Songs Along the Way

Elsewhere I have written about the power and importance of sacred music on one’s spiritual journey. I have paid particular attention to “Amazing Grace”, a beautiful hymn that has special meaning for those of us recovering from addiction. However, I’ve realized that there are other songs that have been important to me and inspired me on my own journey. By songs I don’t mean hymns. Some are folk songs. Others are from Broadway musicals. And one piece is classical.

An early song that had great meaning to me was “The Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha. This song inspired the idealism of my youth. Life being what it is, that idealism has become somewhat jaded over time but it still gives me pause.

The song “Try to Remember” from the musical The Fantastiks speaks to me of the fading of youth and yet the power of memories of the romanticism of that youth. It is also a song I sang to my future wife on an early date. And, yes, that is Jerry Orbach from Law and Order. He performed the song in the original production

Those of us who grew up in the 60s were greatly influenced and inspired by folks music. Songs such as “The Times They are A-changing” spoke to our unrest, our questions. My personal favorite is “Blowin’ In the Wind” by Peter, Paul and Mary.

When I headed back East to spend time with my dying mother, one evening I put on some music for comfort. What I heard was “Jupiter” from Holsts’ The Planets, somehow the magnificence of that piece captured the power of the loss of one’s mother. It still does.

In the same vein, the song “Leader of the Band” gave me words to speak at my father’s funeral: “Papa, I don’t think I said I love you near enough”.

Music is also a big part of my Irish heritage which I have embraced more and more. The song “The Parting Glass” celebrates that heritage for me and gives me a viewpoint as I age. And, yes, I don’t drink alcohol anymore so my parting glass won’t have ale in it!

Finally there is a John Denver song which summarizes my spiritual journey better than any other song I know.

Reflection: Are there songs that capture your spiritual journey?

NOTE: If the link doesn’t work, all pieces can be found on YouTube

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Cain and Abel: A Story of Sibling Rivalry

     Do you have a brother or sister? Have you always gotten along? Sadly, it is quite common for there to be rancor between siblings. In the case of Cain and Abel, that rancor erupted in a most horrifying manner.

     Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve, Cain being the older brother. Cain became a farmer and Abel a shepherd. They both prepared a sacrifice to God but God accepted only Abel’s. Cain was furious and eventually in a jealous fit murdered his brother. When God comes around seeking out Abel, Cain utters those well-known words “Am I my brother’s keeper?” At this point, God uncovers the truth and banishes Cain. He places a mark of Cain to ensure that Cain will endure no other suffering beyond banishment. Cain leaves, marries (Where did Mrs. Cain come from?) and starts his own ancestral line.

      Let’s look more closely at each brother. Cain is the first-born so he had a position of specialness. That is until Abel came along. Then Cain wasn’t so special anymore and some attention got shifted to little brother. Further, there were likely demands made to Cain such as “Keep an eye on your little brother”. Beyond that, it would appear that eventually Little Brother began to outshine Big Brother. Perhaps shepherding came easily to Abel whereas Cain, presumably working in the arid Middle East, had to struggle to bring in a bountiful crop. Resentment may have started to set in. That resentment is solidified when father praises Abel’s work but not Cain’s.

     Can I relate to Cain’s resentment? Sadly, yes. My older brother had many issues growing up whereas I was self-sufficient. As such, I was often more or less on my own, especially as I got older.

      But let’s also look more closely at poor Abel. “Poor Abel” indeed. A first victim. But was Abel so innocent? I wonder what happened right after it became clear that Abel’s offering was accepted and Cain’s wasn’t? Might there have been a “Nyah! Nyah!” on Abel’s part? Let’s entertain the possibility that successful Abel made it clear to his older brother that “God likes me best!”

     Following this interpretation, I find something of Abel in myself. I did well in school. Won scholarships. Played basketball. Won speech tournaments. Things my brother was unable to do. To his credit, he never expressed resentment but having me as a brother cannot have been easy for him.

