I’ve always been fascinated by my dreams. Weird as they are, they somehow give the exciting sense that this is what I’m really like when all my defences are down, and inner censorship is silent. From time to time I make a serious effort to understand them, and have discovered some excellent books on dreams. But something strange happens every time I do this: for a week or two, the ‘method’ recommended by the latest book yields some wonderful insights, but then becomes gradually less helpful until I relapse into ignoring dreams again. It’s as though there is something in dreams that resists being brought out into the daylight of everyday life and wants to remain in the shadows.
Dreams have an important place in the Bible, but at some point in the Church’s history they became rather suspect. Interestingly, in both Old and New Testaments, the dreamer par excellence is a man called Joseph. I sometimes wonder if the Old Testament Joseph was a little unwise as a young man to tell his brothers about his dream that they would all bow down to him one day – not that it didn’t eventually come true.
The New Testament Joseph, Saint Joseph, now has a whole year dedicated to him. With no words of his recorded in the Bible, he has been one of the Church’s best kept secrets, but is at last coming under the spotlight. Still, in all the literature about him I find little focus on his dreaming. When I say the Litany of St. Joseph, I add a title of my own: ‘Man of Dreams’ or ‘Interpreter of Dreams,’ since I believe he truly does help us to interpret dreams.
But perhaps interpret is the wrong word to use. Dreams cloak their message in the language of symbols, and James Hillman, one of the great authorities on the subject, suggests we should meditate on the symbols rather than try to translate them into logical language. That raises the fascinating question as to whether God spoke plainly to Joseph in his dreams about taking Mary as his wife, and leaving for Egypt with Jesus and her, or whether these messages were cloaked in symbols as our dreams are, and he had to ‘decode’ the symbols as we do.
I wish I could share with you some of my own dreams, but it might be giving too much away, and anyway they don’t make a lot of sense without a long explanation of what was going on at the time I had them. One dream I used to have a lot, and which is apparently very common, is of being able to fly. When I was young, I often used to wake up from this dream with the alarming realisation that I couldn’t get down. In more recent years I’m glad to be able to report that I can get up and down with equal ease, watching out for electricity pylons and similar obstacles in both directions. Sometimes this dream is so vivid that for a few minutes after waking up I’m still convinced that I can actually fly – if only!
It’s clear that dreams about flying have something to do with our ability both to have ideals and to ‘bring them down to earth,’ that is to realise them. Once when I was involved in a number of exciting projects at once I had a vivid dream of watching a whole series of aeroplanes landing one after the other against a dark but somehow brilliant blue sky.
A recent dream that I’m still meditating on is one where I was due to attend a seminar on the Middle East and instead went for one on the Far East. For me, the Middle East seems to represent fighting and conflict, whereas the Far East I see as a place of wisdom and peace. So the dream seems to be asking me how I deal with my own aggressive tendencies: do I weigh in forcefully, as I did the other day with a homeless man playing the piano in Church when there was supposed to be silent adoration and tell him off roundly, or do I try to understand his behaviour and gently point him to some other way of doing what he wants?
I truly believe dreams like this can help us on the journey of conversion we all have to make. Thank God for the help of St. Joseph, the man of dreams, and of Mary, who pondered mysterious experiences in her heart rather than trying to work them out with her logical mind.