What are Dreams?
St John Climacus gives a definition of dreams: “A dream is a movement of the nous while the body is at rest.” When the body is immobilised by sleep at night, the nous – not the rational faculty – continues working. This activity of the nous is what we refer to as dreams. Whereas dreams are an activity of the nous while the body is at rest, fantasy and imagination are an illusion of the eyes “when the mind is asleep. Fantasy is ecstasy of the nous, when the body is awake. Fantasy is the vision of something which does not exist in reality.” In other words, imagination is active while a person is awake, whereas dreams come into action during sleep.
There is a distinction between dreams and visions. “A vision is something seen more or less consciously when awake. A dream is something imagined during sleep” (St John Climacus). A person perceives visions by means of his senses, but he sees dreams through the action of his nous when his body is asleep.
In addition, the saints distinguish between dreams, visions and revelations occurring during sleep. According to St Nikitas Stithatos, we can see dreams, visions and revelations while asleep, and he examines the difference between them.
Dreams are images that do not remain unchanged in the imaginative faculty of the nous. They present a confused picture with constantly-altering scenes and forms.
Visions remain constant. They do not change, “but remain imprinted on the nous unforgettably for many years.” They benefit the soul by bringing compunction and revealing fearful wonders. As a result they keep the beholder reflective and in awe.
Revelations are theorias granted to the purified and illumined soul, “in a way that transcends normal sense perception”. They reveal the mysteries of God.
St Nikitas Stithatos goes on to explain that dreams are seen by “materialistic and sensually-minded people”, whose nous is darkened by passions and whose imagination is mocked by the demons. Visions are associated with “those well advanced on the spiritual path, who have cleansed the soul’s organs of perception.” Those who purify the soul’s senses and have progressed to a high level behold visions. Revelations are for perfect Christians, “who are activated by the Holy Spirit, and whose soul is united to God through theology.”
I think these clarifications are essential in order to make a distinction between dreams and theorias of God. We shall look at this issue in the next section, when we set out the factors that distinguish dreams coming from the devil from visions and revelations sent by God during sleep. It needs to be stressed at this point that dreams mainly affect man’s imagination. They are an action of the nous while the body is asleep, and most of them are the work of demons.
Types of Dreams
As we saw above, the Fathers make a distinction between dreams, on the one hand, and visions and revelations on the other. There are, however, many Fathers who speak about dreams in general. When we study their writings we realise that the dreams we see at night, while our body and senses are inactive, have many causes. Some dreams are the result of our natural physical state and impressions made on us during the day. Others are due to passions, in other words, to unnatural impulses of the soul. Some are clearly the work of demons. There are, however, dreams that come from God and are revelations bestowed by God, or the angels as God’s messengers.
The first category encompasses those dreams which are the result of the thoughts, reflections and impressions of the day. St Basil the Great, in response to the question, “Where do shameful nocturnal fantasies originate?”, teaches that, “They result from alien movements of the soul during the day.” These alien impulses of the soul and the impressions of the day are stored in our memory and create dreams. Many dreams also originate from physical reactions.
The second category includes dreams that arise from passions, which are actions of the soul contrary to nature. When the soul’s powers are corrupted and are motivated by the impressions provided by the senses, they provoke this type of dream. We can therefore see from our dreams which passions dominate us. More will be said on this subject in the next section.
The third category of dreams, so-called demonic dreams, is horrendous. Although the devil can also exploit the other two categories of dreams, he sometimes acts independently of them. St Diadokos of Photiki states succinctly that for the most part dreams are nothing more than “images reflecting our wandering thoughts or…the mockery of demons.” The demons trick those whom they have in their power. When they gain control of someone they appear to him both sleeping and waking in the form of angels or martyrs, and grant him a revelation of purported “mysteries” and bestow supposed “spiritual gifts” on him (St John Climacos).
But how do the demons act? What is it that they stir up during sleep? Evagrios Pontikos observes that the demons “make an imprint on the nous by arousing the memory, while the activity of our bodily senses is suspended during sleep.” The demons act mostly through our memory to provoke dreams.
We know from the patristic tradition that the majority of dreams are the work of Satan and fall into the third category. The demons transform themselves into angels of light or prophets and foretell the future. However, as St John Climacus remarks, the demons know nothing about the future from foreknowledge, because if they did, they would be able to foretell our death.
The demons attack monks more than anyone else by means of dreams, because they want to provoke them to abandon their sacred task. In particular, the demons attempt to disturb novices, who have left their homes and families, “representing to [them] that [their] relatives are either grieving or dying, or are captive for [their] sake and destitute” (St John Climacus). Of course no one should pay any attention to such dreams, because they are demonic deceptions intended to lead the monk to reject and abandon the monastic way of life.
The fourth category of dreams is those coming from God. Such dreams are sometimes called revelations and are associated with inner purity. Many such dreams are recorded in Holy Scripture. I should mention in particular the dreams of Joseph, the Betrothed of the Most Holy Mother of God, concerning Christ’s conception, birth and protection. St Isaac the Syrian says that the holy angels take the likenesses of saints “and show themselves in these likenesses in dreams to the soul while its thoughts are drifting, for joy, preservation and delight.”
So there are many kinds of dream and they are due to many causes. Christians should distinguish between dreams and examine where they come from. We shall now set out some factors that indicate the origins of dreams.
In general, as St John Climacus says, if we wake up from sleep peaceful this shows that we have been comforted by the angels unawares. If, on the other hand, we wake up troubled, “we are suffering as a result of evil dreams and visions.” A dream’s origin is indicated by whether it disturbs us or brings peace. This is not, however, absolute proof, as there is a sort of joy mingled with pride which comes from the devil.
St Diadochos of Photiki says that dreams that originate from the devil do no keep the same shape, but change from one form to another, alarm the senses, resound with laughter or “suddenly become threatening.” The figures that appear in the dreams sent by demons shout and menace, transform themselves into soldiers and sometimes “screech at the soul.” By contrast, dreams that come from God do not change shape or provoke fear and horror, but bring inexpressible joy and gladness.
St John Climacus teaches that demonic dreams usually show torments, judgments and separations, and make us frightened and miserable. This is a sign of delusion. It is possible, however, for us to see torment and judgment in dreams sent by God to make us repent. The difference is that in the first case such dreams bring despair, which is a sign of demonic deception, whereas in the second case, they give rise to intense prayer, repentance and a willingness to change.
Visions during sleep, according to St Nikitas Stithatos, are not all true, nor do they all leave an imprint on the nous. True visions are seen “only by those whose nous is purified, who have cleansed the soul’s organs of perception and who are advancing towards natural theoria.” Such people have purified themselves through prolonged fasting and exercise self-control in every aspect of their lives. They do not worry about day-to-day matters and are not concerned about this present life. They live like angels and “through exertion and hardship pleasing to God they have attained the sanctuary of God, the spiritual knowledge of created beings and the wisdom of the higher world.”
In general it should be stated that dreams that come from God (which are called visions and revelations) are as far removed from dreams that come from the devil (which have a strong imaginative element) as heaven is from earth. Just as there is no similarity between created and uncreated things, there is no similarity at all between diabolic and divine dreams.
According to patristic teaching, satanic dreams are characterised by colour and change, whereas dreams from God have no colour and are unchanging. This is how we can tell the difference between those sent by God and those which result from physical illness or satanic energy. Anthropocentric psychoanalysis, which does not make this distinction between created and uncreated, and does not accept the existence of demons and their energy, is unable to distinguish between different types of dreams. Thus it goes seriously wrong, because it can categorise divine visions as delusions and hallucinations. Only someone completely integrated into the Orthodox Tradition, who has the mind of Christ and has tasted heavenly things, is able to make this distinction and heal the illnesses of his spiritual children.
Dreams and Passions
We saw earlier that one category of dreams originates from passions, whether of the body or the soul. This issue will now be examined more closely, because by studying our dreams we can observe which passions dominate us, in order to fight against them.
St John Climacus writes that the heart of gluttons dreams of food and nourishment, but the heart of those who mourn dreams of judgment and condemnation. We know from the teaching of the Fathers that the human soul has three powers or aspects: the appetitive (desiring) aspect, the incensive aspect and the rational aspect. St Symeon the New Theologian writes about how we can understand from dreams which passions dominate us the most. When the soul’s appetitive aspect is stirred up by social contact, food and enjoyment, it sees the same things in dreams. When the incensive aspect of the soul is enraged against its fellows, it dreams of attacks by wild animals and reptiles, of wars and battles. When the soul’s rational faculty is elated with arrogance and pride, it imagines itself being caught up into the air, or seated on a high throne, or in command of the nation.
St Symeon’s disciple, St Nikitas Stithatos, is more revealing. He writes that someone who has made progress in the spiritual life can see the impulses of the soul by examining dreams. If the soul loves material things and pleasure, “it dreams of acquiring possessions and having lots of money, of female figures and passionate involvements, all of which lead to the soiling and defilement of soul and body.” If someone’s soul is grasping and avaricious, “he dreams of gold everywhere, and imagines himself acquiring it, lending it out at interest and storing it up in his treasuries. And he is condemned for his callousness.” If someone is hot-tempered and vicious, “he imagines himself pursued by wild beasts and poisonous snakes and is overwhelmed with fear and cowardice.” If his soul is full of self-esteem, “he will dream of acclamation and being feted by the people, of holding positions of power and authority. ” Even when awake he imagines that what is non-existent actually exists. If someone’s soul is full of pride and arrogance “he sees himself being carried along in a splendid coach and sometimes even flying through the air on wings, while everyone trembles at his great power.” Thus we can recognise the passions in our soul from the type of dreams we have.
