Should We Believe Our Dreams? Part 1
Let us continue our talk about dreams.
Abba Evagrius writes: “Sometimes demons concoct dreams out of arrogance and throw one’s soul into a quagmire of thoughts. For example, somebody can often see himself in a dream… either healing bodily sicknesses or worthily wearing a pastor’s vestments and tending his small spiritual flock.” Demons are prone to predict the things that are not edifying or eternal. The aim of these false prophecies is to lead a Christian into temptation (see 1 Cor. 10:13). In this state it is easier to tempt us and occasion our fall. If demons fail in this, they begin to bear malice towards us.
Trust in dreams intensifies the state of self-delusion, convinces us that we are right, and often makes our spiritual healing impossible. There is a close link between trusting dreams and spiritual deception. Here is one example, described by Holy Hierarch Ignatius (Brianchaninov) in his Ascetic Experiences: “There lived an elder at the Ploschansk Hermitage (in the Orel Diocese) who was in spiritual delusion. He cut off his hand (thinking that by this he was keeping a commandment from the Gospel) and told everybody that it had supposedly become holy relics and was kept at Moscow Simonov Monastery with honor. Living 500 versts [an old Russian measure of length, about 1.1 kilometers or 0.66 miles] from Simonov Monastery, this elder ‘felt’ when its archimandrite and the brethren venerated his hand. It made the elder shudder and hiss very loudly. He regarded that phenomenon as a fruit of prayer, while everybody saw only a regrettable and laughable perversion in it. Orphaned children who lived at the monastery were amused by this phenomenon: they imitated the elder and thus enraged him, so he attacked them and pulled their hair. None of the venerable monastery’s brethren were able to convince the miserable man that he was in a deplorable state.”
St. John Climacus, continuing Abba Evagrius’ thought, says that, “The demons of vainglory prophesy in dreams.”1 Then The Ladder of Divine Ascent explains to us the mechanism of the so-called “prophetic dreams”: “Being unscrupulous, they (demons) guess the future from the circumstances and foretell it to us… A demon is often a prophet to those who believe him, but he is always a liar to those who despise him.”2 This is an important remark: there is a direct relationship between the fulfilment of “prophetic dreams” and trusting them.
There is a curious incident that happened to the President of the United States of America Abraham Lincoln who saw his impending death in a “prophetic dream”. Exactly ten days before his death Lincoln saw in a dream a coffin under the state flag, which stood in the middle of a hall in the White House. It was the funeral of the country’s President. It is curious that many of the greatest scientists and art workers saw prophetic dreams and found inspiration for scientific discoveries and creative work in them. Let us recall that the Russian chemist Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev saw his famous Periodic Table of the Elements in a dream. There are also other striking examples: the Italian poet Dante Alighieri saw the plot of his great Divine Comedy in a dream, and the mathematician Alan Turing saw the concept of a computing machine in a dream, which later resulted in the development of the first computer… The above examples give rise to numerous questions related to the topic of our talk. Who are the authors of dreams like these? What should we do if we have had a dream that was fulfilled in our life?
Let us look into these phenomena, relying on the experience of the Holy Fathers.
If a person carelessly and wholeheartedly trusts in these signs, taking them as revelations, then he falls into a trap; for the wretched spirits will certainly do their best and use every possible device to make these dreams a reality. The chief purpose of demonic temptations is to enslave our consciousness, to attract people’s attention to their suggestions and, most importantly, to make us believe this diabolic lie. Thus, manipulating a Christian by means of sinful thoughts, unclean spirits increasingly succeed in taking control of his will, turning it towards evil.
Another attribute of the demons is their ubiquity. According to St. John Climacus: “Being a spirit he [a demon] sees what is happening in the lower air, and noticing that someone is dying, he foretells it to the more credulous types of people through dreams. But the demons know nothing about the future from foreknowledge, because if they did, the sorcerers would also be able to foretell our death.”3
Perhaps St. Evagrius Ponticus was one of the first Holy Fathers to point out the distinctive characteristics of dreams that come from demons and angels. Demonic dreams fill people with anxiety and confusion. Sometimes such temptations entail very serious consequences. Even thoughts of murdering other people may appear: these ideas come through diabolic suggestions and visions, including dreams. One mother who has many children once told me that she had such terrible thoughts that she was breastfeeding her little babies and holding a large sharp knife in her hand.
