A Christian Reawakening to the Dream

By Daniel Prechtel

    I awaken and find myself on a bunk bed in a dormitory room in Alcatraz Prison.  I get up and leave the room while others sleep.  The whole place is dark and dismal.  I feel desolate and begin wandering aimlessly about the place.  I come to a large auditorium and see a woman standing by a lectern.  This woman is tall and dressed in a white robe.  There is a sense of majesty about her--a numinous quality that does not seem entirely human.  I move closer to her and see that she is reading from a large book and says aloud, “May the beauty of the God-seekers be with you.”  Then she turns to me and adds, “This is for you.”
    I feel empowered by those words.  I see that there is a stairway and I climb up to a loft.  There is a window that is open to the night sky.  I remember the words and with a yell that comes from deep within me in response I leap out the window and fly free.

    This dream, coming to me as a young adult, marked the beginning of a yearlong inner journey that reconnected me with my Christian spiritual roots and inner healing.  But even more, it initiated a time of learning about the shifting status of dreams and other inner ways of knowing in western Christianity.  I learned that Christianity had once valued dreams for their capacity to reveal the sacred dimension of life.  This appreciation gradually eroded after the Classical Age, and was lost to the rationalism of the age of the Enlightenment.  Finally this spiritual tradition has begun a reawakening to the value of dreams in our time.  A quarter of a century has passed since that personal dream plunged me into a new awareness of the reality of the spiritual life and the power of inner symbols to express our deepest truths, fears, and desires.  In the intervening years, there has been a slow, cautious movement toward greater mainstream Christian acknowledgment of the value of dreams.  We will look at this movement, this reawakening of western Christianity from its great slumber and name some of the ways lay and ordained ministers of this tradition are engaged in creative work with dreams.

The Biblical Tradition

    Built into the great narratives of Hebrew scripture are ancient dreams and visions that were regarded by Jewish and Christian faith traditions as revelations of God’s intentions breaking through in human history.  In fact, there are far too many dreams and visions of the night in scripture to mention here.  In Hebrew scripture we read of dream and visionary numinous encounters with the Holy One by patriarchs, kings, prophets and other special chosen ones. Sometimes, like with Abram’s dream initiating the covenant (Genesis 15) or Jacob’s dream of the ladder to heaven (Gen. 28:10-17), the meaning was directly understood.  Other dreams required interpretation because of their symbolism, like Joseph’s two dreams that involved his brothers (Gen. 37:5-11).  Some dreams required special assistance from God for their interpretation and Joseph and Daniel appear in Hebrew scripture narratives as gifted in providing special interpretive ability.  Warnings occur in various scriptures, though, that discernment is needed in establishing the meaning and value of dreams and visions.
    We find fewer direct dream references in the Christian canonical scriptures.  In Matthew's nativity narrative Joseph has three angelic dreams (1:20-21; 2:13-15; 2:19-20) and the Magi receive a warning in a dream (2:12). When Jesus is about to be crucified, Pilate’s wife has a dream warning against harming Jesus (Mt. 27:19). In the Pentecost event (Acts 2:16ff.) the apostle Peter saw this as the beginning of a new age where the Holy Spirit will be poured out on people of all nations and dreams and visions will become common, echoing Joel 2:28.
    Although few dreams are named as such it is important to recognize that a number of visions also are mentioned in the Christian scripture narratives, like in the Hebrew scriptures, without explanation as to how the revelation was received.  So, we can conclude that in biblical tradition there is recognition that dreams can be the medium through which divine revelation is known.  Further, it is important to seek discernment of the underlying source of the dream, whether it is truly from God, and discover what meaning the dream holds for the individual or the community.

Classical and Medieval Views

     Early Christians of the Classical Age continued in the approach to dreams that has been discussed from biblical experience.  Many of the writers include their own dreams as sources of personal wisdom and knowledge in their narratives as well as comment on biblical dreams. Greek classical cultural influences of Plato and the healing cult of Asclepius supported the understanding that dreams could be a channel of spiritual revelation and health.  Aristotle challenged the dominant assumption of the ancient world that dreams came from the gods.  His view was that dreams are a natural process. Humans are in contact only with the physical world that is learned about by sensory experience and ordered by use of reason. This theory, not popular in his time, will gain respect in the late Middle Ages.
    Jerome’s (c. 342-420) great contribution of translating the Bible into the Latin Vulgate includes a major mistranslation of Deuteronomy 10:18 which turned the law, “You shall not practice augury or witchcraft” into “You shall not practice augury nor observe dreams.”  This was to negatively influence the valuation of dreams.2   Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) held in the Dialogues that since “dreams may arise from such a variety of causes, one ought to be very reluctant to put one’s faith in them, since it is hard to tell from what source they come.  The saints, however, can distinguish true revelations from the voices and images of illusions through an inner sensitivity.”3   In a time of increasing superstition and cultural decline, Gregory’s ambivalence and the Vulgate’s influence began to erode the value of dreams in Christian thinking and experience.  This erosion increased with the rise of Scholasticism in the twelfth century and the appropriation of Aristotelian concepts.  Thomas Aquinas’ understanding was shaped by Aristotle’s view of dreams but also by biblical narratives about dreams as a channel of divine revelation and this ambivalence was expressed in his Summa Theologica. Morton Kelsey sums up Aquinas’s approach to dreams: “The general attitude is that dreams are dangerous and rarely give us an experience of the Divine.”4

Age of Enlightenment and Rationalism

    The emphasis on reason continued until the rationalism of the Enlightenment era left no place for ongoing divine revelation and dreams within that narrow definition of reality.  The ascendancy of reason had, to be sure, been a powerful and useful tool in overcoming medieval superstitions.  But with rationalism there was no understanding of the dynamic power of symbols and therefore no room for dreams.  There were some leaders, although a minority, who still saw the positive link between religion and dreams.  One of England’s physicians in the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne, challenged Aristotle’s conclusions.  John Wesley, the eighteenth century English founder of Methodism, also argued for a spiritual value of dreams that goes beyond the narrow confines of rational explanation.5
    However, western Christianity had mostly moved away from regarding dreams as a valuable resource in spiritual life.  Where the Church had abandoned its legacy, Freud and the development of modern psychology discovered dreams as the royal road to the unconscious.  Carl Jung further developed dream work as part of depth psychology and postulated archetypal symbols.  Jung’s own view, in contrast to Freud, was that religion and psychology were not far separated concerns.  Sadly, it took until the latter half of the twentieth century for major connections to be made from the Church side between the interface of psychology and spiritual life with dreams as a valued window to the soul and dream work as a way of gaining important spiritual insight.

