Appearing in a dream 3

An engraving from crica 1622 of Christ speaking with Nicodemus

John Sanford, Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst, urges us to attend to our dreams and accept that God may speak to us through our unconscious. This may feel unsettling as the current way of thinking is that the unconscious is only for the unbalanced amongst us. Rather it’s more accepted that God is to be found through rational thinking, in a discussion group, or through formal worship of education. Sanford says that Christians are afraid today of that very soul from which our heritage springs:

‘We refuse to accept the nonrational unconscious, because it threatens the tyranny of rationality that has gripped us today …”it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. We much prefer the security of our rationality to the awesome experience of dealing with a living voice.’

If the revelation of God has so consistently come through dreams and visions, and is so central in the bible, why are dreams and visions so ignored, and why is there such ignorance about them today. In the church dreams are not spoken about at all. Dream interpretation is not taught on theological trainings, or preached about, or openly discussed. There is virtually nothing in bible commentaries.

Perhaps it’s to do with fear – fear of what may seem out of control. Sanford suggests that it is also to do with what he calls the Nicodemus problem – Nicodemus who questions Jesus’ speaking symbolically about being born again. Jesus can only convey the reality of unseen things through symbolism, but Nicodemus is too stuck in his literal, material point of view to understand. With that as the predominant way of thinking messages from dreams become blocked.

It was Carl Jung who discovered that the dreams that people have today are not only dreams about themselves, but also about God; and that at the basis of our dreams there is a religious process going on. Sanford agrees and describes how a person in therapy with him called Margaret, is feeling blocked in her search for God. She has a long dream that centres around a confrontation between her (the dreamer), and an angry doctor who criticises her for ignoring her TB – a respiratory illness. She attempts to defend herself, but the doctor is not to be moved, and in the second part of the dream he turns against a younger doctor too. What is the meaning of the tuberculosis – as Margaret doesn’t actually have a physical illness, Sanford sees it as a disease of the spirit where the area of breathing is attacked. It is an attack on the capacity to spiritually breathe (pneuma). The dreamer needs to understand that her self-realization and spiritual health is in danger of being destroyed by her blocking the spirit by collective thinking that fails to recognize communication from the unconscious (in this dream the angry doctor). The younger doctor (who represents Sanford) has not taken this seriously enough – so the angry doctor becomes insistent. After this dream Margaret accepted the astonishing realization ‘God is actually speaking to me’.

In dreams symbolic thinking can take us beyond our personal issues. In dreams we can sometimes identify wisdom, but this needs to be realized through our egoic thinking.

‘We must draw upon both the conscious and the unconscious to get on spiritually and mentally… Margaret’s dream is unusually important because her problem is not unique to her but belongs to all of us’. Like Margaret and Nicodemus there needs to be a cure for our incapacity ‘to understand the life-giving symbolic language of the unconscious … and breathe life-giving spiritual air.’