Q: I never had dreams like this before. Only now that I have grown closer to Him in recent months He has spoken to me in other ways like at prayer. And He often confirms what I heard in prayer by people, articles, etc. If these dreams bring me closer to Him then surely they are from Him right? They have been such wonderful sources of consolation for me! Oh please enlighten me!
A: Surely “if these dreams bring you closer to Him” then, absolutely, they can be welcomed as Providential gifts. So you can be at peace! In fact, God has often used dreams in the lives of his faithful. This appears in both the Old and the New Testaments, and also the lives of the saints (see for example the dreams of St. John Bosco). Nevertheless, two other thoughts may be of use to you. First, we should reflect on how you can determine whether or not they are truly bringing you “closer to Him.” It is easy to be misled. Second, we should mention some warning signs and things to avoid in this arena – after all, we fallen human beings have a penchant for turning good things to bad use.
Coming closer to God is the essence of spiritual growth. But sometimes things that make us temporarily feel closer to God are not actually bringing us closer. Feelings of consolation or emotional tranquility, or even enthusiasm, can accompany spiritual growth, but the core of spiritual growth lies elsewhere. It consists of becoming more united to Christ. This entails becoming more like Christ in our attitudes and behaviors. We can grow in humility, wisdom, and love for neighbor, for example, even in the midst of great suffering and feelings of confusion and dryness in our souls. In fact, sometimes the periods of greatest spiritual growth occur precisely during the seasons of greatest emotional aridity.
And so, in reflecting on how these dreams are affecting your spiritual life, you need to periodically reflect on the same questions that we would use to evaluate spiritual growth in general. Do they encourage me to participate more frequently and more consciously in the sacraments? Do they motivate me to deny my own tendencies to self-indulgence and self-righteousness in favor of serving my neighbor mercifully and gracefully? Do they empower me to hold my tongue, control my anger, think well of my neighbor, and forgive the faults and offenses of my loved ones? Do they increase my thirst for prayer and for a deeper knowledge of Christ’s teachings as offered to me by his Church? Do they strengthen me to obey the moral law and the precepts of the Church?
If dreams, or any other powerful experiences, were to push you away from those objective reference points for spiritual maturity, then they would be suspect.
Some Warning Signs
Another warning sign would be if you find yourself actively seeking out those dreams, consciously trying to make them repeat themselves instead of receiving them as gifts of God’s Providence. This can happen even with consolation in prayer, or with the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. God sends them in order to build us up spiritually. But we, weak as we are, can sometimes become attached to those gifts as ends in themselves. When that happens, we forget about the Giver of the gifts, and fall into a kind of mercenary spirituality, where we seek to reproduce certain states of soul through prayer and spiritual disciplines, instead of seeking to glorify God and receive his grace.
In this sense, fascination with dreams and dream-experiences can lead us very far astray indeed. Some strains of the New Age movement, for example, encourage the intentional development of techniques for “lucid dreaming.” This is often linked up with the invocation of some kind of spirit guide who can aid the person in astral traveling. At first, the experiences obtained through these practices seem thrilling and energizing. But they can easily become a kind of idolatry, and can even be coerced by demons. The person following these practices may continue to seek more and more intense experiences, regardless of whether or not they can bring the soul closer to Christ and contribute to moral and spiritual growth. This can make them more vulnerable to subtle and not-so-subtle spiritual attacks.
Finally, it is possible to give too much importance to what happens in a dream. Although God can speak through dreams, that doesn’t mean that everything that happens in our dreams comes from God. The psychology of dreams is complex and confusing. The interpretation of dreams is not an exact science, by any stretch. And although God can certainly speak to the soul through dreams, he will never contradict himself; he would never inspire someone in a dream to disobey his commandments or abandon the duties of their state in life, for example.
And so, just as we can be grateful for dreams that encourage us in our relationship with God, we should not allow ourselves to be overly distracted by dreams that cause turbulence in our souls. That being said, even good Catholic psychologists will admit that intense and repetitive dreams can sometimes give clues to minor or major psychological disturbances. But they are never sufficient for a complete diagnosis all on their own.
We are members of Christ’s Church, enlightened by grace and renewed by the New Covenant. As a result, we have been given God’s own self-revelation in Christ. This provides us with objective reference points of doctrine, of truth. We find these in the Bible, in the Tradition of the Church, and in the official teaching of the Magisterium (for example, the Catechism). These sources of knowledge should always be our primary guides when we are faced with decisions or dilemmas.
May God continue to bless you with his abundant love and grace, and draw you closer and closer to his Sacred Heart.