Contemporary Reawakening

    In the United States two Episcopal Church clergy led the way to a reawakening to the value of dreams in spiritual life.  John Sanford, a Jungian psychotherapist and clergyman, wrote Dreams: God’s Forgotten Language in 1968.  He articulated the relationship between a Jungian approach to dreams and biblical and contemporary spiritual insights that dream work can provide.  This was followed in the same year by the major scholarship of Morton Kelsey, a priest with pastoral experience and faculty member for many years at Notre Dame, into the history of Christian use of dreams and contemporary application in his book Dreams: The Dark Speech of the Spirit (later renamed God, Dreams, and Revelation).
    Other developments in the fields of anthropology, dream research, theology, and practical ministry have influenced contemporary dream work from a Christian standpoint.  From anthropology we have learned how various cultures, past and present, use dreams creatively.  Dream research has given us new information about dream consciousness with lucid dreaming, and exploration of other dream potentialities.  Contemporary Christian theology, particularly in the development of process theology and now with post-modern theologies, has been much more willing to give credence to local and individual experience, and honor the subjective and non-rational dimensions of encountering the sacred Presence in our inner lives as well as in external relationships.  And there has been a major movement in the way dreams have been engaged in the practice of ministry.
    In the late 1960’s there was the growth of pastoral counseling and pastoral psychotherapy within mainline Christian ministry which brought together psychological frameworks and Christian pastoral theology.  However, the Christian population that was primarily served was focused on needs for counseling and therapy. Then in the late 1970’s an ecumenical movement in Christian spiritual direction began to spread and is still making strong inroads into the broader Christian community.  This interest in receiving trained spiritual guidance from clergy and laity alike on an individual basis or in a small spiritual companionship group was a response to the growing hunger for personal attention to spiritual growth and encounter with the sacred dimension in life.
    As an ordained minister and spiritual director I have had the great privilege of serving as a spiritual director and guide to many people in individual and group settings.  And as a member of the faculty of an ecumenical Christian training program in spiritual direction, Chicago’s Institute of Spiritual Companionship, I have participated in the training and formation of new spiritual companions who serve Christians and non-Christians alike in their spiritual journey. Good training programs for spiritual direction typically include opportunities for students to understand various approaches to dream interpretation and ways of working with dreams. In these roles of pastor, teacher, spiritual guide, and trainer I have invariably found working with dreams a rich resource for exploring inner sacred reality and wisdom.  I have often had the feeling that I am “standing on holy ground” with another person or group as we discovered powerful spiritual, social, and global commentaries that the unconscious symbols generate.  Surely such gifts of the deepest dimension of our souls come from the sacred Source.

Exploring the Dreamscape

    What might be on the horizon for Christian engagement of the dream?  In ancient times, from the eleventh to sixth century BCE, there were prophetic guilds.  Various references are made to these guilds or “sons of the prophets” in the books of Samuel and Kings.  Presumably these ancient people were trained in shamanic practices that assisted in discerning God’s will.  And within Christian history various saints have had dreams and visions that point to divine desires.  What if within the wider Christian community there was more exploration of lucid dreaming and other more limited states of dream consciousness (like Senoi dream control) where the dreamer seeks spiritual wisdom and knowledge--and openness to encountering the Holy One?  Would we be re-appropriating an ancient practice in the service of ministering to current needs for holy guidance?
    There is a growing interest within many Christian churches to reclaim spiritual discernment traditions and find ways of integrating them into the decision-making processes of congregations.  Usually the question is initiated by members of governing boards and the clergy who serve the local church by asking, “How can we bring more spirituality into our decisions?”  In the process of integrating these spiritual practices into the governing structure the leaders learn more about bringing various ways of prayer, meditation, and use of scripture to bear on the issues, challenges, and invitations that face the community. What would it be like for church and religious communities to experiment in developing “dream teams” of members that gather and share their dreams and meditations for the community’s well being as well as for personal insight?  I am aware of one religious community that has explored this possibility.  Perhaps there are others.  It could be a helpful contribution to communal discernment.
    This reawakening to the power and potential of the dream is a shared experience.  Western Christianity is beginning to look over the dreamscape and make contributions for the benefit of all.  Spiritual guides from other faith traditions, practitioners of the arts, members of the scientific community, healers of body and mind and society, and so many others are making their contributions too.  This gift of the dream is something that is deeply human, and deeply sacred.  It speaks to us on many levels and invites us to value that which is ancient and leads us to that which is powerfully new, creative, and unifying.

(This article was published in the Fall, 2000 issue of Dream Network Journal, vol. 19, no. 3.)


 1 Morton Kelsey, God, Dreams, and Revelation: A Christian Interpretation of Dreams, revised and expanded edition (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1991) 65-71.
 2 Ibid. 138-139.
 3 Ibid. 142.
 4 Ibid. 153.
 5 Ibid. 157-158.

Click here to go to Lamb & Lion Spiritual Guidance Ministries web site.