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