The Role of Dreams

I’ve been asked in the past for an Orthodox view on dreams. Are they good, neutral, or evil? I should preface this by stating that the opinions here expressed are not meant to act as a substitute for receiving advice from your priest. If something is troubling you, go talk to him.

Dreams vary widely in their content. However, the advice of the Church Fathers is generally to ignore dreams.

The 46th chapter of St. Ignatius’ The Arena gives a good summary of the Church Fathers’ teachings regarding dreams. The demons often use our dreams to either terrify us, seduce us, or play to our ego in some way. Even if a dream seems to be teaching us a helpful lesson, St. Ignatius recommends erring on the side of caution and pushing the dream out of our minds by making the sign of the cross and saying a prayer when we awaken.

Being told to ignore dreams may seem harsh but it makes sense. Even dreams that teach a positive lesson can be detrimental. Such dreams can teach people to start relying on nocturnal fantasies instead of on the Bible and the Church. They might feel that God speaks directly to them, and, therefore, they don’t need the advice of their pastor, priest, or anyone else. Even seemingly good dreams can stroke the ego of otherwise good people.

When I have had a vivid and memorable dream that I feel may be important, I review it with my father confessor who knows many of my worries as well as the kinds of sins I struggle with. I get his advice on what I should do with the dream. But when we attempt to pick apart our dreams and interpret them for ourselves, we open our hearts and minds to innumerable evils.

We are generally too fickle for dreams to do us any long term good. Instead, what works best is someone studying the Scriptures, attending Church, coming to know and fear God, and finding victory in their lives over the sinful passions. While a startling dream can awaken a soul that is already receptive to hearing from God, for most people, if they are not already putting forth some effort toward living for God, it won’t usually make a long term difference.

Saint Ignatius makes an exception for those who have purified their souls and are not living in any sin. Such people do not allow their ego to be pampered or passions to be aroused due to dreams. Because their hearts are pure, they receive messages from God. Numerous examples of this can be found in the Bible and the Lives of the Saints.

For those who struggle with nightmares, especially recurring ones, I have been told that it is best to make the sign of the Cross and try to push it out of your mind. If you have recurring nightmares, find someone to talk to. Those who have suffered childhood abuse or trauma often have this struggle, though there can be other factors as well. Some research has shown that global fear over the COVID-19 pandemic has caused in an increase in insomnia and nightmares. Add to that the psychological troubles from frequent lockdowns and political unrest, and we have a recipe for more vivid and memorable dreams.

Addendum: I realize there are many times that people have comforting dreams, and the last thing I want to do is take away people’s comforts during these difficult times. I think the Church Fathers were primarily condemning people utilizing their dreams for prophetic words, that is, trying to perceive something about the future or assuming they’ve been given secret knowledge about a person, place, or situation. Dreams that fall into that latter category should definitely be reviewed with a spiritual father or mother.

Featured image by ElinTan

8 thoughts on “The Role of Dreams

  1. birdlynn hubbard January 17, 2021 — 8:56 am

    I think this is weird, just as Orthodox believe Yoga is bad. I do not agree with this perspective at all. I believe in the good of dreams to reveal truths and mystery not able to be manifest in waking hours, but not separate from our lives, nor is the practice of Yoga bad either for goodness sakes. People can still practice yoga and be religious no matter what their faith is.

    1. It’s a hard teaching, indeed. I wrote this over a year ago and have been sitting on it for quite some time trying to decide whether or not to post it.

      Yoga has some differences from dreams. For one, it is a religious practice that developed in the Hindi religion(s). But I agree that it can be used in non-religious ways. My chiropractor gave me a couple of stretches that come from Yoga that help my back quite a bit. I know many other people use stretches to help with aching muscles or joints. That’s different than practicing Yoga for spiritual enlightenment.

      Dreams on the other hand, are not associated with any particular religion. They are common to all people. I know many people who have had dreams that I think were definitely from God. They have varied in content: some were comforting, others were the saints visiting them, and still others were rebukes and warnings from God. My point here is definitely not to toss out all dreams but to make us aware that the Church Fathers teach that we should not be seeking them out. And when we do have them, we should accept them with caution.

    2. Yoga is rooted in demonic postures, postures that signify deities and false gods. I train posture therapy for a living, rehab and mobility. Yoga serves no purpose in the professional atmosphere for people trying to make lasting change, (not just feel good and high for a few minutes). You’re creating hyper flaccid movements, zero tensegrity and ignoring the length tension relationship between the fascia. Yoga not only damages the body long term (YouTube Functional Patterns Yoga), but it also opens portals for demonic attack. Dreams can be beneficial, but if you are stuck trying to discern the truth and lesson from each dream, then you are setting yourself up for spiritual presets.

    3. You may think it is weird but there is a reason that Orthodox believe that Yoga goes against the teachings of Christ. You should research it and perhaps understand for yourself.

      1. I’ve been stretching to relieve my back pain from pinched nerves and doing my own stretches before activities for years. I didn’t realize my self found stretches were yoga. A lot of the time I pray to God thanking Him for healing while stretching. Where does that put me?
        I am Southern Baptist. My son is Russian Orthodox, and he is teaching me about the Orthodox. I had questions about dreams which led me here.

  2. Good insight. Thank you.

  3. My understanding of dreams is rooted in something fairly secular, in that I basically view them primarily as the mind’s confused wanderings when the rest of the body is “powered down”. That being said, they played a role in unfolding God’s plan for mankind at different periods of time, but they can also be “hijacked”, so to speak, by demons.

    I honestly think that dreams can communicate things that we may be trying to repress. But we must be careful not to out too much thought into them. Maybe keep a dream journal and see if recollecting what happened helps one better process why such dreams came about. I often have nightmares if I don’t deal with work-related stress, or dreams about a personal issue when I feel I haven’t fully addressed it. But I don’t take my cues from these dreams. To me, they functionally complement my thoughts, and as Paul writes, we must “…take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

    1. Joshua, I think that’s a good, balanced approach to dreams.

      The main problem that I believe the Church Fathers are addressing is that many people take their “cues” (as you put it) from dreams, feeling that they must be special due to their dreams – especially when the dreams are of a highly symbolic or spiritual nature. They begin to look at dreams as prophetic visions rather than the subconscious mind trying to work through experiences and feelings that haven’t been fully dealt with. Their delusion turns their subconscious mind into a playground for demonic activity and influence.

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