Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Power of Dreams

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 over the stroller 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.

“I wasn’t.”

“You were!”

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 happened every day, and at one point during nap time I dreamed I had climbed the familiar telephone pole.

And what a powerful dream it was. Even now, 35 years 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 15 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 Saint John Paul II, 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.  Remember an earlier Joseph whose dreams were both prescient and dangerous: 

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words. (Genesis 37:5-8) 
And who could blame the beleaguered brothers for hating him? Joseph’s dream is clearly a divine revelation about the future. Perhaps he would have been better off if he hadn’t mentioned it to his brothers, but then, he had to be stupid enough to brag about it in order for to fulfill God’s metaphors.

In the case of Joseph, the betrothed of Mary, the dreams are vivid messages from God and require prudent action.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,and they shall name him Emmanuel’,which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25.
That’s a remarkable turn of events: Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.

Thank God Sigmund Freud would not be born for another 1,856 years, because that could have been disastrous. Freud, unlike Jung, believed dreams had no spiritual import but were either erotic in nature or expressions of wish fulfillment. You know. Sex.

How would Dr. Freud have counseled this hurt, confused young man?

“Joseph, my boy, you will never set your anger aside if you don’t face it honestly. You have been a good boy, you have never laid hands on this women who has been betrothed to you. And yet she is with child! Sure, you’ve been cuckolded. Sure, you’re hurt. Sure, you’re angry. But this dream of yours – forget it! This dream is only your wish that you and Mary could go back to where you were, that nothing would have changed, that you can still possess this woman and make righteous, innocent love to her. But hoping for that and dreaming about it will not make it so. Forget about it.”

Freud would have gone on to advise Joseph that sex is a fundamental human drive and he needed to understand that if he wanted to start all over again. But no one thought like that when Mary found herself with child. What people thought was written down in the Bible:

“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress will be put to death,” says Leviticus 20:10, among other verses. 

Maybe Joseph was thinking, hey, the adulterer was probably a Roman bastard and maybe Mary didn’t have a choice. So – what the hell – I’ll just throw the girl out and get on with my life.”

But then Joseph closed his eyes and had a dream. And, there being no Dr. Freud to confuse him, the dream had a profound impact on his thinking and on the history of the world. He went to bed a cuckold. He woke up the stepfather of God’s son. 

That’s one hell of a flip flop. One commentary suggests Joseph’s dream is the first recorded example of post-hypnotic suggestion. The Star Wars generation will see evidence of a Jedi master manipulating the conscious mind:

Obi-Wan: These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

Storm Trooper: These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.
Obi-Wan: He can go about his business.
Storm Trooper: He can go about his business …

But the truth is, we know Joseph better than that. We know he is not a weak-minded wood worker subject to mere hypnotic suggestion. He is a good and righteous man. He’s the sort of man who recognizes God’s voice when he hears it, even if it comes in a dream. And he’s the sort of man whose personality is strong enough to withstand the withering stares and judgmental gossip of prying neighbors. His wife is pregnant with God’s son, and Joseph makes a moral decision not to care what anyone else thinks. His message to the neighbors is a brass-age rendition of a modern bumper stocker:  God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

What an extraordinary  man, this Joseph. His is a story we hear so often we have stopped wondering what it must have been like for him. He was the oldest son of Jacob, the scion on a patriarchal lineage extending back to King David, a man who grew up expecting to be the unchallenged head of his household. It is remarkable, radical even, that Joseph was able to step back from all that and assume one of history’s best known second banana roles.

Joseph was one of history’s most notable dreamers, a practical man who predated Jung by two millennia but who understood that dreams are windows to the soul. Once Joseph heard God’s message in the stillness of the night, he set a new path and never looked back.

Granted, not all of us have dreams that are as easy to understand as the ones that were visited upon Joseph. And most of us have had dreams that are, as Jung said, unintelligible and occupied with silly details.

But that does not diminish the possibility that our dreams are spiritual experiences, and that they come laden with messages from that part of our unconscious where God speaks to us. 

The next dream you have may be perplexing, confusing and beyond your comprehension. But it can also be an opportunity to reflect on the power of Joseph’s dream, and to embrace all such REM experiences as a potential blessing.

Perry Como put it this way:

Dream along with me, I'm on my way to a star Come along, come along, leave your worries where they are Up and beyond the sky, watchin' the world roll by Sharin' a kiss, a sigh, just use your imagination! On a cloud of love, we'll hear the music of night We can wink at the moon as we hold each other tight And if we go in the right direction, heaven can't be very far Dream along with me, I'm on my way to a star! We can wink at the moon as we hold each other tight . . .  And if we go in the right direction, heaven can't be very far Dream along with me, I'm on my way to a star!

1 comment:

  1. I've heard that Jung speculated that some dreams are rooted in the collective unconscious. Also, that at least some Buddhist teachers advise ignoring them. I've had some lulus I don't want to share. It seems the postmodern experience is not inclined toward specific directives. I have the suspicion that some of those who die in their sleep do so because they have made friends with their dream environment and lost grace with their waking one. Even if this happens to me, I wouldn't necessarily realize it. Some believe with Bloody Mary that 'you've got to have a dream, if you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?' Others might hope to be motivated by the Holy Spirit.