilt. God loves us unconditionally. And God will never seal us off from the passageway from earth to heaven.
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place – and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16-17)