Sleep and Dreams on the Spiritual Path

I awoke smoothly, but quickly, my dream still fresh and vivid.

I’m walking down a country road in the moonlight. There are houses along one side of this road, some distance from it, and all are completely unlit. On the other side of the road there is a simple grass field. Even though I had a distinct sense of those dark houses being occupied, there is a tremendous sense of being alone. Not remotely lonely, but completely alone and going down the right road.

This dream had such a strong impact that it’s still as clear to me today, decades later, as it was that morning it woke me. Having only that bare description, it might strike one that this dream was fairly spare and unhelpful. Why were those houses unlit? Where was I going? Why at night with the moon? Why does it appear nothing is happening? Interpreting dreams is always a fascinating, sometimes confusing, process, but this one spoke to me clearly and unambiguously. As a young man who had begun seriously trying to figure out what constitutes a spiritual life, this dream strongly confirmed, even unsure of where this search would lead, I was on the right road.

Though this dream provided me much comfort and reassurance, it was still pretty small fry as compared to the many Biblical examples of dreams guiding and teaching God’s people. In both the Old and the New Testaments, dreams often played a pivotal role in how folks behaved. Perhaps the best known examples are the prophetic dreams of St Joseph the Patriarch, beloved son of Jacob. His prophetic dreams, paired with the insight to interpret the dreams of others, put him in a position of authority that ultimately saved the lives of his family and set the stage for the tribes of Israel to flourish. Obviously, dreams were of tremendous import to this stage of the development of God’s people.

Another Joseph, this time from the New Testament, also received guidance in his dreams through God’s angels. He was first assured he could rest easy about the pregnancy of his betrothed the child she was bearing was of the Holy Spirit, not the result of impurity. Soon after the birth of Jesus, Joseph was again visited in dreams, and instructed to take his family to Egypt so saving his son from the death inflicted on all other infant boys in that region. There were also the magi who were urged in dreams to skirt Herod, instead of reporting the baby Jesus’ whereabouts (Matthew 2:12). We hear of St Paul being told where to next preach (Acts 23:11). The list of dreams and dreamers that played important roles in God’s plan seems almost endless.

Seen together, the many such instances through the bible support the claim that dreams have a special role in humanity’s relationship with God. What might not be so clear is how we can intentionally take advantage of that unique state of consciousness. There is even disagreement around whether or not intentionally cultivating our dreams for spiritual ends is appropriate. Noting that the biblical examples shown here seem unasked for, reasonable people can ask if such a focus is prudent.

I would point to Job 33:14 – 16 in answer to such a question: “God speaketh once, and repeateth not the selfsame thing the second time. By a dream in a vision by night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, and they are sleeping in their beds: Then he openeth the ears of men, and teaching instructeth them in what they are to learn. That he may withdraw a man from the things he is doing, and may deliver him from pride.” This passage certainly doesn’t urge us to use dreams as augury or tools of divination, which seems to be a common theme in New Age dream work. But, it does fairly clearly point out that God is always trying to communicate with us, showing His children the way home. It’s a shame that we typically do a horrible job of hearing that instruction.

Remembering and understanding our dreams provides a wonderful avenue to open up to that instruction. When we have the proper understanding of how to encourage dreams, how to put them within a spiritual context, and how to make sense of at least some of what they Remembering and understanding our dreams provides a wonderful avenue to open up to mean, these nightly visions provide an unparalleled path to wisdom. Ultimately, this kind of practice is about getting past the noise of our daily living that disrupts our relationship with the Father what better way than to start listening outside of our day time life?

If we take this path seriously there are just a handful of things we need to be able to do reliably. Let’s look at each of these in some detail:

  1. We need to regularly remember our dreams with clarity,
  2. these dreams need to have coherent content and themes,
  3. we need to have a framework for understanding that content, and
  4. we need to have a means of encouraging actual spiritual content.
  5. Finally, we need to bring the whole practice together so that it will fit our lives and fit our spiritual needs.

Next: Remembering our dreams