Dreams and the Spiritual Life: How Important Are Dreams in Your Relationship With God?
With COVID even impacting our dreams, Catholic scientists and clergy offer some analysis on how best to sift through our slumber.
A little over a year ago, COVID-related restrictions and lockdowns changed every aspect of life: Americans swapped heels for crocs, moved into Idaho and out of New Jersey, ate more cereal, and watched way more Netflix, among many other lifestyle changes.
It also changed how Americans slept — and dreamt — at least for a while. According to Scientific American, the pandemic kicked off a “dream event” at unprecedented levels. While traumatic events like 9/11 or mass shootings typically trigger upticks in disturbing dreams in the general population, “a surge of this magnitude had never been documented,” the scientists found.
Many of these dreams were stressful or disturbing, “marked by themes of insufficiently completing tasks (such as losing control of a vehicle) and being threatened by others,” a study cited in the article found.
Whether Catholics are having COVID-related dreams or other reveries, how much attention should they pay to their dreams in the context of their spiritual lives?
The answer is — like dreams themselves — complicated.
Why Do We Dream?
Patrick McNamara is a Catholic neuroscientist in Minneapolis. He specializes in neurodegenerative disorders (like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s) as well as sleep disorders and dreams.
“I got interested in the form of sleep that’s most often associated with dreams — REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep,” he told the Register. “The neurobiology of it, it’s quite strange. It’s still one of the big, unsolved mysteries in evolutionary biology. ... It’s a very strange phenomena because, every 90 minutes while we’re asleep, our brains get intensely activated, even more activated than they are during the daytime, but we’re nevertheless paralyzed.”
This is when dreams happen, McNamara said. And while there are many theories as to the biological functions of REM sleep and dreams, much remains a mystery.
One theory about dreams and REM sleep is that they help people process emotional memories, he said.
“Intensely emotional things get integrated into our long-term memory via REM sleep and dreams, and when there’s a problem with that integration, particularly around like things like traumatic memories, they’re hard to integrate and so they stay around in the system. And that’s when we get nightmares,” he said.
Another theory about the function of dreams is something called social simulation. Essentially, dreams give people a chance to dress-rehearse scenarios they may face in their real lives, with the people they know.
“And so, by rehearsing them in dreams every night, we are better able to think through these strategic alliances,” he said.
Another prominent theory is that dreams promote creativity.
“We might see a family member in a very unusual context and then that sparks questions about why that would be, and it forces the brain to sort of process things in an unusual way. And that promotes creativity,” he said.
All kinds of things can affect dreams, McNamara added, from emotional experiences to stressors like isolation from lockdowns and anxiety about COVID-19. A person’s diet is not thought to affect their dream life too much, he added.
“Unless you eat right before you fall asleep, it’s probably not going to impact dream content that much,” he said.
McNamara said he thinks God still uses dreams to communicate with people today, and some basic rules for discernment could apply to dreams.
“[Because of a particular dream]: Am I better able to love? Am I better able to be a good Catholic in this situation? Am I better able to give myself to others in a way that we all flourish?” he said.
“Of course, if you’re having nightmares with demons in them ... it’s probably not from God.”
What’s God Got to Do With It?
Because dreams can be spiritual in nature, and can relate to all aspects of life, they can be topics of discussion during spiritual direction.
Father John Bartunek, of the Legionaries of Christ, is a spiritual director who has written and spoken about the significance of dreams in the spiritual life for sites like SpiritualDirection.com.
Father Bartunek told the Register that there are several considerations that must be taken into account when considering whether or not a dream contains a message from God or is pointing to anything spiritual in a person’s life.
Firstly, although God uses dreams to communicate in the Bible (St. Joseph himself receives messages from God in four dreams in the Gospel of Matthew), God does this rather sparingly, Father Bartunek said.
“In Scripture, God speaks to people through their dreams and through giving people power to interpret dreams. So it is a theme throughout Scripture,” he said. “But even in those cases, it’s fairly exceptional ... it does happen; it has happened; it can happen. But it’s fairly exceptional.”
Dreams are primarily a “natural phenomenon,” Father Bartunek said, part of the normal sleep cycle that helps keep the brain rested and refreshed.
And even though God may not be speaking directly through every dream, dreams can convey important messages on a natural level about things like stress or unresolved issues in one’s life.
If someone is “having a stress dream, especially a repetitive dream ... that can be an indication just on a natural level that there’s something that maybe I’m not facing or not understanding or not resolving, and I need to take some steps on it,” he said.
God can also give someone a natural grace through their dreams, Father Bartunek said, such as a sense of peace or joy, similarly to how he can grant graces through things like noticing a beautiful sunset.
“If I go for a walk in the park, and I see a beautiful sunset, that’s a natural phenomenon. But in that moment, for me, I could hear God speaking to my heart, saying, ‘Hey, this is for you. Don’t forget that I love you,’” Father Bartunek said. “So he uses natural phenomena to communicate a grace to me in a particular moment that I need.”
Kevin Tierney is a Catholic from the Detroit area who said he has experienced such a dream. Tierney told the Register that, before he was married, he took the woman he was dating at the time to a late-night adoration chapel to pray. When the next two scheduled adorers did not arrive, Tierney and his girlfriend stayed in the chapel to pray.
“I had been up almost 24 hours, and it was 4am, and we were supposed to leave at 2,” Tierney said. “So I’m trying to pray.”
But even despite the coffee break he took, he found himself drifting off to sleep. That’s when he felt that God granted him the grace in the dream to wake up and continue to pray.
“I felt God come to me in a dream and ask why I fell asleep. Ironically, I didn’t say, ‘Because it’s 4am, and I’ve been up for 24 hours,’” he said. Instead, Tierney recalled that he responded in the dream: “I’ve run out of things to pray for, and I’ve run out of things to ponder.”
