Profound guidance often comes when we are fast asleep
“Are you the God-lady?” a man at our local market asked me. Admittedly, I was startled. Without waiting for a reply, he said, “My father died last week. He’s been showing up in my dreams. Dad looks young, healthy, and seems to be telling me he’s okay, that we’ll see each other again. But he doesn’t speak … what does that mean? Why didn’t Dad speak?” I, too, was speechless. Who is this man?
As the cashier rang up my groceries, the stranger pressed on. Turns out his Bible study group was using my newest work on holy dreams as a discussion tool. Apparently, they’d not yet read about grief dreams, or the many other kinds of holy dreams.
The rare, profoundly memorable instances when, in a deep sublime sleep, God graces our mind to offer us sacred, individualized guidance during our slumbers.
My ice cream was melting, so as speedily as possible, I explained, “That sounds like a grief dream—quite commonly experienced after a loved one passes. Those dreams generally bring comfort and encouragement. They suggest that all is well and not to worry about so-called death. As for not speaking, no doubt we’ll all communicate telepathically in the infinite.”
He slowly nodded and then smiled, appearing relieved. “I’ll tell our group,” he said. Had he worn a hat, I sensed he would have tipped it. I smiled back, and we went our separate ways.
Holy Dreams: Meta-Messages from God
Later, I thought of so much more I could have said: that the holy dream is an intensely memorable, if also infrequent, time during sleep when we receive a “meta-message” from God. The Greek prefix meta means situated beyond or above something, and also more highly organized than before. Meta, in this usage, leads us to metamorphosis—defined as a change in the form or nature of a substance because of either natural or supernatural means. How fitting.
A holy dream shifts our mind, awareness, or interior posture upward to new, loftier, perhaps more abstract levels.
My research and direct experience shows that shift can endure. It lingers, influencing us in subtle and sometimes obvious ways, often prompting us to shape, arrange, or reorder ourselves at our very ground of being. Outwardly we may appear unchanged, yet within ourselves we know something radical has happened.
Because the holy dream shows up during what I believe is a transcendent state of sleep, some say it’s like praying while asleep. We somehow become aware of deeper realities.
The Difference Between Holy Dreams and Visions
A dream is an interior image, picture, or story that takes place during sleep, while a vision appears externally. A vision can result from ingesting drugs (such as LSD), plants (including peyote), certain teas, or herbs, as well as from mental instabilities or chemical imbalances. Even high fevers, illnesses, and exhaustion can stimulate a vision. Yet only a few of us have visions. Dreams, on the other hand, are universal. All people dream nightly.
The holy dream flows from a very specific state of sleep in which our minds and thus our dreams are stirred by God (or Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Divine, the Absolute—please choose your own terms).
These dreams are, in fact, so weighty we rarely forget them and ponder them frequently. Throughout our lives, a single holy dream can grow with us, developing its truth and unfolding its message as we mature spiritually. The worst thing we can do is rush to judgment or force a delicately nuanced verity along. Time lets the dream grow us. A holy dream, after all, holds a teaching or a parable, a story with a moral.
I find similarities in the dreams of those in religious, spiritual, or highly creative fields. Such people may share the ability to receive, recall, and quite easily use the wisdom and power contained in their dreams—holy or otherwise. Do such people dream more richly, understand more fully, and somehow invite spiritual dreams more easily than others? I believe so.
These “fruitful” dreamers are also more patient with ambiguity. They don’t try to force some linear, cookie-cutter answer. They intuitively recognize their need for rest and renewal. They carve out time for the regular recharging of mental batteries. They habitually daydream, putter, and are preoccupied with some idea, solution, or project in ways that free their thought processes.
Inventors, for example, are famous for utilizing their hypnagogic states (that delicate time between sleep and wakefulness) to invite dreams about their most enchanting projects. When the mind struggles for answers, we are absorbed, fully engaged. That’s a call Spirit hears.
Decoding Holy Dreams
Holy dreams reflect God’s word, plan, and purposes for our lives.
People of all ages and backgrounds report having grief, cautionary, healing, or directing dreams. Children often tell of angels bringing them inspiration in dreams. The Bible reveals some such dreams are prophetic. It’s said Abraham Lincoln dreamt of his death a few days before he was shot, although most dreams of dying can symbolize some type of personal transformation. The holy dream simply accentuates what’s for us.
Some feel infused with creative power and wisdom after such dreams. Saint John Bosco, for example, learned of his vocation through his holy dreams in which the Virgin Mary, angels, and other saintly figures appeared to guide him toward his calling. Throughout his life, he recorded his most revealing dreams and taught their morally elevating lessons to his students.
So how might we crack the code of vital directives?
Dreams, whether usual or holy, speak to us in symbolic language—just like scripture. A tree might represent a person; a dove may represent Spirit; a lamp could signify understanding, and so on. When we wake up in the morning, it’s best to jot down a note about any significant dream—not to check our cell phones until after we’ve written a sentence or two about it in a journal or on a scrap of paper.
That practice can help us remember a fleeting but significant symbol, story, or even a color scheme in our dream. Later, the salient bits may return to us. Talking with trusted, qualified others—our pastor, rabbi, spiritual director, or worthy spiritual companions—can sometimes reveal a dream’s special message.
Throughout our lives, a single holy dream can grow with us, developing its truth and unfolding its message as we mature spiritually.
We learn about complex issues by hearing ourselves utter our truths, as well as hearing others’ ideas. Yet it seems best to avoid chatting casually about our dreams online, at the gym, or with virtual strangers. We don’t cultivate our spiritual senses by trivializing sacred issues.
Let’s not overestimate what so-called experts and quick-fix methods can reveal about our core self. Let’s also never underestimate the value of reflective methods such as meditation, journaling, or in-depth dialogue with selected, worthy others for unfolding our truths and maturing into who we really are.
Some of my keenest insights surface while I prune roses, wash dishes, or take long, solitary walks. On the other hand, some of my least helpful ideas come when I’m rushed, pressuring, or scaring myself to find quick answers.
How to Invite Holy Dreams
A holy dream is not a pizza—we can’t just order it. So then, how can we invite holy dreams? One way is to study “best cases.” We see in fertile, understanding dreamers that their hearts are full of, and fixed on, something absorbing—a vocation or calling, a needed solution, a pet project or enterprise. God’s word could be the focus. That’s what we find in saints and the saintly.
Engagement is key. Loving engagement is best. If we study the artistic, inventive, or spiritually gifted and creative mind, we find a tendency toward prolific holy dreaming.
Here are some practices you may find useful for encouraging a holy dream:
- Identify your heart’s treasure—the one idea, solution, or pursuit that interests you most and makes you feel most alive. As your answers evolve, keep notes in a journal. Think about refining your answers just prior to sleep.
- Find time to ponder whatever you identify. You can keep the issue to yourself; just be honest about it in your own heart. (Hint: Stay solution oriented, not problem-oriented.) A friend uses time in the shower each morning to brainstorm ways to grow her business. She tells me she even writes ideas on the shower wall (and washes them off later).
- Discuss in a group of trusted others the idea in Luke 12:34 (“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”). How does “the heart’s treasure” demonstrate itself? Study other biblical passages about the issues of the heart. How might that relate to inviting a holy dream?
- Learn about others who have your same interests. CDs, books, and interviews in print and online offer rich, real-life examples of those whose interests may match yours.
- Consider engaging with the ideas of your area of greatest interest right before sleep. The closer you get to that hypnagogic state, the more likely your meditations will be fruitful.
- Finally, think about practicing some sort of contemplative art, such as prayer, ceramics, or gardening. Such activities can lead to beyond time instances when insights flood the mind. In the silence of self-forgetfulness, our core self “asks” for the heart’s treasure. In this state of mind, we are the purest worshipers.
Dancers, composers, musicians, writers, and poets often say that at certain moments, they become so at one with their art and work that it’s like praying. In fact, at such times, they become prayer. When attention is focused from the heart and from the right use of God’s gifts, we give holy dreams their best summons.