Saturday, July 22, 2017


            God’s Forgotten Language is the title that Episcopal priest and Jungian psychotherapist John Sanford gave to a book he authored several decades ago. I discovered it around 1980, long before I spent nearly three years in Jungian analysis. During that period of time I would record my dreams as soon as I could after waking. You get really good at remembering your dreams after you establish a discipline of recording them before they slither snakelike down a bottomless hole  I would go to see my analyst once a week with sometimes a sheaf of paper on which I had scratched out the contours of almost as many as two dozen dreams of varying lengths. We would select one or two that seemed to me the most puzzling or interesting or compelling and we would focus on what those dreams were telling me. 

            In that whole experience I came to appreciate Sanford’s title as well as the book that bore it. I came to see that deep down in the recesses of my unconscious mind Truth was walking to and fro. Truth communicates itself to us in various ways, through symbol, ritual, relationships, experience, but none more powerful than dreams. Some of you will tell me that you don’t dream. Perhaps not, but my experience is that there is a difference between not dreaming and not remembering one’s dreams. When the soul is especially restless to grow, or seeking peace, or trying to find balance, dreams tend to come bringing messages to the conscious mind through symbols. And since it is Truth that is speaking—for your dreams won’t lie to you—it is fair to call Truth by one of its other names: God. 

José de Ribera, "El Sueño de Jacob," 1639
            Jacob dreams his famous dream of a ladder bridging earth and heaven when he is at a turning point in his life.  He is on the run having lied to his father, and having cheated both father and brother through tricking the old man into blessing him instead of his elder twin brother. This is not the kind of mess that we commonly suppose produces the stuff of deep spiritual experience. Which goes to show how mistaken we can be about what “spiritual” experience really is. There are several details in the story that hint at what the story is about. First, he comes to a place at sundown, takes a stone and uses it for a pillow. I suppose that isn’t so strange, given the number of stones in the Holy Land, though I cannot but wonder why that little detail was preserved in the story. Hold on to it for a little while and we’ll come back to that. Then comes the dream. There is a ladder in the dream that reaches from earth to heaven.  On it angels are ascending and descending. If you think for a minute, I suspect you might agree that if you or I were telling the story, we might say it the other way around. Angels are heavenly beings to most of us, and it would be natural to imagine them first descending to earth and then ascending again to heaven. But that isn’t what the story says. The angels ascend and descend.  Hold on to that detail as well. Finally the Lord God in his dream stands beside Jacob. Not face-to-face, not over him, but beside him. 

            It is easy to be caught up in the substance of the message that Yahweh delivers, the essence of the promise to the patriarchs. “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.  I will not leave you till I have done for you what I have promised.” To be sure, that is not incidental to the story. But first, look at these little details, beginning with the stone. I have never used a stone for a pillow because I have always had softer choices. But whatever else a stone is, it is of the very earth itself. This is not the only place that stone figures into the story, for at the very end we see Jacob taking it, setting it upright as a pillar, and anointing it, in effect marking it as holy.  So there is a connection between the stone, the dream, and the holy. What might that mean?  Jacob seems to think, waking from his astonishing dream and its revelation of divine purpose, that there is something divine about the place itself. “This is the house of God, the very gate of heaven.” There are such places. Perhaps you have been to one or more. We tend to speak in contemporary language of how there is a certain “energy” in such a place. Maybe that is our way of saying what Jacob recognizes as well and articulates it in his own vocabulary:  “House of God, gate of heaven.” The earth is filled with the Presence of the Maker, not just human beings, and not just other sentient creatures, but the trees, the clouds, the weeds, and even the rocks and stones. Every electron encircling a nucleus of an atom bears the stamp of its creator.  The stone that Jacob uses for a pillow is, like his own body, charged. It might not have been hyperbole that caused Jesus to say at one point, “If these [disciples and crowds] are silenced, even the stones will cry out.” If you think that everything in the universe does not have some ultimate worth and is therefore worthy to be cared for, think again. Sometimes stones become pillows and the heads they support dream weird and magical dreams.

