For the last few weeks, I have been writing about dreams, and my process of journaling about those dreams and my inner thoughts. I want to tell you about the strangest, funniest, and most perplexing dream of my life. Tellingly, it came to me on the night before I was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood.
I had gone on a day retreat to the Trappist monastery I call “home” in Conyers, Georgia, the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. I had been hanging out there over the years, including regularly meeting with my spiritual director, a senior monk. It seemed natural for me to be in retreat there prior to my ordination. I would spend the night in the retreat house and then return to the Cathedral in Atlanta for the ordination ceremony.
That night, my dream had three parts, or as my therapist would later say, a triptych, referring to a three paneled object of art.
The first part found me in a line of monks dressed in the traditional hooded robes that monastics wear. It was a long line processing into a space that had all the familiar appointments of the Trappist monastery in Conyers, but it was set in a maritime forest, much like the lush greenery of my beloved Cumberland Island. The gray robes were in contrast with the lush green of the forest, a distinction that I would play with later. I remember that the wind was a wonderfully cool breeze as we walked in, bending the foliage gently to and fro, suggestive of the name given to the Holy Spirit monastery.
As I arrived at the front, I went and climbed into a pulpit on the right. I stood there in the pulpit and looked out. I did not say a word. I was just there. Silent. I had no anxiety or nervousness, but just felt centered, at peace. I stood quietly in that position until the dream shifted.
The second part of the dream found me walking with my best friend, David. David and I had worked together at two churches in Atlanta and had both followed a path from the Baptist church into the Episcopal church. We had played music together, notably “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young along with some Eagles tunes, with its daunting harmonies, pushing both our guitar and vocal skills. We also shared the infield duties on a local church softball team, trying to manage our way through the fierce competition that was anything but Christian. He is the godfather to my firstborn child and has shared many times with my wife and me, namely a Willie Nelson 4th of July concert where I almost lost my life in front of the stage watching Linda Ronstadt. What I’m telling you is that we were connected by more than a highly valenced first name.
In the dream, David and I were walking in what I recognized as Six Flags Over Georgia, something we had actually done in younger days as youth ministers. All of the familiar amusement rides seemed to be in place with the Scream Machine, the Runaway Mine Cars, the Sky Buckets that would transport you to various parts of the park. But the place that got my attention was a theater called The Chevy Show. It was a geodesic structure where you would sit on benches and watch a 3D movie of new cars Chevrolet was bringing out the next year, along with some jazzy futuristic designs. It was popular not only for the entertainment with the new high tech video and sound system but more importantly, sitting down in air-conditioning as a respite from the Georgia summer heat and humidity.
In front of the Chevy Show was a sign with a clock, indicating when the next show was to begin. In my dream, this familiar sign said that the next show was to be on the “Oceanic Experience”, and the lecturer was none other than famed oceanic explorer, Jacque Cousteau. I quickly told David that we needed to be there for this. He agreed.
We went inside, the dome overhead with the screen in front. People had already started assembling, seated as they do in reality, in rows of pine planks, perched on metal posts, arranged in a semicircle.
On the sides of the structure were contoured green felt forms that reminded me of pictures I saw as a kid of the Mercury astronauts capsule seats. David and I found our forms and strapped in. I remember thinking that our backs were literally against the wall. A note here: David was also in the group of folks who were training to become priests…so the form fits!
The lights dimmed, indicating that the Chevy Show was beginning. The entire building seemed to simulate a rolling wave, much like the feeling one gets being on a boat on the sea, appropriate to an oceanic experience. Suddenly, at the front, a man in a khaki uniform stands and begins to lecture about the ocean. But is was not Jacques Cousteau, as advertised, but Chris Collins, the head of the maintenance department at the Cathedral where David and I worked. Chris began to lecture about the ocean, and as he did various sea creatures would rise up from the floor, gently moving up and down as if they were swimming in the sea. A dolphin, a sea turtle, a sea horse (odd), a shark, and a octopus were part of the oceanic menagerie on display.
I wanted to get a closer look and so I unbuckled my seat belt and moved toward one of the creatures, the dolphin. As I got close, I saw that it was coming from a hole in the floor, attached to a pole that mimicked the wave movement. I got down by the hole, and peered inside and saw a series of intricate gears. like that of a clock, moving in circles to drive the action. I looked up and saw Jacques Cousteau, THE Jacques Cousteau sitting on the bench nearby, with his traditional watch cap on. I said to him in exasperation, “It’s not real!” to which he nodded and said with caution, “Don’t tell anybody!”.
Suddenly, the whole building seemed to be moving, inverting the space so that the people on the rows were hanging upside down, and I was tumbling. End of secord part of the dream.