     Jealousy and resentment. These are at the heart of the Cain and Abel story. Take a moment then and make an honest inventory first of all of persons of whom you are jealous and also of what you are jealous. The other person’s success? Their charming personality? Their good looks? Their money and possessions? How have you dealt with this jealousy? Rejection? Judgment?

     Examining jealousy also demands that we examine fear for fear is often at the root of jealousy. Fear that I am not good enough by some set of standards. I see such jealousy often among couples. A jealousy tinged with accusations of infidelity. At the root of such jealousy is fear. Fear that I am not a good enough provider, lover, etc. As with Cain, such jealousy can erupt into violence.

  Resentments are the spiritual equivalent of cancer. Left unattended, they spread and grow, consuming more and more spiritual health along the way

 Have I ever lost my temper? Allowed myself to be provoked? Have I ever erupted in violence? These are questions that this reading of Cain and Abel in the field might generate.

     For many of us, it is painful and unsettling to face our potential violence. You may decry violence and describe yourself as non-violent yet still feel within you a violent impulse. If so, don’t make the same mistake I did.

     In 1968 the draft still was in place and we young men were faced with decisions regarding the military. I had some friends who courageously declared themselves conscientious objectors. I considered that path but rejected it. You see, I had been in many fights as a youth and felt that, because of my penchant for violence, I could not in good conscience declare myself non-violent. So I instead began a path that eventually took me into service with the Army.

     I now see that that tendency toward violence was the very reason for me to declare non-violence. I was and am a potentially violent man choosing as much as possible a non-violent path.

     This issue of violence also introduces us to the very important concept of the Shadow. This idea comes to us from Carl Jung. The Shadow represents every potential within us that we abhor. For some their Shadow has a lot of lust. For others, a lot of violence. For still others, their Shadow contains all their racist/sexist biases. Here’s a quick exercise to help you get in touch with your Shadow. First make a list of those qualities you like others to see in you. Here’s my list: kind, laid-back, flexible, unconventional. Now make a list of those qualities that are the opposite. In my case, cruel, up-tight, rigid, conforming. Look at your list and shake hands with your Shadow.

     The point is not to be depressed by your Shadow but to transform it. Shadow qualities have something to offer to you. It can become the stuff of growth. The inner violence, for example, can be transformed into healthy assertiveness. The lust can be transformed into a capacity to celebrate sensation.

     I worked for many years counseling parents found guilty of child abuse. The vast majority of those parents loved their children and, up until the incidents, denied that they could ever be violent toward their children. That denial fueled their Shadow violence until it erupted.

     Cain most likely did not see himself as capable of violence. That denial fueled by the favor shown to his brother caused that violence to erupt with tragic results.

     What does Cain challenge us to face?

  1. Our resentments. They become dangerous of not faced.
  2. Our jealousy and its underlying fear.
  3. Our Shadow side to include our potential for violence.
  4. The damage it can cause to see oneself as “not good enough”.

     What does Abel challenge us to face?

  1. Our arrogance in the face of good fortune
  2. The importance and value of humble gratitude
  3. The possibility that, even though we see ourselves as good people, we can still hurt our loved ones.

     We all carry the Mark of Cain. Perhaps, rather than being ashamed, we can accept that Mark and learn from it.

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Saints Along the Way

I have been thinking lately about saints — individuals whom the Catholic Church has designated as people of great spirituality who are held up to us as role models. When I was young, I viewed them as perfect and, knowing that I was not, believed that sainthood was beyond my reach. Nonetheless, certain saints were of help and inspiration. Dismas the Good Thief reassures me that, even when I am at my lowest, Jesus can be there for me. Thomas the Apostle helps me accept my doubts. John XXIII reassures me that it is OK to throw open the windows of my faith and let in fresh air. There are others of great spiritual power who should be designated as saints and whom I particularly embrace because of their humanness. Dorothy Day and Henri Nouwen come to mind. Ironically, though, their very humanness may work against them being designated as saints.

But suppose there are saints around us. People of extraordinary spiritual strength whose life journeys can inspire us and give us hope. Upon my retirement from clinical practice, I have been thinking about various folks who shared their journeys with me. Some of them were saints.

