Fr. Joseph K. Horn
St Cecilia’s Parish
What are dreams for? What can dreams tell us?
We are all familiar with the dreams of Joseph in the Old Testament; how he dreamed that he would rule over his brothers. They hated him for it: “Here comes the man of dreams,” they said, “Let’s kill him, and see what comes of his dreams then!” Later, Joseph interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and chief baker, correctly foretelling that the cup-bearer would be released from jail, and that the chief baker would be hung on a gallows. He also interpreted the dream of Pharaoh himself, foretelling the seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. It was this famine, remember, that forced Jacob and his sons to go to Egypt to find food, and there they were surprised to find out what had really come of Joseph’s dreams!
And we are familiar with the dreams of Joseph in the New Testament. He was told in a dream that Mary’s child was from the Holy Spirit. He was also told in a dream to flee from Herod and stay in Egypt to protect the Holy Family, much as Joseph in the Old Testament had protected his family in Egypt.
These dreams were of tremendous biblical importance. Are there any other dreams in the Bible? Yes! Remember Jacob’s famous dream of the angels ascending and descending? He later had a dream telling him to leave his uncle Laban. And Laban had a dream telling him to let Jacob go in peace.
The Magi, the three wise men, had a dream that warned them about Herod’s intent to kill the Christ child. And the wife of Pontius Pilate had a dream, just before the crucifixion, warning her that her husband should not punish Jesus.
Of course, these were all special dreams, sent by God to deliver a special message to special people. We are ordinary, unspecial people. Should we follow the advice of Sirach, when he says, “Unless sent as emissaries from the Most High, do not give dreams a thought”? Sirach even says, “Dreams put fools in a flutter; might as well clutch at shadows and chase the wind as put any faith in dreams. Dreams have led many astray, and those building their hopes on them have been disappointed.”
We ordinary people are not the prophets that God told Moses about when He said, “If any man among you is a prophet, I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream.” But notice: God goes on to say, “Not so with my servant Moses; I speak with him face to face, plainly and not in riddles.”
I have a secret to tell you: God speaks to us face to face, plainly and not in riddles, and above all, in dreams. Are we not face to face with creation? Is not creation the will of God? We are often told to discern the will of God in our ordinary circumstances, but the will of God is our ordinary circumstances! What are dreams other than a distillation of our circumstances? So it makes sense to discern God’s will through our dreams, which after all are just another one of our experiences in this life.
This may be what Sirach had in mind when he also said, “Dreams are like mirrors: confronting a face, it reflects that face.” So we may not be able to foretell the future by our dreams, but we can certainly use dreams to help us understand what God wants us to learn from the present. Nothing in life is insignificant, and dreams are no exception to that rule.
Allow me to illustrate with a dream of Joseph. Not the Old Testament one, nor the New Testament one, but this one! I have my best, most vivid dreams when I’m sick. Really sick, with a fever. Or after having pizza for supper. Well, one day I was very sick, and on the night the fever peaked out, I had a terrible dream. It happened to be at the time in my life that I was first getting involved in science, and entertaining the doubts that many scientists have expressed about the faith.
I dreamed I was in some sort of a parade. There were crowds on both sides of the street, waving and cheering and clapping as I passed. But it was a weird parade; it consisted of only a train, a normal diesel train on rails like trolley tracks, going right down the middle of the street. I was the engineer, and this was my train. I was pulling many cars loaded with a lot of freight. As it happens in dreams, I didn’t see the cars I was pulling, but I knew they were there. I also didn’t see the fireman and brakeman at my side, but I knew they were there. I was looking at the crowds cheering as I proudly rolled down the street. My destination (oddly enough) was a fire station. I drove the train past the crowds and through the huge, open front doors of the fire station. There was nobody in sight now, but I knew (the way you know things in dreams) that in a moment the huge back doors of the fire station would roll open, and we’d ride through to some sort of a happy ending behind the fire station. I just knew that behind those back doors awaited a wonderful something, sort of like maybe a big lawn with lots of tables and food and company and laughter.
And now the train reaches the back doors. As I knew they would, they roll away, only to reveal a solid brick wall. In instant panic, I turn to the fireman and brakeman, but they are not there; I am totally alone. I will never forget turning back in that last moment... the brick wall is right there... the engine begins to crumple into it... the many cars full of freight are rushing towards me, making a horrific noise, crushing me to death...
I awoke in a feverish sweat, and was haunted by that dream for many days. I began to wonder: Is it true, then, that there is nothing after death? Is death a brick wall? Is life just a fancy parade that ends with a desperate crash, and that’s that? The scientific doubts that I had been playing with were suddenly very, very real, and for several days I was miserable.
Then, by the grace of God, I stumbled on that passage that I mentioned in the book of Sirach. Everything fell into place. Dreams are not windows through which we see the future, but are mirrors in which we see the present. That awful dream I had was God’s own way, built right into our nature, of telling me: “Listen, you! These doubts are nothing to play with! Without your faith, life becomes absurd. With faith, life has meaning, because it has a goal, a real goal, not a brick wall!” That is what that dream told me. Even though it was a horrible nightmare that still shakes me up when I recall it, I thank God for having had it. It woke me up in more ways than one!
So you see, our dreams are not special revelations from God about the future, like the dreams of the prophets are, but are built into our nature for a simple purpose: for us to see deeply into what is in our souls at the present time. Pay attention to your dreams. It is very difficult to discern God’s will for us, so this gift from Him that helps us understand ourselves is a tremendous gift, a gift beyond our wildest dreams!