by Fr. Augustine
First I offer a general discussion on dreams, then move on to
their interpretation and finally consider the use of dreams in the
Bible. The information presented here is mostly gleaned from
an article on dreams in the New Catholic Encyclopedia.
In general, I would advise not seeking dream analysis. To guide
one's conscious life according to what is manifested in dreams is
inherently problematic because dreams are not guided by
rationality, but rather reflect a multitude of influences difficult
to categorize with certitude. The analysis of dreams is in no
way limited to the clergy, but when interpreting a dream which
may be from God, the advice of one theologically trained in
accordance with the teachings of the Magisterium is essential.
The Nature of Dreams
A dream is an illusory psychic activity, particularly of a visual
nature that occurs during sleep. It is essentially a psychological
phenomenon with many philosophical, religious and moral
Scientific findings on dreams have shown them to involve
perception, creative and reproductive imagination, association
of ideas and images, memory and emotion. Thinking and
reasoning may also occur in dreams but on a superficial and
uncritical level (this is important in relation to the moral
relevance of what one does in the midst of a dream). At times
one is aware of a type of "choosing" within dreams -- such as
resistance to temptation. However such "willed acts" do not
stem from a free decision-making ability but rather from
behavioral habits and automatic responses. The critical powers
of the mind such as reality testing and decision making are
greatly impaired in dreaming, which accounts for the incoherent
and chaotic nature of many dreams. In a dream the distinction
between reality and imagination is totally lost or at least
Dreams can be natural or supernatural. If they are supernatural
then their origin lies in God, angels or demons. Dreams can also
be induced by hypnosis.
What causes dreams can seldom be traced to one well defined
external or internal stimulus. Rather, they are brought about my
many interacting factors of a perceptual, emotional, motivational
and physiological nature.
Dreaming occurs in cycles following the fluctuation of sleep
stages. It appears when the dreamer emerges from the stage of
deep sleep. In an average night's sleep a person dreams from 1
to 2 hours with dreams distributed in three to five periods,
lasting from 20 to 30 minutes, and each sleep period followed at
intervals of about 90 minutes.
Dreams are primarily made up of visual imagery. Most of the
images are black and white. The content of dreams is usually
very personal and intimate, and has to do with one's attitudes
toward oneself and toward important people in one's
environment. In terms of emotional content, dreams range from
ecstatic fantasies to nightmares. There is a preponderance of
unpleasant dreams caused by fear, anger or sadness. Dreams of
sex and aggression are quite frequent.
Interpretation of Dreams
Passing from an overview on the nature of dreams, we now
consider their interpretation. There is record of dream
interpretation going back to the 4th century B.C. Plato, Aristotle
and Cicero all commented on dream interpretation.
St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Augustine taught on dreams in his letters to Nebridius and in
De Genesi ad litteram. He admits both the possibility of God
speaking to a person through their dreams and also that some
dreams may have a psychological significance insofar as they
reflect physiological or mental conditions of the dreamer. "Men
. . . dream what they need." he says. St. Thomas Aquinas deals
with dreams in connection with his treatment of superstition.
He identifies four causes of dreams: mental activity, the
physical disposition of the body, environmental conditions and
spiritual causes -- God, angels and demons.
Freud, Jung and Adler all have psychological perspectives on
dream interpretation. Freud wrote an entire work entitled,
Interpretation of Dreams (1900); for the most part, this work
severely limits dream interpretation to the identification of
unfulfilled libidinal wishes. It also uses the principles of free
association and typical symbolism . Jung was the first to
analyze the dreams of a person in a sequential series, treating
them as a meaningful whole and interpreting them on the basis
of an internal consistency. Jung interpreted dreams as the
manifestation of the whole personality (distinct from Freud),
and he varied his interpretations according to personality type.
Jung saw dreams influenced not only by past experiences (as
with Freud), but also by present problems and future plans.
Adler also saw this past, present, and future influence on
dreams; his main emphasis was on how a person's lifestyle was
reflected in his dreams. Present psychological theory considers
the Freudian approach to limited in focus to be of any use. C.S.
Hall finds the analysis of the manifest content of dreams much
more rewarding than delving into their latent content.
