Dreams | Jeff Nowers | Dec 29, 2019
Do you ever have vivid memories of your dreams? Rarely do I remember my dreams, and usually only when they startle me awake. Have you ever been so impacted by a dream that you’ve taken it as key insight about a crucial decision you must make in your life? I’ve come across a few people who firmly believe God has spoken to them in dreams. That’s certainly not my own experience. The content of my dreams, if I’m able to remember, almost always has no flow and verges on the absurd.
Dreams in the ancient world of the Bible were viewed with ambivalence. Moses, who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, did not depend on dreams for divine guidance. The books of the Torah portray him as receiving direct communication from God, often on Mount Sinai, including the law inscribed on stone tablets by the very hand of God. The prophet Jeremiah goes out of his way to warn against relying on dreams because they aren’t trustworthy. And yet dreams occupy an important place in many stories in Scripture. Think of Jacob’s famous dream of the ladder reaching to heaven. When he awoke he exclaimed, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not even know it!” Joseph, Jacob’s son, was a great dreamer and correctly predicted a future famine through his dreams. The prophet Daniel successfully interpreted the Babylonian king’s dream of the fall of the Babylonian empire. So dreams cannot be dismissed altogether.
That’s especially true in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew. Joseph the adoptive father of the infant Jesus makes life-and-death decisions strictly on the basis of dreams. In one dream he’s warned by an angel that Herod is plotting to kill Jesus. So Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they reside as refugees. Then in a second dream, an angel tells Joseph that Herod has died and it’s time to go back to Judea (southern Israel). So Joseph and Mary and young Jesus pack up to move. But along the way they learn that Herod’s son has succeeded his father and is ruling in Judea. Joseph is afraid that Herod’s son poses a threat. In a third dream he’s warned against moving to Judea. So the family keeps going to the north and settles in Nazareth. All of this decision-making is attributed to dreams. What are we to make of it? Do dreams really carry this much spiritual weight? Are we missing out on divine direction by not paying closer attention to our own dreams?
The first point I would make is that it’s not at all clear what’s going on when we dream. Some people would go so far as to say that dreams are about receiving communication from a source outside of ourselves, whether from angels or God—just like the Bible sometimes describes dreams. Usually it’s very hard to convince such people that their dreams might really be something else. I’m of the view that dreams are the product of the brain’s attempt to process and piece together ideas and thoughts. But is this brain activation just random? Or is there an intentionality to it? Do dreams reveal something of what we really think? Freud would have us believe that dreams expose our suppressed desires and anxieties. I’m not so sure about that. From the standpoint of science today, there isn’t clarity about what purpose dreams serve, and for that reason we should probably be cautious about trying hard to extract divine meaning from them. But this begs a question: What do we make of today’s Gospel and the prominent place of dreams in it?
That question brings me to my second point. I find it very curious that nowhere do we read that Joseph was asleep when the angel appears to him in dreams. It’s easy to assume he was. But in the ancient biblical world, dreams were sometimes difficult to differentiate from wakeful trances or hypnotic visions. The Bible certainly does contain important stories in which significant dreams occur during sleep. But I think it’s quite plausible that Joseph, in today’s Gospel, wasn’t asleep during his “dreams.” For us today, I think that suggests a very fine line between dreaming and intense prayer and meditation. They seem to flow into one another. So on the one hand, we can maintain cautiousness about reading too much into what our brains are doing while we sleep. But on the other hand, we can remain open to what we may discover in times of prayer and meditation.
There’s a third point I’d like to make that relates to intuition. When Joseph and Mary and Jesus eventually leave Egypt, Joseph’s intuition kicks in. Finding out that Herod’s son is now ruling over Judea, he senses that Jesus’ life might still be in danger. It is only after this intuitive moment that Joseph receives a warning in a “dream”—or perhaps a vision. He chooses to settle his family in Nazareth, away from any threats of death. The point here is that human intuition and divine guidance go hand in hand. Trusting our intuition can be scary, but it’s a mechanism by which God sheds light on our path.
We’re at the end of another year and another decade. We all have hopes for the coming year. But I think one of the lessons of today’s Gospel is that our hopes and plans can be interrupted, sometimes quite abruptly, when we find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we go left or right? We shouldn’t necessarily depend on what our brain uncovers for us while we sleep. We can make wise decisions by cultivating our intuition and by practicing prayer and meditation. I’ve been challenged of late by a book written by the highly-regarded Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, simply titled Silence. Practicing silence for an extended period, with eyes closed while seated in a straight position, might seem simple enough, but it’s actually very difficult. It’s hard to “unplug,” as it were, and to plug into God. But persevering at it is one way that light can shine on our path.
I’m looking forward to 2020. I anticipate some exciting things happening here at St. Aidan’s, as we get ready for a big renovation. But we will have our crossroads moments along the way that will require big decisions. In trusting our collective intuition and maintaining practices of prayer and meditation—and doing our homework and exercising common sense—we can have confidence in the present moment that the grace of God will carry us through all that is to come.