Author: Fr. Augustine Mary


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 implications.

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 impaired.

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

Ancient Philosophers

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 immoral practice.

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 grace.

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 spiritual guidance.

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 (Acts 2:16-21).

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