Moral Considerations with Regard to Dream Interpretation
Christian interpretation of dreams conforms to the following
principles: (1) The dreams may be a legitimate vehicle of divine
revelation, in which case God himself provides proofs attesting
the divine origin of dreams. He also provides interpretation of
the dream. (2) The majority of dreams are natural phenomena
lacking in any special religious meaning. (3) Superstitious
divination through dreams is severely forbidden by God as an
In general the techniques of dream analysis are not in
themselves immoral. The moral dimension comes to the fore
when considering divination, moral culpability, and the use of
dreams in one's spiritual life.
Divination is the foretelling of the future by means of a dream,
and it is legitimate only if one is sure that the dream comes from
God. One's attitude toward such dreams should be the same as
in the case of private visions and revelations. When divine
intervention in a dream is excluded, then divination is an act of
superstition because it involves, either explicitly or implicitly, an
attempt to predict the future by means of demonic powers. The
gravity of sin depends upon the amount of awareness, the
degree of certainty about the prediction, and the more or less
explicit intention of regulating one's life according to dreams.
Ignorance and an implicit belief in some infallible natural means
of knowing secrets and predicting the future, such as telepathy
and precognition, can diminish one's culpability of collusion
with the devil.
In regard to one's moral responsibility: neither merit nor
punishment can be acquired through dream behavior. Man's
ability to think and choose is so reduced during sleep that he is
not morally responsible for whatever may happen. A good
practice to adopt before going to sleep is to sprinkle one's bed
with holy water and to read a couple lines out of Sacred
Scripture, thus asking God's protection and disposing oneself to
Present day dream analysis is beset by many limitations, one of
which is a lack of knowledge as to how the unconscious and
conscious life of an individual are related. Because of this, great
caution should regulate attempts to use dreams as a technique of
Dreams in the Bible
Dreams and ecstasy are regarded in Sacred Scripture as means
of divine communication produced in the imagination of an
individual. In Jewish thought dreams were often regarded as
ordinary occurrences in human life and even as foolish fancies
(cf. Is. 29:8; Ps. 73:20; Sir. 34:1-7; Eccl.. 5:2), but more frequently
they were accepted as supernatural manifestations. As such
they were regarded as foretelling the future (Gn. 37:5-11; 40:5-
19; 41:1-36; Jgs 7:13-15; Est A.1-11; F.1-6; 2 Mc. 15:11-16; Dn. 2:1-
45; etc. As instructing man (Gn. 20:3; 28:12; 31:11-13,24; 1 Kings
3:5-9; Jb. 33:15-16) and as a means of revealing hidden truths (1
Sm 28:6) and for communicating warnings from God (Jb. 4:12-
21; Wis. 18:17-19). God is often presented as revealing Himself
to the Prophets in dreams (Nm 12:6; Dn. 7:1-27; Jl 3:1), especially
in the case of the later prophets, Daniel, Ezekiel and Zachariah.
Since the meaning of dreams is generally obscure, only wise
men were considered capable of explaining their significance
(Gn. 14:8; Dn. 2:2; 4:3-5; 5:7-16), their interpretation being
regarded as a divine prerogative (Gn. 40:8; 41;16, 38). Joseph
and Daniel, in particular, were endowed with power to interpret
dreams and visions (Gn. 40:8-19; 41:12-36; Dn. 1:17; 2:28; 5:15-
28). The death penalty was decreed (Dt. 13:2-6) for "prophets
and dreamers," that is, false prophets, who led people away
from God by claiming to have revelations in dreams (Jer. 23:16-
32; 27:9; 29:8).
In the New Testament there are several examples of
supernatural dream-visions. An angel appears to Joseph in a
dream and urges him to take Mary as his wife (Mt. 1:20); the
Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod in Jerusalem
(2:12); in a dream Joseph is warned to go to Egypt (2:13) and
later to return to Israel (2:19); because of a dream he retires to
Nazareth (2:22). The wife of Pilate is warned in a dream to have
nothing to do with Jesus (Mt. 27:19). Supernatural dream-
visions had bene promised by the Prophet Joel (3:1) as gifts of
the Holy Spirit in the messianic age, and Peter and his first
sermon on Pentecost pointed out the fulfillment of the promise
The motif of the "double vision" common in ancient literature is
found in Acts 10:1-6 and 10:9-16, where Cornelius and Peter
have visions simultaneously about the same subject. A similar
use of this motif occurs in the case of Paul and Ananias (Act.
9:10-11 and 9:12).
Fr Augustine is a priest of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal
Word, an order founded by Mother Angelica in Birmingham, Alabama.
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN