Monthly Archives: November 2020

Thomas Merton’s ‘big dream’

Thomas Merton’s ‘big dream’ of Proverb

On February 28 1958, Thomas Merton had a dream:

‘On the porch at Douglaston I am embraced with determined and virginal passion by a young Jewish girl. She clings to me and will not let me go, and I get to like the idea. I see that she is a nice kid in a plain, sincere sort of way. I reflect “She belongs to the same race as St. Anne.” I ask her name and she says her name is Proverb. I tell her that is a beautiful and significant name, but she does not appear to like it – perhaps the others have mocked her for it.’

Some days later Merton writes a love letter to Proverb explaining that while there is a great difference in their ages he is ‘grateful … to you for loving in me something which I thought I had entirely lost, and someone who, I thought, had long ago ceased to be.’ The gratitude and love is for ‘your lovely spontaneity, your simplicity, the generosity of your love’ for ‘the revelation of your virginal solitude.’ He explains at the end, ‘Dearest Proverb, I love your name, its mystery, its simplicity, and its secret, which even you yourself seem not to appreciate.’ Merton pledges his love to her writing ‘I will give you everything’.

This dream links to Merton’s famous epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut where he sees himself no longer separate from the rest of the human race. And where he is struck by “the secret beauty” and “womanness” of the women he sees in the street. Right after this he writes to Proverb again in his journal:

‘I have kept one promise and I have refrained from speaking of you until seeing you again. I knew that when I saw you again it would be very different, in a different place, in a different form, in the most unexpected circumstances. I shall never forget our meeting yesterday. The touch of your hand makes me a different person. To be with you is rest and Truth. Only with you are these things found, dear child, sent to me by God.’

The spiritual associations are with the Annunciation and the Incarnation, of Sophia and linked to Merton’s work Hagia Sophia, yet from a psychological perspective the setting in the dream on Merton’s maternal grandparents’ porch links to the lost child part too. Is this the feminine part of Merton’s psyche – his anima? In his vision at Fourth and Walnut he writes that he felt ‘he was married to what is most true in all the women of the world’. Is there some balancing here with the ascetic, the intellectual, the ordered, celibate monastic life? Is there then an acceptance of the spontaneity of feeling and emotional side of himself for which he indeed might have been mocked for certainly during his schooling. Proverb is part of the hidden true self re- emerging again through the dream to touch him and affect his relationship with God.

Carl Jung’s ‘big dream’

One of Carl Jung’s ‘big dreams’ provided him with the map of his future thinking on the conscious and depths of the unconscious – the inner world: the dream showed the many layers in the psyche.

‘I was in a house I did not know which had two storeys. It was “my” house. I found myself in the upper storey where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house and thought “not bad”. But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older, and I realized that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were medieval, the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another thinking “now I really must explore the whole house”. I came upon a heavy door and opened it. Beyond it I discovered a stone stairway that led down into the cellar. Descending again I found myself in a beautiful vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was now intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it the stone slab lifted and again I saw a staircase of narrow stone steps leading into the depths. These too I descended and entered a low cave cut into the rock. Thick dust lay on the floor, and in the dust were scattered bones and broken bits of pottery, like the remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old and half disintegrated. Then I awoke.’

Jung saw that the representation was of the psyche with consciousness represented by the salon. The ground floor was the first level of the unconscious; in the cave was the remains of the primitive culture representing the world of the primitive person within him. This Jung wrote is, ‘a world that can scarcely be reached or illumined by consciousness. The primitive psyche … borders on the life of the animal soul, just as the caves of pre-historic times were usually inhabited by animals before man laid claim to them’. For Jung the distinction was between the personal unconscious and the various levels of the collective unconscious -where there are archetypal forces which are the shared possession of humankind.

June Singer’s big dreams

The Jungian analyst June Singer had two big dreams about death – she knew because of the emotion involved that the dreams were very important. The first took place when she was in training in Zurich and living there with her first husband, also a Jungian analyst, and her then teenage daughter.

‘I open a door to a bedroom just slightly, enough to see into the room. The room is bare of furniture except for one bed that is in the far corner. Around the bed is a strange glow, as if a bright radiance were emanating from it. Although the light is nearly blinding, I cannot help looking at it and trying to make out what is there. I realize that my husband and my daughter are in that bed. Apparently my husband sees me at the door, and he throws a heavy object at me, perhaps a shoe, which I take to be a sign that I do not belong there, the sight is not for me. I quickly close the door. I am shocked and trembling.’

June Singer says for years she did not understand the dream but it stayed with her. She felt cut off from some mystery, isolated and alone. Her husband died five years after the dream, and five years later her daughter. ‘So I was left outside the luminous place of death to which they had gone. I knew now that I understood the dream.’

The other dream she had of death came twenty five years before her actual passing in 2004. She was quite well but ‘the big dream’ led her to let go of any fear of death, and adopt a practice of letting go of all worries and concerns.

‘I am lying on a narrow hospital bed, perhaps a gurney such as they use to wheel a patient into an operating room. I am very comfortable. I notice that I am hooked up to all sorts of wires and tubes. It strikes me as strange that I should be in this place and in this condition and feeling very well, unusually well. I am relaxed and peaceful. But I feel weak, not in an unpleasant way, simply weak. I do not feel that I can get up, but then I have no inclination to do so. It is as if my strength were slowly ebbing away, and the realization comes to me that I must be dying. Oh well, I think, if this is the way it is, just let it happen and observe it carefully. You may not have another opportunity. I pay close attention to everything slowing down, my body, my thoughts. Yet I keep a keen awareness of a growing sense of calm and a very quiet pleasure, as it is to sleep in the arms of the Beloved. I feel my life slipping away from me and I feel myself slipping like a drop of water sliding into the sea. And then I am no more myself alone, but merged into the fullness.’

 For June Singer this ‘big dream’ helped her shed a sense of self-importance, especially about her work – it helped her ‘learn to do a little less, do it a bit more slowly, do it with care, and do it with love.’

lovely extract of an interview with June Singer about the soul…

Martin Israel’s ‘big dream’

‘I seemed to have been involved in a road accident, and I clambered out of a rather shadowy car. The road ahead was poorly made up, and I had to crawl my way forward – in the process, escaping from some people who were impeding my departure. At last I reached the end of the road and found myself in a vast expanse of clear space. There were no markings, but the space was occupied by diaphanous beings who had a mere outline of shape. This shape superficially resembled the human form, but there were no recognizable features. They seemed to cluster together in joyous groups, animated by a spirit of love that poured out into the atmosphere. They received me as one of their own, and I seemed to play along with them in their harmonious movement.

Then I began to wonder where I actually was. One of the company seemed to sense my question and asked me, ‘Don’t you know that you are dead?’ I then seemed to be ushered towards a great shadowy building where someone awaited me, apparently for appraisal and instruction. By this point, though, I was so excited that I seemed to awaken myself consciously: I had had direct proof of the survival of my personality after bodily death, and I wanted to make this knowledge available to others as soon as possible. Seldom have I woken up with such excitement and joy. Shortly afterwards, I even considered writing a book on what I had experienced, but a later, more sober, consideration showed that there was barely enough material for even a single page of foolscap.’

This dream led the priest and healer Martin Israel (who for many years also worked as a medical pathologist) to write his book ‘Angels, Messengers of Grace’. He wanted to convey his dream experience that all would be well and that angels are an essential link between a human being and God – and, more universally, between the whole created world and its creator.

If he hadn’t woken himself up in his excitement Israel wondered about whom he might have met in the great shadowy building, perhaps it may have been a representative of God the Holy Trinity. He writes, ‘had I been rather less impetuous, I might conceivably have attained this knowledge, but I suspect I did what was expected of me. In my earthly state of spiritual understanding, I am surely not eligible for a heavenly meeting. It may be that when I make the great transition that we call death I shall be better prepared for what is to come.’