I have a recurring nightmare. It’s about church. The big Sunday service is set to begin. The organist has finished playing his prelude and paused, and is now starting the processional hymn. The congregation stands-up to sing.
Only, I am in the sacristy because I cannot find my cassock alb. Someone has borrowed it or I have lost it. Regardless, it is nowhere to be found. Now the choir and congregation are singing the first verse, and through the crack in the sacristy door, I see the cross starting its procession down the center aisle. I become frantic. What am I to do?
Funny thing about this dream is, I’ve never found myself in that situation. More to the point, I am pretty much never anxious on Sunday mornings before church. I am relaxed when it comes to liturgy, and I know, if ever I couldn’t find my alb, I’d simply process in my civvies – with stole draped around my neck – and tell the congregation I’d lost the alb. I would laugh and they would laugh because everybody likes a priest who will laugh at himself or herself. Like my dad always said, Don’t sweat the small stuff.
I have found that recurring dreams speak to anxiety, often suppressed. Like the dream of arriving late to a final exam and failing class. Or suddenly realizing you’re naked in a crowd. Anxiety dreams, and I know the dream of losing my alb must be anxiety-driven, only I can’t identify the source of my anxiety.
Pilate’s wife woke-up on Good Friday morning, agitated by her own anxiety dream. She warned her husband about that man, to have nothing to do with Jesus. Pilate ignored his wife and her crazy dream, and handed Jesus over for crucifixion, anyway. To this day, Christians vilify Pilate; he should have listened to his wife.
Peter failed – betrayed – Jesus three times. From experience, I can tell you that betrayal cuts the soul to the quick; reality becomes quicksand. Yet, the Jesus of seventy times seven love turned to look at Peter, and Peter wept bitterly. How many of the following nights did Peter dream of that moment, having betrayed the man to whom he had sold his soul? I am certain Peter’s anxiety dreams ended that day weeks later when standing on the beach, Jesus invited Peter three times to tell Jesus how much he loved him.
The other night, I dreamt anxiously of the coronavirus pandemic. Only, I’m not particularly anxious about the pandemic. I have made peace with death, and I am not afraid of being sick. Of course, I don’t want others to get sick or to die, but as a priest I am keenly aware that life is as it always has been – tenuous.
Why then the dream? If not an expression of some latent anxiety?
What if, as Christians, we are asked to assume others’ anxieties as part of Jesus’ salvific work in the world? Through us? Jesus himself, the prophet said, bore infirmities and carried our sorrows. Are we not Christ in the world? To the world? For the world?
Charles Williams (a friend and colleague of C.S. Lewis), posited that one person’s prayer might relieve the weight and anxiety of another person’s burden. Maybe my dream has something to do with that. For the world is terribly anxious, right now, and needs help. God’s help. Our help. And maybe I am feeling at some subterranean level the pain of others? To relieve them of a piece of their pain?
No, I’m not afraid of death, for myself or others. But I feel this awful stabbing at the deepest part of my soul when I consider the world’s emotional state right now – the fear, the grief, the loss, the suffering – and maybe you do, too. So many people are demanding to know, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Yet, we know, the answer is the same as it always has been: God is with us. Has never left nor forsaken any of us.