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
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.