Friday, February 8, 2008


An interesting confluence of events brings me to the writing of this blog. First, I’ve had recurring nightmares this week. Second, my sister Lindsey passed on a Myspace blog asking for ten curious habits, goals or random facts about myself, which I just posted. Third, I finished Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out. How these three disparate elements sparked a light in my mind, I do not know, but here goes…

Since I don’t know when, maybe high school, I have had recurring “night terrors” or “walking nightmares” or whatever you want to call them. They follow a predictable pattern: 1) Someone or something is coming at me wherever I’m sleeping with the intention to kill me, 2) I freak out and try to escape danger, usually yelling “No no no!!” as I’m told, 3) I typically defend myself with my blankets and sheets, 4) I wake up, totally disoriented, my heart rate jacked, 4) I eventually figure out it was a dream, then have to remake my bed and fall asleep again, and 5) I never remember the details of the dream. Oy, that’s a mouthful!

My family and most of my friends have witnessed these episodes at least once. I’ve punched Curtis several times and Lito only once—which makes them special. I have tried to diagnose this… “thing I do” for some time to no avail. Then, I came across this little passage in Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out that seemed to offer the diagnosis I have been too blind to see:

“St. Basil, father of monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church, living in the 4th century, was quite clear about the fact that even our dreams cannot be excluded from our spiritual life. When the question was raised to him: What is the source of those unbecoming nocturnal phantasies?” he said: “They arise out of the disordered movements of the soul that occur during the day. But if a man should occupy himself with the judgments of God and so purify his soul and concern himself constantly with good matters and things pleasing to God, then these things will fill his dreams (instead).”

Holy crap, St. Basil, you're a genius! I knew instantaneously this passage was written for me. So when my sister passed on the “10 strange things about you” challenge, one of my responses was that I have these sleep-walking nightmares all the time, and I thought, “Here’s a great opportunity to put a few things together (in blog form).”

To explain the above quote in its context, Nouwen contends that a primary aspect of the spiritual life is the movement from illusion to prayer, and this includes our dreams. What he means by that is: while we may have the appearance of someone pious, humble and selfless, we may interiorize dreams or fantasies wherein we “freely erect statues to honor our own martyrdom and burn incense for our wounded self.” In other words, we create “immortal images” in our day and night dreams. In dreams, we make ourselves into gods, setting up palaces to enshrine our glory. The only word for this inflated interior activity is idolatry, and Nouwen seems to think it plagues most people. I agree, because the I do this all too often.

What does this have to do with my stupid, embarrassing, occasionally injurious night terrors? Nouwen links the idolatry of our dreams to the illusion of immortality that flows out of it. Reading this, I suddenly realized the common element of these dreams: a powerful fear of death, and a desperate clinging to my life. While I cannot remember the details of these dreams, I always the very real sense of panic that I am about to die. Earlier, as I was taking down some brief notes for this blog, I thought of the Peter Weir movie Fearless, and the transformation from fear to embrace that Jeff Bridge’s character undergoes throughout. If you have not seen the movie, immediately rent it and watch it, then come back and finish reading this post. Yes, it’s that important. Anyways, I immediately pictured the plane crash crescendo that ends the film—hands reaching out for something unseen, bodies ejected through the fuselage, the ceiling tearing away like paper, faces cringing in the desperate attempt to hold on to life, and rays of light coming in like the fingers of God—and I joined these images to my dreams. There’s an important parallel here, I think. We cannot idolatrously cling to the illusion of immortality, but must learn to embrace life as gift. Nouwen writes:

“Patiently but persistently we must slowly unmask the illusions of our immortality, dispelling even the feeble creations of our frustrated mind, and stretch out our arms to the deep sea and the high heaven in a never-ending prayer.”

I have been fascinated by monastic spirituality and the classical Christian disciplines for several years, and the undertaking has been uneven and choppy. However, when I look back, I can see that the best sleep of my recent life came during an extended period of real discipline during the first few months after I moved to Pasadena. While I still did some weird stuff—and I think Nebyou could testify to that—my dreams were not marked by the same sense of terror. I’ll confess, I have really slacked in the area of spiritual discipline for some time, and now I want to get back in the habit. Thankfully, I came across a meaningful and simple discipline in Reaching Out, the Hesychastic “Jesus prayer,” which goes “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” This coincides with focused breathing and a “looking into the heart,” or a submersion into the center of our being. The prayer comes from the gospel accounts of the blind man/men who recognize Jesus as the “Son of David” and desire his mercy and healing. My hope is that I might be given even a portion of this “blind faith” and receive the healing touch of Jesus. May it be the same for you.