Listening to Dreams

Sr Anne Ryan, Co-ordinator of the Mercy Retreat Centre, Toronto NSW:

“I look forward to Patrick’s participation as a retreat facilitator in our yearly programs. In this year’s program, Praying our Dreams, Patrick’s gentle expertise provided a safe framework for participants to explore dreams as a gift of listening to the soul. His work is wholistic, expansive and sound in both theology and scripture. His psychological expertise was also evident and valued. Participants named a “freeing of soul”, ‘release from anxiety’, ‘confidence to explore’, as a result of the weekend. I highly recommend Patrick’s work to individuals and groups wanting to explore spirituality.”

THE NUMBER OF TIMES we have heard in churches about the helpfulness of dreams and listening to dreams probably could not be described as copious. Yet the last few decades have witnessed a small but steady increase in the number of people taking the role of the dream seriously in their spiritual walk.

The Early Church is rich in the appreciation of dreams. St Basil the Great, for instance, in the 2nd century wrote that “the enigmas in dreams have a close affinity to those things which are signified in an allegoric hidden sense in the Scriptures”.

Tertullian in the 3rd century commented that “Almost the greater part of mankind get their knowledge of God from dreams.” Both Origen and Gregory of Nyssa are on record as having a lively appreciation for the role of the dream in experiencing and reflecting upon the workings of God in the lives of human beings.

My favourite quote is that from the 5th century bishop Synesius of Cyrene: “Dreams, more than any other thing, entice us towards hope. And when our heart spontaneously presents hope to us, as happens in our sleeping state, then we have in the promise of our dreams a pledge from the divinity.”

The story of why the dream fell into disrepute in the Church is a story on its own. Yet in my work of spiritual direction and companioning, I have found the dream to be a consistent help for the process of listening to the soul.

The dream does not worry whether a person has the “right” vocabulary about God or churchy things; yet it constantly tries to take a person into a more conscious awareness of how he or she is perceiving life – and therefore God, named or not named.

It has been a privilege for me to have listened to many many dreams through the years, and I am always amazed at the creativity and ingenuity that they bring forth. We seem often to be far more creative when we are asleep then when awake!

Dreams seem to come from that realm of imagination that is beyond our conscious control – which is why St Augustine thanked God that he (Augustine) could not meddle in his dreams – because at least when he was asleep he could get out of the way and let God be God for him.

Dreams can also be like a lighthouse, beaconing and beckoning us through those times when perhaps everything else has seemed to turn to night. We may think we have simply “crazy” or “stupid” dreams – yet experience has taught me that it is often the most stupid or crazy scenarios in dreams that can give us clues as to the ways through when we get stuck in our one-sided perceptions.

In fact, this is what the purpose of dreams seems to be: to move us from our prejudice of favouring a constricted view of reality (and therefore of God, since God is a God of reality), into a stereoscopic appreciation of the multi-faceted nature of reality and ourselves.

Whenever dreams become a source of inwardness for inwardness’ sake, then there lies a misuse of dreams. They always try to free us to love – especially the unlovable which we first recognize within ourselves, and because of this, we see it in those “out there”. There is no dividing wall between “inner work” and “outer work”; the bridge is grace.

Rather than dreams leading us away from the presence of God, it has been my experience through the years that has helped me realize how dreams mirror the great Gospel themes of reconciliation, grace, healing and love.

They draw us into the arena where we recognize and experience that there actually is a life within us that we do not make happen, and that this life (the Spirit of God) calls us into the dance wherein we are invited to forget ourselves and become one with the dance.

Dreams are a “little door” into the recesses of the soul. Like Jesus in the desert, we meet in our dreams both angels and wild beasts, yet it is for the sake of our maturing in honesty before God.

They lead us into death and out again. Like the biblical theme of the least being the vital element, the disregarded and ignored dream is, as the rabbis liked to put it, “like a letter that is unopened from God”.

“Staying awake” is about living consciously. It’s about being open to seeing how your life circumstances are calling you to live from the firm foundation of who you are in God already. “Going to sleep” robs you of transformative moments, because you close your eyes to the invitations to live an aware and alive life.