Dreams have often been important to my spiritual life, giving me strong images that allow me to speak of the work of God in my life. I was glad to learn that there are many reports of dreams or visions in the journals of Friends who traveled in the ministry. Such prominent friends as Mary Penington and John Woolman reported on dreams/visions in their memoirs, rarely distinguishing between the two and not always commenting on the meanings they see. In the earliest years, visions and dreams were seen as prophetic, carrying weight similar to the biblical prophets. That understanding faded as the century progressed, but was never totally lost at least into the 19th century.
Dreams were, especially for women, an important way of influencing the world around them. Second Day Morning Meeting, the body that oversaw Quaker publications beginning in 1672 allowed many dreams to be published, indicating that influential Quakers acknowledged the importance of dreams and the potential for them to convey divine guidance.
In the 18th century, it became popular for Friends to copy down reports of other’s spiritual dreams and by the end of the century, some kept “vision books.” Carla Gerona, the author of a scholarly book on Quaker dreaming whose work informed this chapter, reports “Quakers publicized and recorded their dreams to resolve these larger community concerns [e.g. slavery]. These visionary experiences carried authority because Quakers collectively thought that dreams channeled divine intimations.” (Gerona, Night Journeys, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004, p. 29)
On the Balance Point
Reliance on the Spirit can place us on the edge — a balance point between the world we live in now and the world to come; between imaging the future and fantasizing; between assurance and arrogance; between mental health and delusion; between truth and wishful thinking. Friends are dependent on paying attention to the Spirit and enough self-knowledge to be able to recognize the voice of Christ’s Light with some assurance. If that assurance is not tempered by humility, our disagreements turn to fights over territory. The community can be broken.
Naming what we hold most dear and holding up the vision of the New Creation in idiom of our day and age, makes the words carry more life. This is an ongoing process as each generation and each community is asked to do this for itself, but not in isolation.
I think of mental health in terms of one’s ability to function in the world even when many of the world’s values seem alien and destructive. We come from a long tradition of compassion for the mentally ill for good reason as there is often a thin line between the behavior of Quakers and what the world may consider delusion. Similarly, sorting out the real truth of a situation and naming it may strike others as delusional especially when a major factor is the guidance of the Inward Teacher.
The prophetic way is not an easy path. Choosing to be out of conformity with the world can have many consequences and rarely leads to riches and ease. Even within the wider community of Friends, one body of Friends often seem to be out of conformity with what others hold most central. All of this begs us to hold one another in patient, loving prayer before God.
Sorting Out Delusions
In 1665, Mary Ellwood and Margery Clipsham, published Spirit that Works Abomination and Its Abominable Work Discovered “As a Warning to all who profess to walk in the Light of the Lord, that they keep close in Spirit to the Lord, and listen not to that adulterated Spirit, which labours to draw from the way of Truth, lest they be destroyed by it.”
To emphasize their point these women added biblical admonitions such as words from Jeremiah 14.14 naming false prophets and false vision.
Thus, from the early days of the movement, the challenge of figuring out who really speaks truth has been present. This seemed to be the case in biblical times, and likely was so in any society that gives individuals the right to speak truth verified largely by an unseeable power. Discernment becomes even harder when the individual is condemning the actions of community members and leaders, pressing them to live in a new way.
Dreams have been important in my spiritual life, particularly in developing a language for speaking of the Giver of Life and Breath. So often, for many years, when I could not find words I would be given vivid images in my dreams. By describing these images, I could convey to others something of the way the Inward Guide was reshaping me inside. But along with these rich images, I also would have vivid, sometimes distressing dreams which would wake me in the night. As I spent time with all the complex of dreams which filled my nights, I came to learn that many of them were ways my head and heart were sorting out my past. Such dreams were meant only for me and had no significance for others. Yet I could have read some of them as portents or used them to threaten others with dire consequences if they did not act in a certain way.
Anyone who has paid much attention to dreams knows how difficult and fascinating dream interpretation can be. For centuries people have developed dictionaries purporting to tell the meaning of dream images. Certainly dream images reflect an individual’s culture to some degree. They may reflect what has been happening during the day, distant childhood memories, paintings and television images or world events. The potential for many interpretations of dreams images is always present and meanings rarely absolute.
Quaker ministers in the past seem to have done an initial sorting of dreams themselves, then tested out their understanding of dreams which seemed significant with the larger community. Once vetted, such dreams might be part of a minister’s message, or otherwise shared verbally, and ones which reverberated as true circulated in writing.
This process includes “tests” indicating whether words or actions are in line with Truth: moral purity, patience, consistency with others, consistency with the Bible and inward unity. Such 17th century tests were identified by the historian Hugh Barbour (Five Tests for Discerning a True Leading, Tract Association of Friends). In many ways, they were saying that the Light will not contradict itself to approve nonviolence one day and violence the next. And, as importantly, what we are advocating should be visible in all of our doings and words.
Seeing it Before Others Are Ready for It
When a person or group sees something that the rest of society seems blind to, it can be frustrating or disconcerting, yet this is central to the prophetic life: seeing how things should or could be and declaring it. Often before others can see or be ready for it.
Dreams can be misread and thus not be reliable indicators of truth or of what the future might foretell. Yet they may offer invaluable insights into actions we might take and inspire the community to move towards change and to live in hope.