I think of two men I knew, both of whom died of AIDS. When I asked one man how he wanted to face death, he said simply “I want to look forward to stepping into the light.” He never gave in to anger or despair and instead maintained a faith perspective to the end. Another man wrote beautifully of how, in the next life, he knew what he was doing. He would be singing! He then encouraged us to find our own song

I think of a young woman dying of cancer who had the courage to meet with a priest for confession years after stopping church attendance and fearful of judgment for the abortion she had undergone. Yet she went and received some beautiful healing.

I think of another young woman dying of cancer who courageously allowed anger with God when a bone marrow transplant had failed.

I think of a man facing Gehrig’s disease, confident that God would watch over his family after he was gone.

I think of a veteran struggling to heal from the traumas of war who, when I expressed concern, said simply “As long as I have my Bible and a friend to listen to me, I’ll be OK”.

I think of a woman who had the courage and faith to greet her ex-husband and his new wife and to pronounce a blessing over their newborn child.

I think of a priest who had been a missionary and had also worked with coal miners in Kentucky, helping them to unionize.

Theses and many others drew upon their faith to endure life’s challenges and tragedies. None of these people saw themselves as saints. Quite the opposite. They would judge themselves as failing because of various bits of humanness in their lives. I am very grateful that their paths crossed mine.

Reflection: Have you met any saints on your journey?

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God’s Grace in Surprising Ways

I used to make fun of televangelists. I saw them as hucksters and con artists and doubted very much that they provide doorways to salvation. That all changed some years ago when I heard a woman’s story of an encounter with a televangelist.

I went to a retreat up in Pecos NM hosted by the Benedictine monastery and highlighting Morton Kelsey and John Sanford, two therapist/writers who had both a great impact on my journey. I was thrilled to hear and meet them in person.

When I arrived, I headed for my room. I had requested a single room and was intent on reflection and journaling. But as soon as I got to my room and was confronted with silence, my old addiction raised its head. I wanted to drink, the old escape from facing myself. I drew on lessons in recovery and got through it.

A night or two later, I had a dream where I could not find my AA book. I realized that I really wanted to connect with other 12-Steppers who might be at the conference so I asked one of the organizers if a 12-Step meeting was possible. He set up a time and place and then announced to one and all that there would be “a 12-Step meeting led by Richard Patterson” So much for anonymity!

The meeting was one of the best I’d ever attended to that point with people sharing all sorts of journeys through addiction and recovery. But one story stood out.

An older woman shared how one night she was dead drunk and was watching a televangelist who intoned “If you want to be saved, lay your hand on the television set!”. Just the sort of comment I would typically mock. This woman tried to stand up, fell on the floor, crawled over to her TV set, put her hand on the TV and passed out. It was the last day she drank.

Her story continues to humble me. God reaches us in whatever way gets our attention. In my case, a Star Wars movie played a key role! Those of us who’ve walked the path of addiction sometimes require different taps on our shoulders for God to get our attention. For me it was “Return of the Jedi”. For this woman, it was a televangelist.

My sobriety is the strongest evidence I have in my life of the reality of God’s grace. But what that woman’s testimony reminds me of is that God’s grace can come to us in surprising unexpected ways. We are asked only to say “Here I am Lord!” I said “Here I am” in response to a movie. That woman said “Here I am” as she crawled across the floor to lay her hand on her TV. We both were blessed.

Reflection: Whether you are religious or not, can you think of unexpected ways you were blessed?

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Facing Your Inner Grinch

I have to admit that, as a psychotherapist, I have never looked forward to the holiday season. It is a painful time for some, riddled with memories of family violence. Being deployed to a war zone and perhaps enemy fire. Or, in my case, death anniversary dates. As such, it is easy for me to lapse into a bah humbug attitude. It is easy for me to become the Grinch.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is my favorite Christmas show. And by the way I am referring ONLY to the cartoon version narrated by Boris Karloff, not any recent movies. It reminds me that I too can get very grinchy this time of year, mainly becoming cynical, muttering such things as “This season shows people at their worst, defining their worth in terms of stuff.”

