Look in the Mirror, My Friend

I’ve been focused on dreams during the last few weeks, recounting a few, and teasing out a basic way to track them and your inner life. Thanks to so many of you who have shared your dreams and your intent to try on journaling as a method to center your life.

Be kind to yourself, as moving into this discipline is often daunting and frustrating. Just trust the process. If you forget to journal, gently return the next chance you get. When I start to beat up on myself for not being faithful to the promises I made to myself to do this, to do that, I remind myself of an admonition of a Texas friend of mine: Don’t be so hard on yourself. That’s what we’re here for!

Last week, I shared a LONG dream with three parts, the longest dream I have ever remembered, although other persons seem to do that regularly. I point you to a book by Robert Johnson, Between Heaven and Earth, in which he included numbers of dreams that are lengthy. Those interested could dive into Carl Jung’s own memoir, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections for a rich journey into the inner world. My lengthy, three part dream occurred on the night before my ordination to priesthood at a holy space in my life. You could say, the bases were loaded.

The dream I want to share today is much shorter, compact, but actually more consequential. It happened one night when I was ending my seminary education and was trying to decide where I wanted to go to pursue my doctoral studies. I had been working with Jim Fowler, a leading figure in the psychology of religion. He had taken the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget, and the extension of that work into moral reasoning by Lawrence Kohlberg, and extended it further into how people make sense out of life, that is, how they come to have faith, or not.

Fowler maintained that faith is a human universal, that is, we all have it. Pause and and wrap your mind around that for a second. Do you think it is a natural thing for people for have faith? By that, Fowler is pointing out that faith is a way of seeing the world as a trustworthy place, not necessarily filled out with religious images and stories, but an orientation to life. For Fowler, faith is what humans do in answering the basic question of what is the nature of the world in which we live and how we live in it. This is true of all human being be nature of living.

He went on to postulate that there are predictable stages of faith that we move through during the course of life that parallels our the development of our cognitive structures, that is, the way we know the world. He dedicated his life and his research at the Center for Faith Development at Emory to articulate six stages and then did cross-cultural research to validate this theory. For more depth, go to his seminal work, Stages of Faith.

Fowler came to Emory after completing his doctorate at Harvard and teaching there. He had filled out some of his theory about how we come to faith during his work at Interpreter’s House, a retreat center for ministers at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. That work was led by Dr. Carlyle Marney, a noted Baptist minister who had been an huge influence in my life, affording me space to live and think beyond my cultural limitations.

Fowler and I hit Emory about the same time and I found myself naturally drawn to his work. In fact, my “life question” had become the perplexing query: why do some people have faith and others do not? I was curious, with a self interest driving my quest: Why do some people sense the presence of the Divine, even in the face of great tragedy? Why do some leave a gaze at the reality at the universe and intuit a Creator, and others do not. What’s going on with all the variety of religious experiences that people talk about? What am I to make of the highly choreographed ritual of a formal religious setting as well as the free-form dance of a Pentecostal tent meeting? These questions more than fascinated me but were existential in nature, given my own experience: what was I going to do with God, a reality that was infused in my Southern way of life? What do I make of this?

So, here I am with this pressing issue, and along comes this tall, bearded man with his own considered idea of what faith is. The timing was perfect, synchronistic perhaps. Fowler was looking for a hungry, ambitious student and I was looking for a mentor. It was a natural connection, made “in heaven” as they say.

Jim Fowler had developed a doctoral program that would focus on the faith development theory as well as the wider field of the psychology of religion. He talked with me early on about me being one of the first students in that program as it was set to get underway after I had graduated from seminary. The Woodruff grant that came through for Emory would not only fund my doctoral studies but also pay a stipend for me to serve as his graduate assistant. It sounded promising and yet there was a rub.

I had been a Baptist student at a United Methodist seminary. If I planned on staying in the Baptist stable of horses (leave the quip of “asses” out please), it made sense for me to do my doctoral work in a Southern Baptist seminary in order to render me kosher. I had made an earlier significant connection with Dr. Glenn Hinson, a professor at Southern Seminary in Louisville. Glenn was a specialist in spirituality though his credentials were from Oxford (England, to my Elvis fans) in patristics. Glenn had a saint-like quality for me, and the thought of being his graduate assistant was more than a little seductive.

So I was entering this final year of seminary with two clear options: stay at Emory and continue this ground-breaking work with Fowler, or, go to Louisville to sit at the feet of a hero in faith.