            And in Jacob’s dream, angels first ascend. What does this mean? Jacob is on a journey of transformation, though he does not know it. His whole life will be an amazing learning experience born of love, rivalry, reconciliation, wounding, grief, and profound joy. And his, like all journeys of transformation, begins at home on the earth and in the earth. Like everything else in every dream, the angels, the ladder, all are parts of Jacob’s soul, projected, as it were, onto a screen for him to view. What Jacob sees is the truth that the way up is the way down and vice versa. Going deeply into bodily life is the path of the soul. The soul loves the body, its senses, the delight of good food, the warmth of a fire, the pleasure of music, the ecstasy of erotic energy. Ascending to the heights where we can view all as One is the path of the spirit. They complement each other.

Angel at Dusk

Then God stands beside Jacob. This is a great and lovely insight. Long before there is anything remotely like a story of Jesus or a theology of incarnation, this old story grasps the truth that God is on our side. God takes a place alongside every Jacob and Rachel and Leah, not over against them. Many people have trouble with God essentially because, whether or not they “believe in” God, they think that the whole notion of God is that God is fundamentally a spoil-sport that really is out to get human beings, ready to strike or punish, and ultimately must be bought off with religious actions or sacrifices in order finally to accept human beings. In other words, God is a punitive parent either to be feared and placated, or to be mocked and dismissed as useless or unreal. Notice that God is ready to empty all measure of blessing on Jacob, even though Jacob has arrogated to himself every means of acquiring that blessing as if it all depended upon him and his wits. No, God is at our side, says the dream. And there is no bottom to God’s blessing, even for thieves on the run.          
            God’s forgotten language, that is dreams, is forgotten for at least two reasons. First, because we generally don’t pay much attention to dreams and frequently imagine that they are unimportant compared to the everyday projects we have of working, earning a living, raising kids, and so forth. Second, dreams are in most ways the exact opposite of rational thought. Dreams don’t know logic. They don’t know common sense. They don’t shrink to fit our ready-made categories. They speak of things we wouldn’t think of uttering in public. They catch our attention and then trick and confuse us. If Sanford is right that this is the primary language in which God communicates to us, then that says something amazing about God. God smashes our small thought patterns, wrecks the assumptions of our egos, rearranges our values, and leaves us with far more questions than answers. Most religion and most of its adherents imagine that God is full of certainties and is interested mainly in managing human beings, not freeing them. 

            Jacob when we meet him at the place of the dream is not a mature individual. He has much to learn and much to suffer. But he gets the point rather quickly. He recognizes that he is on holy ground. The ground is not holy because of the stone. It is holy because the Holy One has spoken in the dream. 

            Sarah Flower Adams took this story and used its imagery to shape her well-known and much loved hymn, “Nearer, my God, to thee.” Adams, a Unitarian, penned a poem as full as any of Christian conviction:

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee.
Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee.
William Blake, "Jacob's Dream," pen and ink, ca. 1800
Is it possible to see that it is not just our personal woes and griefs, but the great mass of human disappointments and failures, all symbolized by Jacob’s own trickery and deceit, that become a pillar marking the fact that straight through the pile of sin and stinking shame the Holy One has walked? Can we imagine the Holy One anointing those stony hearts of ours with the oil of great joy and gladness and healing them? Might we awake from some of our own dreams, even nightmares, and arise to offer thanks for the Grace that takes our breath away and leaves us startled, saying, “Surely the Presence of the Lord was in this place and I didn’t even know it”?
            There is a passage near the beginning of the Fourth Gospel in which Jesus says to Nathaniel, whom he calls to join him in discipleship, “Do you believe me because I said I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” So it is not just Jacob’s dream after all. It is God’s dream, a dream shared with the likes of Nathaniel and Joan and Becky and Zach and Sean. God’s language doesn’t know national borders or ethnic divisions. God’s language is the Word that speaks out of the depths of our souls, no matter who we are. And the message is still the same: “Know that I will be with you and will keep you wherever you go.”
A sermon based on Genesis 28:10-19a
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2017


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