Among other things, the Grinch challenges me to examine my heart for resentments as well as for self-pity. I often find plenty of both. But the Grinch also challenges me to open my heart for healing of those resentments and self-pity. For How The Grinch Stole Christmas is after all a redemption story. When the Grinch’s heart grows “three sizes that day”, he was redeemed from his life of self-centeredness and resentment. He found that also in his heart was generosity and a desire to be with people.

I know for many the birth of Christ is significant because He came to redeem us. I still don’t grasp what that means. But I do understand redemption. Any of us who have been freed from addiction know what redemption means. The Grinch helps me to remember and appreciate that I too have been redeemed.

The Grinch reminds me how I can easily isolate myself, especially from those whom I love and, more amazingly, who love me. He reminds me that, if I open myself to the reality that I indeed have “hands to clasp”, I will get a glimpse of the meaning of Christmas.

The Grinch reminds me of my capacity to judge others. He clearly views the people of Whoville to be greedy, only to have that judgement dramatically challenged. He is faced with evidence that he was wrong. He faces the need to make amends and gets to experience the joy of being welcomed and forgiven.

So the Grinch challenges me to by grateful that, as a counselor, I can be of service to people during a difficult time of year. He challenges me to open my heart to healing of resentments and self-pity. He challenges me especially to be grateful for the many hands to clasp with which I’ve been blessed, knowing that, even though those hands may be far away, I can clasp them in my heart.

So, in facing your Inner Grinch, don’t judge yourself. Rather be open to the healing and redemption that can come this time of year as you face your own resentments, your own self-pity, your own isolation. Celebrate the hands you have to clasp and remember what Mr. Karloff says at the end: “Christmas Day will always be/Just as long as we have we.”

Reflection: What is your Inner Grinch like?

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What Books Shall I Keep?

I am currently going through a process of downsizing at my office and that includes going through a fairly sizeable collection of books. Most I will donate. But the decision as to what to keep has been interesting if not moving. I realize the books that matter to me portray my spiritual journey. As you look at this list, you might reflect on which books have shaped your own journey

On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers. When I was in graduate school, I was disappointed to learn that the course in psychotherapy I was to take would focus on research not therapy! I turned to a fourth year grad student for a recommendation of something I could read that might be helpful in learning how to help others. In a grace-filled moment, he recommended this book by Rogers, a humanistic therapist whose work had some spiritual undercurrents. While my style of therapy has changed some, I have never forgotten Rogers’ basic philosophy about helping.

The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. This book changed my life, gently directing me to face my own woundedness so that I would face my struggles with addiction.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. This book of poems was quite popular in the 70s but nowadays seems to be less well-known. The gentle poems point toward significant spiritual challenges. My wife still quotes the poem on children and letting go.

Alcoholics Anonymous.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. During the time I had stepped away from organized religion, Lewis helped me focus on what aspects of Christianity were still meaningful to me.

The Kingdom Within by John Sanford. This book helped me find a bridge between psychology and spirituality and helped me embrace the richness of Carl Jung’s approach to dreams. Two of the therapists I’ve seen over the years were Jungians.

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin. Recommended by a friend, this book helped me learn more about the rich traditions of Judaism, which I have come to see are at the heart of Christianity.

Jesus and Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh. The writings of this gentle Buddhist have enriched my journey in many ways. This book also helped in building a bridge between my own Catholicism and the richness of Buddhism. He also challenged me to embrace the jewels of my own tradition rather than simply looking elsewhere.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. This is my favorite among several I have read by this modern mystic. Her work has helped me embrace the spirituality inherent in nature.

Books from Modern Spiritual Masters collection. This series includes collections of the writings of several great spiritual thinkers, not all of them connected to religion. The ones I will keep include writings ranging from Abraham Joshua Heschel to Vincent Van Gogh.

When I look at my list, I also see gaps. Only one writer is Catholic. There is only one female on my list. I see there are still areas where I need to grow.

