EVERYONE DREAMS, we are told, but not everyone remembers all their dreams. Some dreams have been described as powerful experiences, portraying a numinous presence with clarity, intensity and vividness.
Since dreams are so much a part of everyone’s life, they have been the objects of study for millennia, from Babylonian astrologers to contemporary psychologists. Many people today recount dreams of their departed relatives, angels and saints. Is belief in dreams compatible with the Christian faith?
Religious interpretation of dreams has figured in all Middle Eastern religions including Christianity. It has been said that approximately one-third of the Bible is devoted to dreams, visions, prophetic calls and angelic visitations. The patriarch Jacob, for example, dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven and sanctified that place as Bethel, the house of God ([reference-pericope]Gen 28:11-19[/reference-pericope]). It was in a night vision that Jacob heard God’s call to take his people into Egypt ([reference-pericope]Gen 46:1-4[/reference-pericope]). It was by interpreting their kings’ dreams that Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon.
The Gospel of Matthew tells of four dreams experienced by Joseph, the spouse of the Theotokos. In the first dream he learns of the conception of Jesus ([reference-pericope]Mt 1:20-21[/reference-pericope]); in another he is told to flee Herod’s wrath and go to Egypt ([reference-pericope]Mt 2:13[/reference-pericope]). Joseph brings his family back from Egypt after Herod’s death as the result of a dream ([reference-pericope]Mt 2:19-20[/reference-pericope]) and settles in Nazareth after another ([reference-pericope]Mt 2:22-23[/reference-pericope]).
In Acts we are told that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost will result in dreams and vision as the prophet Joel foretold (Joel 2:28-29). Dreams by or of the saints have been reported from earliest days of the Church until today. In the second century The Martyrdom of Ignatius testified that St Ignatius of Antioch subsequently appeared to some eyewitnesses of his death. “It came to pass, on our falling into a brief slumber, that some of us saw the blessed Ignatius suddenly standing by us and embracing us, while others beheld him again praying for us…” In the fourth century St Monica, mother of the Blessed Augustine, was grieving over her son’s immoral lifestyle. She then had the following dream: she saw herself praising God in heaven and her son worshiping with her. Her son was ultimately converted and is now, along with his mother, glorified among the saints.
The Sources of Dreams
Dreams arise from a variety of causes and have been classified by many Christian writers as follows.
- Dreams of purely human origins – What we have on our minds, good or bad, might surface as a dream. Some dreams, as contemporary psychiatrist Karen Horney writes in her book Self-Analysis, may be the voice of our aspirations. Others, as St Gregory of Sinai attested in the tenth century, are the result of too much food!
- Dreams of supernatural origin – Not every “spiritual” dream is godly. The Scriptures record incidents of false prophets basing their ideas on dreams and on God’s response. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the Lord. “I have heard what those prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed’” (Jer 23:24-25). Such dreams may urge a person to commit ungodly acts or embrace a false belief, to see ourselves as singled out for unique blessings or cause us to despair.
Other dreams have a godly origin and purpose as the lives of some saints attest. In nineteenth century Italy a nine-year old John Bosco dreamed of Christ and His mother showing him a crowd of “… animals: goats, dogs, cats, bears and a variety of others.
“‘This is your field, this is where you must work,’ the Lady told me. ‘Make yourself humble, steadfast, and strong. And what you will see happen to these animals you will have to do for my children.’
“I looked again; the wild animals had turned into as many lambs, gently gamboling lambs, bleating a welcome for that Man and Lady.
“At this point of my dream I started to cry and begged the Lady to explain what it all meant because I was so confused. She then placed her hand on my head and said: ‘In due time everything will be clear to you.’
“After she had spoken these words, some noise awoke me; everything had vanished.”
The boy would devote his life to working with street children, establishing schools and forming teachers to staff them.
So Should I Believe in My Dreams?
While it is clear that God can and does speak to people in dreams, none of us should presume that we are equipped to discern or judge whether a dream is of God or not. Saints and elders throughout the ages counsel us to be wary of judging that a dream is the voice of God. “He who believes in dreams is completely inexperienced,” says St. John Climacus, “but he who distrusts all dreams is a wise man” The Ladder, step 3.
If we are convinced we have had a godly dream, advise Saints Barsanuphius and John, “Strive to receive an interpretation of its significance from the Saints, and do not believe your own idea.” “The Saints” here include those Fathers and elders throughout the centuries who have taught the Church about the ways God communicates with us. It also includes those whom we can consult personally for advice on how to consider our dreams.
We should respond to powerful dreams the same way we deal with other areas of our spiritual life: by consulting with our spiritual guide. Someone who knows the Tradition and who knows us equally well can often discern whether our dreams are of God, of our own devising, or of demonic powers. This guide can be wrong and misjudge a godly dream; but if the dream reflects God’s will for us, God surely will find another way to make His will clear to us.
Vespers sticheron, December 6 When you appeared in a dream to Constantine the King and to Evlavios, you gave them this warning: “Release at once from prison those you have unjustly confined; for they are innocent – no murder did they commit as you claim. O King, listen to me; or else I shall call upon the Lord!”