The third part of the dream was my friend, David, again, and Woodie, another co-worker at the Cathedral. We were in my green Jeep CJ5 which I had at the time, and we were crossing the top of a ridge in what looked like the North Georgia mountains. Woodie was riding shotgun and David was in the jumpseat in the back. As I was looking down into the valley, I saw a cabin, lights coming from the window, and smoke coming from the chimney. Woodie saw the cabin and remarked, “Ralph (her husband) and I have a cabin just like that.” I turned to her and looked intently as I said, almost reverently, “Woodie, don’t ever lose that!. End of dream.
Three parts of a dream: a pastoral nature scene, a simulated oceanic experience, and a warm, comfy cabin in the woods. I wrote it down upon awakening at the desk in my retreat room. After breakfast, I shared it with my spiritual director and another monk friend that morning. I told the dream to my wife that afternoon. I took it the next week to my therapist and we played with it for the next few months.
What comes to your mind when you read this message in the bottle from my dream? Before you read some of the material I unearthed, what does it trigger in your mind and soul, beside the diagnosis that this is one troubled, conflicted soul? What strikes you about this dream? Take a few moments before you move on. Pause and reflect. Which of the three parts grabs you attention? Which of the three troubles you? What makes you smile? What questions come to mind? Pause, if just for a minute before moving ahead. Invest a moment in reflection. If I were producing a television drama, like Yellowstone, I would stop now, creating tension to be resolved while my sponsors manipulate your mind. If it were a reality show, I would tease you with possibilities for “the most dramatic ending in the history of this show”.
Tempting to make you wait for a week. But, no.
So much rich material here to mess with. There is the naturalness of the “cathedral in the forest” which begins the dream and seems to fit my Druid tendencies. My mystical experiences of connection have come mainly in nature settings where the reality of Creation breaks through my isolation and ties me to something larger than myself. In years of working with people in their spiritual experience, I know this is not uncommon. What was unique was the juxtaposition of being in a pulpit, but rather than bringing worth by my thinking and my words, I was simply there in my being. There was a peace that felt so satisfying that seemed to be native to my soul. This was counter to my experience in my early life where my very worth was weighed by the profundity and erudition I could display in my sermonizing. That performance art had a high price of anxiety that I carried with me all week as I prepared, and peaked when I climbed into that pulpit. How different this was, not producing “something”, a sermon, but rather merely and profoundly, being, just being. I have had that scene repeat at various moments in my journey on this earth, always valued by me, merely and profoundly.
The middle portion of the dreams is chocked full of symbolism. The “oceanic experience” is the very term Freud used to describe religion, and so it was fascinating that it was the title to the show I was attending. My therapist noted that the key to dreams is sometimes the “joke” that is implied. In this dream, the clearest twist was that rather than have someone who had been an ocean explorer speak, it was the head of maintenance who stepped up to deliver the lecture. Clearly, religion gone bad is when people merely talk about and describe a religious experience rather than actually experiencing the Spirit themselves. Looking beneath the floor to see the workings of a machine, rather than real life, could be a warning of what may be ahead of me in my future role in the church as a priest. I was not an innocent, having witnessed the sausage being made in the bureaucracy of the church, but I had much to learn of the politics, drama, and treachery. And how curious to have ole Jacques caution me to keep this truth to myself and not to share it. What was I to do with that word?
Finally, the last part of the dream seemed to re-mind me of the base out of which all things proceed, that is, the relationships that provide the spirit that animates all things. Woodie and Ralph were a couple with whom I spent Friday after work at a Scottish bar, the Piper’s Roost, where we sat at table and shared food and drink…a real communion in my book. As one who was newly married, I admired the life Woodie and Ralph had and the quality of their relationship. It seemed to be an inner wisdom that was urging to pay attention to my primary relationship that is so easily compromised in the busyiness of church.
I worked with this dream specifically for months, turning over the images and looking underneath for life and insights. It turned out to be a powerful prompting from my inner life about what to value, what to watch for, and what to hold onto. How I managed that journey, with these insights in tow, are part of the work that I do these days as I hit this time in my life when reflection and review take a priority.
My point in sharing this dream with you is to encourage you to note the dreams that come to you while you sleep and your defense structures are down. In those unguarded moments, what images come to the surface? When you dream, why not write them down and spend some time wondering what message may be in the bottle?
This is the only three-part dream I can remember, as most times, my dreams are much shorter. Remembering the dreams, writing them down on paper, and then investing the time and energy in playful seriousness, probing the images for the truth they may hold….this is worthy work. It is a part of being a human on this earth. What truth about yourself and this world has come to you?
I will share another dream next week, a much shorter one, by which I made a life-changing decision. In the meantime, dream on.