Reflection: In a similar situation, what books would you keep?

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The Long Thanksgiving Dinner 2022

Once again, my favorite holiday is here. And once again I reflect on who joins us and who has gone to to the Black Curtain. And once again I pause to be thankful.

In the past, I have written about Thornton Wilder’s beautiful one act play “The Long Christmas Dinner” in which the life cycle of a family is portrayed over an imagined dinner in which persons come in through a white birth curtain and leave through a black curtain.

For me, that table is set at Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I can see generations gathered about that table. Many have gone through the Black Curtain, some quite suddenly, some way too young.

One of my sisters never even makes it to the table. She comes to the table and leaves immediately through the Black Curtain. My other sister sits for only a moment, then also leaves.

But I also see many loved ones who sat at that table many times. My parents and my brother are there. Although she is aged, my Mom leaves the table quickly while my father takes a long slow walk to the Black Curtain.

I see old Aunt Margaret, she who was in Paris when Lindbergh landed. She who saw Babe Ruth play baseball (“Clumsiest man I ever saw!”). She who, in her 90s, gave me the finest anti-war sentiment I ever heard as she shook her head and said “So many young men.”

There are my Uncle Gaddy and Aunt Peg, my surrogate grandparents. I never sat at the table with my grandmothers. They had walked through the Black Curtain before I walked through the white one.. My grandfathers were also gone by the time I was 7. So these two wonderful people filled a great void — Gaddy with his burly Irish accent, the smell of cigars about him and Peg, maker of the World’s Greatest Peanut Butter cookies.

Aunt Mary is there, she who was schizophrenic, carrying on a constant patter of self-talk or reading romance novels.

I see too my Uncle Joe and Aunt Kathleen. She was sophisticated and helped John F. Kennedy carry the vote in Rhode Island. He was a veteran of the South Pacific, down-to-earth, smoking a cigarette as he was dying of lung cancer. Among many things, he helped me love the Redsox.

I see my Aunt Dorothy, my father’s only sibling. She who never married and the day after she retired, quit drinking, packed up and moved to California to be closer to my brother, leaving behind a stunning example of courage.

And yet, as I gather with my family, I will pause to be grateful for the many wonderful people, friends and family alike, who have gathered at my Thanksgiving table in person or in spirit. As always, others who were present in the past have slowly or quickly left the table for the black curtain. Yet all who grace and have graced that table will be present. We will join hands in gratitude and in hope, remembering especially this year the words from Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Veterans’ Day 2022: A Piece of Paper

Veterans’ Day is certainly a day where we veterans pause and reflect on whatever time we spent in the military and in whatever capacity. What is in my thoughts and heart this year is what a humbling spiritual journey it has been. I am reminded of that by a piece of paper on my wall.

As I have previously written, I didn’t much like being a soldier and rebelled in all kinds of ways from not polishing my shoes to getting out as soon as possible. Since then, I have been humbled into seeing that perhaps my time in the military was part of God’s plan for me.

I went through an ROTC program with a bit of an attitude. As such, I was commissioned as an Infantry officer; however, the Army later decided I’d be of more use as an Army psychologist. To make that branch transfer, I owed them four years in return.

I’ve always thought God has an interesting sense of humor. It showed up early in my career in the Army. I attended Basic Officers School at Ft. Sam Houston. The first day I thought “MY bad attitude has caused nothing but problems.” so I thought I’d try a different approach. When asked for volunteers for the “”operations of the battalion”, I wrote I VOLUNTEER (the first and last time I did that in the Army!) They made me battalion commander.

My bad attitude didn’t completely disappear. One day I was to bring the battalion to a field at Camp Bullis for a training in communications. As per order, we were there at 7:30AM. The faculty showed up about 8:30 and gave a 15 minute lesson. I was then told we were dismissed. So, as I assembled the battalion, I stated we would march around the perimeter of the field. I then directed that, as we passed the faculty, we would starting whistling the Mickey Mouse Club theme. The battalion gleefully joined in and the faculty just shook their heads

In any case, we came to Ft. Bliss, I put in my 4 years, got out and moved on. I did decide to put my discharge certificate on the wall with my degree etc. “It can’t hurt” I thought. Little did I know what a role that piece of paper would play years later.

As my attitude about being a veteran softened, my work increasingly involved evaluating and treating veterans shattered emotionally and spiritually by war. I would hear stories of men and women courageously grasping at something to believe in, something to help them heal. I encountered men and women of deep faith as well as men and women who had turned away from any belief in a Higher Power. They challenged me to go even deeper into the issue of why bad things happen to good people.

I have dealt too with families who lost veterans to suicide and have learned that indeed our veterans feel apart from the rest of us and some, finding nowhere to fit in, choose to end their lives.

But back to the piece of paper on my wall. I am regularly reminded that the piece of paper somehow is helpful. Recently I sat with a young man struggling to tell me his story. He paused then saw my discharge. “Doc, you’re a veteran!” he said. As always I said “I am but I’m not a combat veteran.” He said “Doesn’t matter. You don’t know what a relief it is to be talking to another veteran” and he burst into tears.

Another veteran gifted me beautifully after seeing that paper. I told him I was a veteran but not a combat veteran. He stood up and said “Doesn’t matter. You’re a brother” and he gave me hug.

I hate war more than ever, having seen too much of what it does to the minds and spirits of men and women. I believe the existence of homeless veterans is a national scandal as is the rate of veteran suicides. Those issues can feel overwhelming, making it tempting to settle for a “Thank you for your service” and then go about our business.

So the next time you greet a veteran with a “Thank you for your service”, take a moment and ask “How are you doing?” That’s all many veterans want. Someone who is willing to listen.

When I look at that piece of paper nowadays, I am grateful and humbled. Looks like God knew what He/She was doing.

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The Truth Is Out There (Maybe)

I am reading yet another book titled “The Four Agreements” (a very good book, by the way) in which the writer Miguel Ruiz posits what he has come to experience as The Truth. I have read many such books over the years. I suppose that, if someone were to do what the scientists call a meta-analysis of these books, there would be consistent themes that would emerge.

Some years ago, I had a recurring dream in which I was in a bookstore, library, etc. searching for THE BOOK that would have all the answers. I would never find that book.

I have obviously sought The Truth in religions. My own Catholic faith has long presented itself as the One True Religion. Yet even at a young age, I would have questions, doubts, and aspects of Catholicism that didn’t work for me. So I would continue to search.

As I approach my 75th year, I have come to realize that, if The Truth is out there, I won’t be finding it, at least not in one place. I may get glimpses or pieces, sometimes through something I read or perhaps some life experience. In a way, I envy those who believe they have a hold of The Truth yet I have come to accept that my path is one of continued seeking. I will continue to read, whether it is the Bible or a Buddhist tome. I will continue to read the likes of Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard Thich Nhat Hahn, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, grateful for “ah ha” moments I might receive.

I have come to see that, the older I get, the more questions I have. Questions such as whether there is a God and, if so, what role does He/She play in our daily lives, our purpose in being here, why bad things happen to good people and so on. This is not fake humility. I really don’t know and so I keep looking!

My searching is not without benefit. Henri Nouwen once wrote that God is so beyond us that all we can hope for is a glimpse of a piece of God. No Truth. Just a hint. So I do not believe that my years of seeking have futile. I believe I have experienced a few hints of The Truth.

I do also believe that there is a danger in believing one has The Truth. It then becomes easier to judge others, since they DON’T have The Truth. What’s worse, as history tells us, it becomes tempting for the holders of the Truth to force their Truth on others or to attempt to eliminate non-believers. At the very least, if we explore alternate beliefs, we run the risk of judgment. I remember doing a presentation to a Church group once. I was talking about the feminine side of God and read the 23rd Psalm, substituting She for every He. I thought it added a poetic dimension but was soundly criticized for such “New Age” thinking. It is a small step for the possessors of Truth to see those who question as not only wrong but dangerous.

I have a page in my journal titled “Things I Believe to Be True”. It’s not a long list.

