Big dreams 2 Thomas Merton

Sophia – wisdom 

Thomas Merton shows how a spiritual seeker might analyse and make use of a big dream.  His dream of Proverb happens at the end of February 1958. It takes place after a day of what Merton describes as ‘frustrations’: he was cross about the rota for taking mass; put out by some visitors who were late; had an annoying meeting with the Reverend Father, including the definite news that Merton would not be sent to a new Foundation in South America, and notes his irritation at the Abbot’s habit of calling new novices names by silly by-play (anyone who is a little fat is called Aquinas – as Thomas Aquinas was reputed to be fat). Later in the day a novice ‘talked at considerable length about nothing’ when Merton wanted to do other things, and he was annoyed by a new postulant talking in platitudes. At the light meal Merton got something he didn’t like, whereas it seemed everyone else had something appetising. In his honest way, Merton writes that he is ashamed to write it all down as life is made up of such things and normally, he doesn’t notice them, or soon forgets any annoyance.

‘But after all these things, I had a dream. It may have had no connection with them whatever.

On the porch at Douglaston [his grandparents’ home when Merton was a child] I am embraced with determined and virginal passion by a young Jewish girl. She clings to me and will not let 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 her name and says her name is Proverb. I tell her that it is a beautiful and significant name, but she does not appear to like it – perhaps the others have mocked her for it.’

Merton writes that he rationalizes the dream in a complacent way quoting the Latin for the Wisdom of Solomon – ‘I loved wisdom and sought to make her my wife – Sophia he links to the sofa on the back porch in Douglaston – he adds ‘no need to explain it. It was a charming dream.’ But the dream remains obstinately with Merton – so much so that a week later he addresses a devoted and intimate love letter to Proverb. The letter is also in a sense dream analysis – not in the conventional psychoanalytic sense – that’s referenced in the earlier rather sardonic throwaway comments, but instead we read a deeper sense of what happens if ‘big dream’ content is spiritually worked with and integrated. For Merton the dream opens up a feeling of being loved: ‘How grateful I am to you for loving in me something which I thought I had entirely lost, and someone who, I thought, I had long ago ceased to be…’

This feeling from the dream of being loved by this one mysterious young girl figure (perhaps representing the relational and vulnerable part of himself), then seems to break open Merton’s capacity to love the many. Two weeks later Proverb comes to him ‘in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut’ when Merton is overwhelmed by his love for everyone he sees, even though they are total strangers. The dream of Proverb opens Merton to one of his most powerful epiphanies through re-awakening an innocence he thought he had lost, and opening him to a capacity to ‘see’ and embrace God within everyone. Merton calls this ‘le point vierge’ – ‘the point or spark which belongs entirely to God’ which is in every one of us, and which ‘shines like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven’.