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Numinous Dreams

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 21st of Third Month, 2021

Speaker: Welling Hall


Psalm 4:8 (ESV): In peace I will both lie down and sleep/For You alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety.

Psalm 3:5 (NASB): I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustains me.

Proverbs 3:24 (NASB): When you lie down, you will not be afraid; When you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.

When I first thought about a message for today, my plan was to talk about Sabbath and pandemic, about the passage of the past year that has been defined by both absence and presence [absence of normalcy, presence of great fear]: a year that has been both excruciatingly lonely and also rich in the discovery and rekindling of new and old friendships across the miles. About how the unexpected and even unwelcome gift of time has blown wide opportunities for uncomfortable conversations about race and justice and accountability for persons of faith -- conversations and actions that are brought to national attention again by the vicious murder of Asian Americans this week. Ultimately, however, that is not the message that was given to me to fully develop for today. In between scheduling THAT message and THIS morning I had a numinous dream.

“Numinous” is a word invented by theologian Rudolf Otto in his book, The Idea of the Holy. It was later picked up by the psychotherapist Carl Jung who used the term to describe falling into the hands of the living God - or to have a dream that appears to be a nod from God. Or perhaps we could even say a “Godly dream.”

There have been several times in my life when I have had a Godly dream - or a numinous experience - a time when the Holy has entered my life in an unexpected, deeply personal and transformative way. Although one of these experiences might not even have been a dream, it was certainly in an altered state of consciousness; it might have been more like a hallucination -- I was dazed from months of ongoing sleep deprivation.

I recall that my experience as a new mother encountering the Holy was the subject of the first message I gave here at West Richmond in 1995 or 1996. That first numinous, Godly dream included a visitation from Mary. At the time I had been praying to Mary for some time. This may be an odd choice for a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant, although my practice began when I was alone in a strange house with an infant son and 86 boxes marked Miscellaneous; my son’s Catholic father, my husband, taught me the Ave Maria:

Hail Mary, full of grace, … Blessed art thou amongst women and Blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen

I thought Mary, mother of Jesus, would understand my plight. Regular, restful sleep had departed from my life like a dear friend who announced that our relationship was over and walked out the door. Mary came to me then in my altered state of consciousness in a way that changed my life. In that darkest of dark times, she appeared at my side. I was in a parched, scorching desert searching for water when she appeared. I knew it was Mary, although I didn’t see her. She turned me away from the blazing sun so I could see the full display of a glorious, multicolored, intricately woven cloak spread out on the ground before me and she said, “Behold! I have dyed for you.”

I laughed and laughed and laughed and fell into a deep, restorative sleep. From that point on, sleep deprivation did not torment and control me as it had before. My life was changed by a profound, emotional reset that felt and feels like it came from a Divine source. Instead of being dragged down by the daunting seriousness of motherhood, I was lifted up by the joy of my new son.

About a year ago, another numinous dream came during a class I was taking on Prayer and Creative Writing at ESR. One of the gifts of that class was that we practiced diverse forms of prayer, a lot, in order to experience where they led and imagine how we might use them in our lives. We had been learning about the difference between “apophatic” prayer (a prayer without words) and “kataphatic” prayer (a prayer with words). One night I had a dream. Or maybe it was an out of body experience. Or, maybe I was dreaming about an out of body experience as I was having it. The experience is/was difficult to put into words. “Ineffable” and “inexpressible” are other words that get used alongside numinous.

In this experience I was floating - or I was surrounded - or lifted - or held. Completely at peace. There was light all around, but not bright light. It was more like light that I felt. The light emanated through the darkness and bathed me in comfortable warmth. There were multiple, shimmering soft colors that breathed and pulsed, radiating around and through me. I felt Whole. At One. Disembodied. Bliss. This experience felt like it lasted for hours and hours and hours. Now and then I heard my little monkey mind saying, “This is a dream about apophatic prayer! This is what apophatic prayer would be like!” Then, again, my monkey mind was quiet and I felt One, Radiating, Bliss.

I awoke with a sense of enormous gratitude and completeness.

That was when my Jungian psychotherapist sister taught me the word “numinous” in Rudolf Otto’s sense. It is a dream that needs no interpretation. The experience is the interpretation. The experience is a nod from God.

A few years ago when I faced a major juncture in my life, my dream