So I have come to accept that I won’t find The Truth, at least in this world or lifetime. I have also come to accept that perhaps I’m not meant to find the Truth. We seekers, after all, play a vital role in the whole shared spiritual journey we are on.

“What is it you’re looking for?’ someone once asked me. I can ramble about Truth etc. But my real answer comes from a poem written by test pilot John Magee Jr. Mind you, I have never flown an airplane and in fact have no desire to. But his words somehow capture for me the goal of the soaring heights of a spiritual quest;

High Flight
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds … and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of … wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

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Dreams and the Spiritual Path

As John Sanford observed in his book The Kingdom Within, in biblical times dreams were viewed as a vehicle through which God would speak to us. That view has faded some and for a time was replaced thanks to Freud. Dreams became manifestations of unconscious themes and therefore were the stuff of psychoanalysis.

Freud’s colleague Carl Jung developed a much more rich view of dreams, drawing upon cultural traditions to develop his theory of archetypes. He also developed rich techniques for mining the wisdom of dreams.

Nowadays dreamwork seems to be a less common facet of psychotherapy much less spiritual journeys. I would like to suggest that dreams can still be a rich resource on your spiritual journey, offering a mirror that may not always reflect something back to you that you like. Sometimes our unconscious mind and God working through there can point something out to us that we might not like hearing.

I recall a dream I had when I was reading Jung’s Man and His Symbols, which has many case studies including Big Dreams, i.e., dreams reflecting a major theme in one’s life. In this dream I was travelling to the center of the earth! How profound is that? Bur I was taking an elevator and when I got to the center of the earth, I did not find the Philosopher’s Stone. I found a hot dog wit thorns in it. I was consulting with a Jungian therapist at the time and eagerly took the dream to him, thinking it showed I was a Deep Thinker. Using Jung’s technique of active imagination, he invited my associations to the image of “hot dog”. I began to become uneasy. Finally, he suggested that “hot dog” could be a term for someone showing off. Needless to say, I did not like this interpretation.

The joke was on me! I had my Big Dream. It showed that at that time in my life I wanted all the spiritual and psychological benefits of the journey but without the struggle. Ouch! It was on target. Years later, I was reminded to be careful what you pray for. I’d had my Big Dream after all.

Current theories of dreams tend to view them as “day residue” — leftovers from our day or reflections of current worries. Dreams are also recognized to be the repositories for traumas. Thus, not every dream is a Big Dream. Yet sometimes we have a dream, even a nightmare, that demands our attention.

Some people keep dream journals, which can be helpful; however, if we start writing down and analyzing every single dream we have, the results are overwhelming. So it is more helpful to pay attention to those dreams that stay with us.

I recall a midlife dream I had. I was hiking out in the Guadalupes and had a walking stick. This stick, however, was not something I found by the side of the road. It was a work of art — sanded and polished. I came to a bridge and, in a scene right out of Robin Hood was met by an ugly threatening man. I knew that to cross the bridge I would have to battle this man, who also had a stick. But before I stepped out onto the bridge, I set down my stick because I didn’t want it to get banged up.

The dream stayed with me. I realized the stick was a key symbol. At one point, as I was trying to discern its meaning by sculpting some clay, I had the thought of power. Then the words came to me “Your power is in your gifts.” I had been considering pursuing writing during this time but kept putting it off. The dream confronted me with the fear that kept me from embracing creativity. I was afraid of being criticized and even rejected. I accepted the dream’s and God’s confrontation and took up the pen. I had my first book published a year later.

If you chose to include dreamwork on your spiritual journey, I recommend you do some reading to include Sanford’s and Jung’s books. Do NOT rely on popular dream dictionaries. You may also want to find a spiritual guide who is open to the power of dreams..

Suppose Jung, Sanford, and others are right. Suppose, just as in Biblical times, my dreams are a pathway to connect with God’s guidance. How sad if I don’t take the time to listen!

Reflection: Do dreams play a part in your spiritual journey? Have you had any Big Dreams?

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