Jacob's Ladder Source
I used to think that dreams are nothing more than the product of the electrical
activity of the brain during sleep. Of course I grew up reading the scriptures
and I am familiar with the many instances in the lives of biblical characters
where dreams had a significant place. But I doubted that God revealed his will
to men in that manner anymore.
As I read the ascetical and monastic literature of the Orthodox Christian Faith, I
discover that the subject of dreams merited the Father's attention because, as
shall see, dreams can be from God, the devils or the expression of our
passions and the activity of our nous (energies of the soul or organ of spiritual
knowledge). Our nous never sleeps.
For most of us, St John's solemn warning applies,"the demons try to disturb us
with dreams, representing to us that our relatives are either grieving or dying, or
are held captive for our sake and are destitute.But he who believes in dreams is
like a person running after his own shadow and trying to catch it.. The demons
of vainglory prophecy in dreams. Being a spirit, he sees what is happening in
this lower air, and noticing that someone is dying, he foretells it through dreams
to the more light-minded. But the demons know nothing about the future from
foreknowledge. For if they did, then the fortunetellers would also be able to
foretell our death. Demons often transform themselves into angels of light and
take the form of martyrs, and make it appear to us during sleep that we are in
communication with them. Then, when we wake up, they plunge us into unholy
joy and conceit. But you can detect their deceit by this very fact. For angels
reveal torments, judgments and separations; and when we wake up we find
that we are trembling and sad. As soon as we beging to believe the demons
in dreams, then they make sport of us when we are awake too. He who
believes in dreams is completely inexperienced. But he who distrusts dreams
is a wise man. Only believe dreams that warn you of torments and judgments.
But if despair afflicts you, then such dreams are also from demons."
St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent Step 3 p.19-20, Holy
Transfiguration Monastery 1993
In step 26:103 p.177, we learn that, "There is a demon who comes to us
when we are lying in bed and shoots at us unclean thoughts, so that
when we do not stand for prayer because of our laziness and thus are
not armed against them, we may fall asleep with these foul thoughts
and then have foul dreams too."
And in step 15:54 p.112 St Johnwrites that, " Always let the remem-
brance of death and the Prayer of Jesus (Lord Jesus Christ have mercy
on me!) being of single phrase, go to sleep with you and get up with
you; for you will find nothing to equal these aids during sleep."
Preferably we should have resource to a spiritual father, priest, monk
or confessor to help us discern the source of our dreams. For more on
the place of the spiritual father in the life of the Orthodox Christian
According to Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, "Dreams are closely
linked with imagination. St John Climacus gives a definition of
dreams: A dream is a movement of the nous while the body is at
rest. There is a distinction between dreams and visions. 'A vision
is something seen more or less consciously when awake. A dream
is something imagined during sleep'. A person perceives visions
by means of his senses, but he sees dreams through the action of
his nous when his body is asleep.
According to St. Nikitas Stethatos, we can see dreams, visions and
revelations while asleep, and he examines the difference between
them. (Philokalia Vol. 4 'On the Inner Nature of Things')
Dreams are images that do not remain unchanged in the imagin-
ative faculty of the nous. They present a confused picture with
constantly altering scenes and forms.
Visions remain constant. They do not change, but remain
imprinted on the nous unforgettably for many years. They
benefit the soul by bringing compunction and revealing fearful
wonders. As a result they keep the beholder reflective and in
awe. (As for example in Patriarch Jacob's vision of the Ladder)
Revelations are theorias granted to the purified and illumined
soul, in a way that transcends sense perception. They reveal the
mysteries of God.
St Nikitas goes on to explain that dreams are seen by materialistic
and sensually-minded people, whose nous is darkened by passions
and whose imagination is mocked by the demons. Visions are
associated with those well advanced on the spiritual path, who
have cleansed the soul's organs of perception. Revelations are
for perfect Christians, who are activated by the Holy Spirit and
whose soul is united to God through theology.
Some dreams are the result of our natural physical state and
impressions made on us during the day. Others are due to
passions, in other words, to unnatural impulses of the soul.
Some are clearly the work of demons. There are however
dreams that come from God and are revelations bestowed
by God, or the angels as God's messengers.
According to Evagrius Ponticus, the demons make an imprint
on the nous by arousing the memory. In general, as St. John
Climacus says, if we wake up from sleep peaceful, this shows
that we have been comforted by the angels unawares. If on
the other hand we wake up troubled, we are suffering as a
result of evil dreams and visions. This is not however absolute
proof, as there is a sort of joy mingled with pride which comes
from the devil.
We saw earlier that one category of dreams originates from
passions, weather of the body or the soul...by studying our
dreams we can observe which passions dominate us, in order to
fight against them.
St John Climacus writes that the heart of gluttons dreams of
food and nourishment, but the heart of those who mourn dreams
of judgment and condemnation.
We know from the teaching of the Fathers that the human soul
has three powers or aspects; the appetitive (desiring) aspect, the
incensive aspect and the rational aspect. St Symeon the New
Theologian writes about how we can understand from dreams
which passions dominate us the most. When the soul's appetitive
aspect is stirred up by social contact, food and enjoyment, it sees
the same things in dreams. When the incensive aspect of the soul
is enraged against its fellows, it dreams of attacks by wild animals
and reptiles, of wars and battles. When the soul's rational faculty
is elated with arrogance and pride, it imagines itself being caught
up into the air, or seated on a high throne, or in command of a
St Nikitas Stethatos writes that if someone's soul is grasping and
avaricious , he dreams of gold everywhere, and imagines himself
acquiring it, lending it out at interest and storing it up in his
treasuries. And he is condemned for his callousness.
When a person lives all through the day with noetic prayer and
has learnt to converse with God, he does the same during sleep.
His dreams and revelations are linked with God and prayer. It is
possible for him to say the Jesus prayer with his lips even when
asleep. He feels his heart praying continuously.
Metropolitan Hierotheos end his chapter on dreams by giving us
some precious advice on how to deal with dreams. In summary,
a preventive action is required. We must limit our food intake.
We must occupy ourselves with the things of God, inner hesychia
and prayer before sleep. The most effective method of
confronting dreams is to stop them abruptly. We should avoid
thinking about them when we wake up.
Even if we were to reject dreams coming from God, for fear
that they might be from the devil and we could be deceived,
this is a good thing. God praises His servant because He knows
that he acts in this way for fear of being deceived by the devil
who transforms himself into an angel of light.
Confession, repentance and penitence are necessary to cleanse
us from passions. (And therefore help us with evil dreams caused
by our passions)
The advice of a wise spiritual father is very important in helping
us discern the source of our dreams (emphasis mine).
For the complete text of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos' chapter
on dreams please read, "The Science of Spiritual Medicine",
p.180-190, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery 2010, available from
St Nectarios Press