Sermon at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday before Advent 2018
I wonder if you ever experience dreams?
The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 4th November 2018 at 3.00 PM
I wonder if you ever experience dreams? I suspect that you do, because most of us create images and stories in our minds, while we are either fully or partially sleep. They can be disturbing, distorting, entertaining and frightening, sometimes even holding a dimension of spiritual complexity.
During sleep we enter into an altered state of consciousness and often our dreams subject us to amazing switches of time and place. To use a biblical analogy, the mind brings out from its storeroom things both old and new (Mt 13:52).
Although the whole world of dreams has never been fully defined by science, it appears that there are some people who rarely dream or never recall the dreams they have. At least this is what they tell us.
Centuries ago, Herodotus recalled (Histories: Book 1V) that there were some people near mount Atlas, who never ate any living thing, and never had any dreams.
Yet in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we are taught that God communicates with his people through visions and dreams. The readings we heard this afternoon bare this out.
Daniel (Chapter 2) records Nebuchadnezzar’s troubling dreams in detail, and the Revelation of St John the Divine consists of a series of wonderful, yet at times rather disturbing and complex, visions with no obvious chronological order.
In fact with St John, our own dreams usually hold quite a lot of repetition, operating rather like different chapters of a book or separate scenes within a film.
Just as dreams were important for the Jews in the Old Testament, so dreams continued to play a significant role in the New Testament and in the life of the early church.
For example Matthew records four dreams that Joseph received about Jesus’ birth and early life, as well as the dream the wise men received warning them not to return to Herod.
Luke in Acts relates Saul’s vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus; Ananias’s subsequent dream, and Saul’s later dream in which he is told to expect him.
Years later, Paul also has a vivid dream that results in his carrying the gospel out to the gentiles. Simon Peter and Cornelius both receive visions that lead to Peter visiting his home.
Indeed the early church remained quite open to dreams and visions as a valid medium for God’s communication.
But as the church established and defined itself, she developed a clear distinction between public and private revelation. It became widely accepted that all public revelation ended after the death of John, the last Apostle, as collectively we await the Second Coming of Christ.
Private revelation, on the other hand, is still very much alive today, but practically speaking is usually only directly relevant to the person who experiences it. Crucially it must be consistent with what has already been revealed to us in holy scripture, and through the church.
In other words, private dreams, or revelations, must by their very nature draw us closer to God.
Yet the distinction is not altogether black and white. Through the ages, there have been many such dreams/ revelations that have come to be recognised by the church.
The visions of St. Teresa of Calcutta, or Mother Teresa, whose private revelations from God to serve the poorest of the poor, became an inspiring message to the whole world.
But the church also warns of dreams and visions that might not come from God. St. John of the Cross writes that it is almost impossible to interpret these dreams and visions on one’s own, and that we should speak with a spiritual director or confessor to help discern them.
In the course of the twentieth and twenty first centuries, science, psychology and theology have developed distinct approaches to oneirology, the study of dreams.
Psychologists have blazed the way with a comprehensive study of the subject. In contrast to his erstwhile mentor Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939), Carl Jung believed that spirituality is essential for mental health.
He was happy to defend the fact that in some cases, dreams are sent by God. He frequently cited Jacob’s dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth as an ascendancy to spiritual elevation.
Karl Rahner, one of the most brilliant Catholic theologians since Thomas Aquinas, also understood dreams in terms of reflected mystery, the type of withdrawal and silence that we invariably find in the small hours of the night.
In one of his essays he recounts a dream he had about an ecumenical gathering at the Vatican back in 1985, at which the Pope discusses the question of his own infallibility with other church leaders.
A very congenial Pontiff calls his guests ‘dear brothers’ and promises, for the sake of church unity, to be extremely circumspect in using papal infallibility, even giving the impression that he might not invoke it any more. The visiting clergy are on the brink of uniting with Rome when Rahner wakes up.
When he shared this dream with a friend, his friend said, unfortunately that really does not seem very likely at present. Rahner’s responds by saying, but this is the spirit that keeps me going. We must dream and hope. This dream, says a lot about Rahner, not least that he lived theology so deeply that he even dreamed it.
So when we come to reflect upon our own dreams (and the dreams of the church) through the lens of Christian spirituality, we see the dream, like religion, can be a source of guidance and a gateway to the divine mystery.
For dreams, visions and interpretations are a part of virtually every culture and religion on earth and have been throughout the ages. ‘We are,’ as Shakespeare put it, ‘such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.’
Dreams engage us on wavelengths far broader than the rational language which dominates theology. Dreams are powerful things. They can reach us, touch us and change our lives in a way that few other forms of communication can.
Tertullian, that most powerful writer and defender of the faith in the third century, regarded dreams as one of the charismata, or spiritual gifts from God.
He also believed they were just as relevant for people of his own day as they were in New Testament days. In a rather contemporary way, experiencing God today has become almost as important as understanding God.