Two notes need to be made. First, Fowler was a big man, a hulking figure that moved surprisingly nimbly through the halls. He spoke with a particular lecture style, noted for his use of hands, making his points with flair. And one other thing: he had a beard. When I first got to Emory, I had brought my baby face with me, but soon grew a beard. Although I claimed I had grown it for a part in a play, I am pretty sure it was an unconscious way to follow my leader. My size and my beard, even my way of talking with my hands, earned me the appellation of “Little Jim”, something I dug early on, but would develop a resistance to as I needed to develop my own identity.

The other thing to note is my sense of the Baptist church. There had been a recent run by more fundamentalist voices in the Southern Baptist universe that was, in fact, threatening intellectual freedom on the campus at Southern. Conservative students were known to tape the lectures of professors, attempting to expose their liberal ways to the wider Baptist world. It was ironic that these forces targeted such holy people like Glenn Hinson to face their wrathful attacks. While Southern was known as having a world class faculty and intellectual integrity, this onrush of a reactionary witch hunt colored the reality of that campus, and make me wonder how I would fare.

With these two factors swirling in my mind, I found myself torn as to which way to go. Those options danced in my head as I went to bed one night after a night out with friends at a local restaurant.

In the dream, I got up from my bed in the morning and proceeded into the bathroom to get ready for my daily trip to the library. I went through my normal shower and rituals, only then to look into the bathroom mirror. There I saw that I had shaved off my beard. I looked first in surprise, and then in horror. I had taken off a distinctive part of my personality by shaving my face. I began to weep, and woke in tears.

It does not take much to get the message in this bottle. After recording my dream and my accompanying feelings, I spoke to a couple of friends about the experience. And then, I drove to the monastery to talk with my spiritual director, whose casual laughter at the comic scene helped me to gain perspective. something Tom is so good at.

As you can imagine, the connection, or warning, seemed clear. The facial hair was a clear link to Fowler and his work. The warning seemed to urge me to be careful in letting that go. It urged me not to take the expected path, but to intentionally choose where I should invest my time and energy. It would not be the last time I would have to make that kind of critical decision.

I made my decision to remain at Emory and Fowler, prompted by that dream. I feels odd to admit that now, though I have always said it, half jokingly, but absolutely. Something from deep inside was telling me, warning me, to be careful in giving away my soul.

Truth is, dreams are rarely clear. The images bring multilayered meanings and are only suggestive. However, they are important to pay attention to, and I have made a point to “tend” to them to see what insights they may bring.

How do you “tend” to dreams? One suggestion is to take the images that are in the dream and begin by free associating, writing down all reflections that may come to mind. Let me put an emphasis on the word “all”. Try not to censor any idea that comes and just write it down for further reflection. The notion of “playing” with those images has worked for me, prompting me to move into a deep reflection on what is going on in my present context, what things in the past might the image recall to mind, and to what future might the dream point.

Let me encourage you to try it out for the next few months. Try to remember your dreams. I once heard one person suggest that one make a statement or a prayer before going to bed, that you would remember your dreams from the coming night. Write the dream down upon awakening in a journal that is private. And then invest the time in rereading the dream later, processing it in a time of wonder and curiosity.

Some people find that a “trusted other” is valuable in this process, such as a coach, a therapist or a spiritual director. Others find it helpful to meet in a group that shares their dreams and collectively reflect on the image. Or you may feel more comfortable doing this dream work in solitude. Regardless, why not open up to the inner life that may whisper wisdom. Let me know how it goes.

Dreams offer us insights into our inner world. Sometimes the messages seem clear, and others seem like clues to the workings within our deeper self. It is easy to become overwhelmed by busyness in our outer lives and activities that we miss what’s really going on. As my patron saint, Ferris of Buehler, reminds us: In life, you have to slow down sometimes, and pause, or you might just miss it.


2 thoughts on “Look in the Mirror, My Friend

  1. “Regardless, why not open up to the inner life that may whisper wisdom. Let me know how it goes.”

    In your dreams! Never going to happen!

    Fred Smith Founder The Gathering 6125 Paluxy Drive Tyler, Texas 75701 (903)571-8037


  2. I was addressing my invitation to normal human beings, mere mortals.
    By the way, how did that dream thing work out for me? Not exactly an advertisement. Dreams: I’ll meet you at 4 in the morning if you let me know you’re coming! E. Texas auto ad


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