In the dream, Tierney felt God urging him to wake up and stay awake, “and trust that I was learning from him, even if I didn’t think I was.”
Tierney said that dream granted him the grace of staying awake, and feeling completely at peace, until 6am, when the next scheduled adorer arrived. It taught him something about prayer, too.
“Sometimes prayer really is just about staying awake: Ask Peter and John!” he said. “But I think it helped teach me that sometimes prayer really is just about experiencing God’s peace, more than the give-and-take of asking and receiving, or meditating on something from the Scriptures. As great as those things are, they aren’t the end of prayer: The peace of Christ is the end of prayer.”
When it comes to dream “do nots,” Father Bartunek said he would not recommend keeping a regular dream journal, in which dreams that occur during sleep would be regularly recorded and tracked and written about in depth.
“In general, it’s not a common tool for spiritual growth,” he said, unlike the practice of keeping a prayer journal, which is a common spiritual tool for Catholics.
“But the dream journal ... it’s very easy to become obsessed with that,” he said, in a way that can become spiritually dangerous.
Because dreams are a natural phenomenon that occur during sleep, they should not be given more spiritual weight than they are due, he said. Catholics should also be careful to not partake in any New Age spiritual dream practices, he added, which can lead some to believe that the dream world is the primary spiritual realm, rather than the times when they are awake.
More typical modes of spiritual development and communication with God include prayer, frequenting the sacraments, prayer journaling and spiritual direction.
“In general, what’s most important in our spiritual life is what happens during our conscious life,” he said, “and what God is giving us, how he’s working, and learning to discern his voice and his action during our daily, conscious life.”
Jim Langley is a Catholic psychologist in Denver. Dreams are a topic that can come up in counseling sessions, Langley said, but it can be difficult for Catholics to find counselors who will help them understand their dreams in a way that does not use New Age practices.
Dreams can be used as one aspect of better self-knowledge, he added, and the way a person interprets or is affected by their dreams can give insight into their own understanding of their emotional or spiritual lives.
“Many Catholic clinicians incorporate spirituality into therapy, but it is important to distinguish us from spiritual directors. We’d never presume to know how exactly God is working in a person’s life or what direction he is leading them,” he said.
“That being said, we often help people develop awareness of emotional ‘currents’ within themselves, which is closely connected to discernment. Regarding dreams specifically ... we can guide a person in identifying and processing their own understanding of a dream. The meaning that a person imbues their own dream with can reveal a lot about their emotional and spiritual undercurrents, which is useful in discernment, especially from an Ignatian perspective.”
Langley said he has found it helpful to downplay, or not focus on, whether or not a dream was from God.
“When a person has a dream that is explicitly religious, we don’t take a stance to say that it was or was not directly from God,” he said. “Instead, we follow St. John of the Cross and don’t worry too much if it is of divine origin, but rather help the person discern the spiritual fruits of the dream.”
This is beneficial because “if a dream really is from God, it will find a way to bear its fruits; but if we ascribe a divine origin to a dream that is not, it can lead to a good deal of trouble,” Langley said. “Particularly, it can lead to pride and an exaggerated sense of our own holiness.”
What About Disturbing Dreams?
While God can grant graces, inspirations and even, on rare occasions, specific messages through dreams, they can also be influenced by the demonic, Father Bartunek said.
“It’s very possible, and it does happen,” he said, because demons can affect natural phenomena like dreams.
“Most spiritual directors have encountered cases where people feel ... there was a very disturbing dream, and they woke up and maybe even felt an evil presence and may have been very disturbed by that and frightened. So how do you respond to that?”
First of all, Father Bartunek said he would advise Catholics not to worry too much. It could just have been a bad dream caused by the brain processing emotions. Regardless, he said, the response to either a demonic or a bad dream would be the same.
“If you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re disturbed or frightened, pray. Pick up your rosary,” he said. Other things Catholics can do in such moments of anxiety: Light a candle, look at a favorite icon of Jesus or Mary, or read the Bible.
These things are “the typical things that can turn our hearts and our minds back to God and activate our faith in his goodness and his presence and his protection. Those are the typical things that we use in response to any type of cross or any type of suffering or any type of temptation.”
Father Bartunek said the only time he would recommend a Catholic write about dreams and explore them more in depth is if they are having repetitive disturbing dreams. Someone having disturbing dreams might want to write about them so they can be addressed with the help of a priest or spiritual director.
As a spiritual director, Father Bartunek said, this would allow him to review the natural phenomena of the dream with the directed and to ask questions like: “Why is this upsetting you? What do you think this is saying?”
Father Bartunek said he would also help the directee reflect on the dreams in light of the context of the rest of their life and their relationship with God. Experts like trusted psychologists or psychiatrists may be consulted if the disturbing dreams persist, he added.
According to McNamara, there are safe and effective treatments for disturbing dreams that have undergone clinical trials and are non-invasive, such as image rehearsal therapy. This involves the person choosing a disturbing image from their dreams, such as a monster or demon, and reimagining the dream with a less threatening imagery and story.
“So instead of a demon chasing you, you imagine it turning into some human being chasing you. And then you rehearse that human being turning into a friend who’s chasing you. And then the friend is chasing you to bring you good news,” McNamara said. “And it’s surprising that something as simple as that works, but for the vast majority of cases, it does appear to work.”
When these kinds of treatments fail, McNamara said there are also some effective pharmaceutical treatments available.
For the most part, Father Bartunek said, we can just let our dreams be what they are and understand them in the broader context of our conscious lives.
“A supernatural word from God through a dream ... I think it’s pretty safe to say that that’s an extraordinary way for God to speak to us.”