St. John Climacus adds his important observations that help Christians discern what they see in their dreams: “The demons often transform themselves into angels of light and take the form of martyrs, and make it appear to us during sleep that we are in communication with them. Then, when we wake up, they plunge us into unholy joy and conceit.”4 Here the Holy Father points to the famous saying of Apostle Paul (see 2 Cor. 11:14). The most terrible moment in this struggle will be the shame of a Christian suffering from spiritual delusion, when he bows down to demons, taking them for God. This action usually results in madness, a deep and incurable self-delusion and, sometimes, even suicide. In such cases the evil spirits completely take control of someone’s soul; God allows this to happen because of his grave mistakes in spiritual life. It takes many years of suffering and prayers of the saints to cure him from such a serious spiritual illness. In him the god of this world hath blinded the mind…, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ… should shine unto him (see 2 Cor. 4:4). The apostle Paul, filled with spiritual wisdom and compassion for people, spoke about the works of the devil, that we are not ignorant of his devices (2 Cor. 2:11). The apostle exclaims: But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ (2 Cor. 11:3).
How important it is to hear these warnings about the devil’s designs and the carelessness of people from great men. The apostle Paul highlights the main cause of an ascetic’s fall—it is the deviation from simplicity in Christ. This simplicity is like the humility that guards us from all kinds of temptations and errors. A Christian must repeat the following words of the apostle Paul all of the time: Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me… For when I am weak, then am I strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble (James 4:6). An ascetic without grace is like a fish without water. His spiritual state is mortally dangerous. He is vulnerable to every sinful thought and demonic suggestion. His resistance to temptations is extremely weak and fruitless, for it is done without the help of God.
Calling us to inner vigilance, The Ladder of Divine Ascent gives us good instruction: “As soon as we begin to believe the demons in dreams, then they make sport of us when we are awake.”5 In support of these words let us give an example from The Lives of Holy Fathers, when trust in dreams ruined an ascetic.
“An elder-recluse, a great man of prayer and ascetic, lived on Mount Sinai. Many believed that he was a true man of God and nobody believed he would perish. Unfortunately, this is precisely what happened to him because the elder was unreasonable enough to trust in dreams. Then satan, learning about this weakness of his, first showed him dreams which later were fulfilled and then sent him specially prepared devilish dreams that led to the everlasting destruction of people. And one night the evil one showed the elder the afterlife where all Christians and martyrs were in the dark and dishonor, while the Jews where in the light and bliss. The poor monk, waking up, without thinking immediately left Mount Sinai, arrived to Palestine, embraced Judaism, was circumcised, got married, became an enemy of Christians; and finally, unrepentant, was eaten alive by worms and died a wretched death.”
According to The Ladder of Divine Ascent, as opposed to demonic dreams, “Angels reveal torments, judgments and separations.”6 Instead of “unholy joy and conceit”, which, in the view of St. John Climacus, is a sign of devilish delusions, angels make us “find that we are trembling and sad”7 when we wake up. The Ladder of Divine Ascent points out another sign by which we can discern whether a dream is from demons or not: “If despair afflicts you.”8 For, as St. Nilus of Sinai put it: “To sin is human, and to despair is demonic.”
Spiritual discretion springs up in a person who completely disregards dreams. According to St. John Climacus, “He who believes in dreams is completely inexperienced. But he who distrusts all dreams is a wise man.”9
Our contemporary, St. Paisios of Mount Athos, said that we shouldn’t attach any importance to dreams. In his opinion, if we believe our dreams, good or bad, we can fall into spiritual delusion. The Athonite ascetic taught: “Ninety five percent of dreams are deceptive. This is why the Holy Fathers say that we should not pay any attention to them. Very few dreams are from God, but in order for someone to interpret even these, he must have purity and other prerequisites, much like Righteous Joseph and the Prophet Daniel in the Bible, who both had the gift from God.”10
In his homily dedicated to St. Joseph of the Old Testament, St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), summarizing the patristic experience, commands us “to observe a prudent coldness and saving caution towards all phenomena”11 in spiritual life. True, some dreams are sent by God—for example, the dreams of Righteous Joseph. But “he who sees dreams and visions is in a dangerous state that is very close to self-delusion.” “Seeing our fall and our redemption is the most important vision,” the holy hierarch concludes.
It should be said in conclusion that the role of dreams in the revelation of the will and providence of God in the New Testament era is very different compared to that of the Old Testament. In the New Testament, dreams as a means of the revelation of the will of God are not of paramount importance any more. Now God will use our dreams only to warn us of dangers and hazards; in a word, in extreme cases. The Spirit of God now speaks and works through the Church, revealing the truth and helping people put it into practice in their everyday life.