We ought to note, however, that not everyone can make this distinction, only someone who has been trained in this struggle and has the precious gift of discernment.
Just as the impassioned person sees dreams that correspond to his passion, so the person who loves God and is diligent in practising virtue sees good dreams. According to St Nikitas Stithatos, if someone is sincere in his struggles for godliness, he sees in his sleep the outcome of events and awe-inspiring visions are revealed to him. He prays even when asleep and he awakes with tears on his cheeks and “words addressed to God” on his lips. When a person lives all through the day with noetic prayer and has learnt to converse with God, he does the same during sleep. His dreams and revelations are linked with God and prayer. It is possible for him to say the Jesus prayer with his lips even when asleep. He feels his heart praying continuously. His nous prays without ceasing. He wakes up aware of having prayed all night. It often happens that he is attacked by the devil. Then his nous automatically begins its converse with God (noetic prayer) and the devil vanishes. Such events do not make him afraid, in spite of the devil’s appearance, but bring him joy and gladness. All day long, even for days on end, he rejoices in God’s power and in the fact that the devil was driven off by the energy of the praying nous.
Dealing with Dreams
The holy Fathers were familiar with this sacred struggle and they describe how to deal with dreams. We shall look at some aspects of their teaching. First of all, preventive action is required. Because most dreams are connected with passions and every-day impressions, we have to struggle against the passions. The more we fight against passions, or rather, the more we strive to transform the passions and powers of the soul, the more we are freed from the dreadful state of dreaming. Our liberation from dreams is linked with dispassion and purification of the heart. St John Climacus writes that, “As a mass of dung breeds a mass of worms, so a surfeit of food breeds a surfeit of falls, and evil thoughts, and dreams.” We must therefore limit our food.
As many dreams result from alien impulses of the soul, avoiding such impulses helps us to get rid of awful dreams. If we purify our soul through being in a state of hesychia, so that it “is continuously musing on things that are good and pleasing to God”, it will dream of such things at night (St Basil). Our nous should be occupied during the day in musing on God’s name. Then our dreams will bring joy and gladness because, as St Symeon the New Theologian says, “What occupies the soul and enters it while it is awake, still occupies its imagination and thoughts during sleep.”
We should also pray before going to sleep. If we fall asleep after praying, we shall have corresponding dreams. Abba Philemon exhorts, “Before going to sleep, say many prayers in your heart, and resist thoughts and the attempts of the devil to lead you where he wills…as far as you can, take care to sleep only after reciting psalms and attentive reading; and do not let your mind accept alien thoughts through negligence.” Praying before sleep and striving to cut off thoughts is a good way of dealing with bad and demonic dreams.
Then we need a good means of countering dreams after we have seen them. The most effective method of confronting dreams is to stop them abruptly. We should avoid thinking about them when we wake up. Many people examine the dreams of the previous night, which leads to many errors. The holy Fathers recommend that we reject them completely and hold them in utter contempt.
St John Climacus describes the person who totally rejects dreams as “a wise man”, whereas he calls someone who examines them and believes in them “completely inexperienced”. The demons aim to defile us through dreams, so the same Saint advises us “never to think about the fantasies that have occurred to you during sleep.”
From the same standpoint, St Diadochos of Photiki says that not believing at all in dreams is sufficient to ensure our progress in virtue. “We can achieve great virtue just by never trusting our imagination.” In fact he teaches that, even if we were to reject dreams coming from God, for fear that they might be from the devil and we could be deceived, this is a good thing. God will not be angry with us in that case, because He sees that we are being careful. A servant who refuses to open the door at night to the master of the house, when he returns after a long absence, for fear that a deceiver may have the same voice as him and seize his goods, is praised by his master. The same happens when a Christian or monk does not accept dreams. God praises His servant because He knows that he acts in this way for fear of being deceived by the devil, who “transforms himself into an angel of light.”
We have to reject dreams and try to forget them, because by remembering them our hearts are filled with sadness, anxiety, despair and impurity. St John Climacus knows that many people, by continuously accepting dreams, have gone mad. When someone is constantly subject to the influence of the demons, the devil gains a hold over him and he becomes insane: “…so that these unfortunates are deceived and completely lose their wits.” This mainly happens in the case of demonic revelations. Many people get into such a state that, when they accept revelations and satanic dreams, they are mocked by the demons and “then they make sport of us even when we are awake.” The devil appears when we are awake and we become his servants. This results in the eternal death of the soul, as well as all sorts of other physical and psychological disorders.
The overall conclusion is that the type of dreams we have indicates what state we are in: whether we are enslaved to the passions, servants of the devil or servants of God. Dreams disclose our health or sickness, whether or not we are ill. On the one hand, confession, repentance and epitimion are necessary to cleanse us from passions. On the other, we must put no trust at all in dreams. In this way we shall be delivered from the tyranny of the devil, who desires our eternal death and wants to distance us from God.