For me every new article is not something that I have concocted but something that I have experienced. Our pastoral ministry is to plunge into the depths of life where you can find a wide range of topics for new spiritual talks. It is also contact with people, nearly always with their sorrows and very seldom—with their joys. A priest should be able to empathize with people. And we succeed in it especially during confessions. I heard many confessions over this year’s Great Lent and thus I had much food for thought. Although we constantly remind people that they should repent of their sins and not talk about life during confessions, they nevertheless have time to ask their questions and briefly discuss their long-standing worries. They say there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers… And, in accordance with the Holy Scriptures, we should be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear (1 Pet. 3:15). There are very many questions concerning dreams. Sometimes people literally quote William Shakespeare, saying: “I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was… (from the play, Midsummer Night’s Dream).1 Father, please can you interpret it!!!”
Very often people see dead relatives in their dreams. What does it mean? Some people assert that dreams may bring special revelations and answer important questions. One of such people was the famous Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, who said, “If I had not written down all that appeared to me in dreams, most of my stories would have never been born.”
Some even dream in color, and many composers hear music in their dreams. Sometimes we have such dreams that after waking up we want to kiss our alarm clock… And some people will repeat the words of Cinderella: “A dream is a wish your heart makes when you are fast asleep.”2 And you don’t want to part with dreams like these at all… In a word, dreams are a subject for another spiritual talk.
Let us open the book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus and read it a little. This book is full of wise advice, so let us read it not only during Great Lent but regularly and little by little. Thus, we read, “A dream is a movement of the mind while the body is at rest” (Ladder 3, 25).3
In these words of The Ladder we find mention of an important characteristic of our mind—its mobility.
Just like a source cannot but pour forth water and burning fire cannot but release light and heat, our mind cannot but generate thoughts. In addition to the above we can say that not only the mind but also the heart is permanently in motion. It engenders feelings. No man can stop the moving of mind and heart, but what we can do is to guide them according to the Gospel. Of course, it will be possible only with the help of God.
When it comes to dreams, we touch upon an interesting spiritual problem. It is known that an average man sleeps for one third of his life. For non-believers it is very simple. Sleep is a time necessary for our physical rest and restoration of our strength. For many, sleep is a free “tourist agency” which enables them to travel wherever they want for eight hours.
Thus, for a religious skeptic, life is like a motley kaleidoscope, with the interchange of days and nights, the time of labor and time of rest, where man is like a perpetually moving machine that has intervals for a break and respite.
A Christian has a very different outlook on nocturnal sleep. In Christianity people have never been compared with wound-up clocks. The purpose of human life is much higher than all labors and efforts for earning daily bread and settling down in this temporal life. We all are called to live a life that is pleasing to God, which is attained through keeping the commandments. The life of a Christian is seen as an important task, requiring high responsibility, given by God to each human being. A believer feels that his lifestyle should be special, that he shouldn’t live the way others do. The specificity of our Christian life is in knowing and doing the will of God. By practicing spiritual works a Christian with time will feel a special value of life on Earth. For him it will be like a bridge over a precipice that he must walk. This bridge is a whole, with no breaches; likewise, for a Christian the days of our life on Earth are an indissoluble chain uniting earthly and spiritual things. And that is really so. There are no stops, no lunch breaks or days of rest in the work of salvation. The life and development of one’s soul continue day and night, including sleep time. This is precisely what Christ says in the Gospel: So is the Kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; and should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how (Mark 4:26-27).
The process of falling away from God and the beginning of spiritual bankruptcy goes according to the same law: A person who has lost his inner vigilance becomes a victim of diabolic spite and guile. And we again read about sleep in the Gospel: The Kingdom of Heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way (Mt. 13:24-25).
These two extracts from the Gospel were about sleep time, when people’s spiritual state changed. In the first case it improved, in the second case it went to ruin. Thus, sleep is a particular period of a Christian’s life, and our task is to make it a period of spiritual enrichment.
What do we need for that? First of all, to become convinced (by personal experience) of the difference of our states when we are awake and when we are asleep. We can call the first period active and conscious and, therefore, full-fledged, while the period of sleep is a state of unconsciousness and sluggishness, and therefore it is imperfect. During the day a person accumulates impressions and emotional experience; at night they are processed and, most importantly, his inner life is under a special influence. We can compare daytime with filming, and night with viewing what has been filmed. Nothing of what we see and hear when we are awake disappears; it is stored in a special archive, that is, memory. By night this archive becomes more active by means of subtle mechanisms of soul that are fully functional even during sleep.
A good religious life always means a subtle contact with the spiritual world. Not only blessed angels, but also the fallen wretched spirits influence a Christian and his inner world.
St. Evagrius Ponticus (the fourth century), disciple of Venerable Macarius of Egypt, said that demons as non-material beings suggest impure images to people which arouse passions (On Thoughts, 25). Demons are spirits who are capable of penetrating into the realm of our consciousness, and so they are authors of many of our dreams. As the Greek philosopher and sage Plato (c. 429 – c. 347 BC) put it: “In all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless wild-beast nature, which peers out in sleep.”4
Sleep deadens our will and makes us lose control of our attention, so we give ourselves up to the power of our dreams. Dreams come into being in our consciousness and may go in any direction not only due to natural causes, like an illness or overeating, but also due to the influence of the evil spirits—demons—on us. Then dreams become dangerous suggestions, nightmares, false “prophetic signs”… A superstitious person takes such dreams as revelations from above, but a Christian must interpret them as temptations from the fallen angels.
Having a centuries-old experience of the struggle against people, demons use a reliable method of confusing us by showing us our nearest and dearest in sorrow and suffering in our dreams.
Venerable John Climacus writes about this insidiousness of the unclean spirits: “Demons attempt to disturb [us]… representing to [us] that [our] relatives are either grieving or dying, or are captive for [our] sake and destitute.”5
And let us conclude our talk with some important advice from The Ladder of Divine Ascent and try to follow it in our lives: “He who believes in dreams is like a person running after his own shadow, trying to catch it.”6
To be continued.