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 was a dream of liberation, being unencumbered by business as usual on the ground. I was dancing, almost flying. The feeling of peace and freedom was awesome, although unattended by any awareness of the Holy. It was, however, accompanied by the memory of Keith Esch, a member of West Richmond I knew and admired, although I didn’t know him all that well. It felt like awareness of liberation was a gift that he was sending me as a newly departed person. So, for now, I’ll count that as an example of another spiritually-inspired, if not numinous, dream.
The numinous, “nod from God” dream that prompted me to throw out my earlier sermon plans and write this entirely different one entirely happened three weeks ago. It was two or three days after my first COVID-19 vaccination. I had been under the weather for about 36 hours. The next morning I woke up, looked around, and thought, “well, now it is time to get started with my plan to go to seminary - the plan that I had confirmed in March 2020 and then put on hold. I think this might just be the time to sell my home and move on...” The following night, in my dream I was on a mountaintop, walking barefoot and comfortably on a cobblestone path just below the surface of a pool or river of limpid, clear, running water. Although the body of water through which I was walking was in a sort of circular grove, I could see other mountains through the trees. I knew that my view of the world around me and beneath my feet was completely unobstructed and transparent. Then I felt, at my left hand and at my back, a powerfully strong, loving presence, both embodied and not embodied. Solid, but not corporeal; perceived, but not visible. I knew deeply that in this presence I could see my situation with crystal clarity and I also knew that I would be accompanied and supported in my next steps. I felt, in a way I have never felt before, that the “Thou” of “Thou art with me” was with me.
I awoke with joy, confident in the awareness that it was/is time to move on and that I need not fear being alone.
In attempting to define and explain numinous dreams, Otto and Jung both wrote about an experience shaped by awe. They include fear, dread, and trembling as component features of Godly dreams or visitations. That has not been my experience. My personal encounters with the Holy have not involved a sense of danger or warning. The God of Love, the Love that is God has not terrified me. Far from it. The numinous dreams I remember have all had joy, peace, or liberation at their core. They have come at pivotal moments - or they have transformed ordinary moments into pivotal moments. In my small reservoir of numinous dreams, the nod from God has appeared as Mary, the mother of Jesus, Light, the presence of a departed Friend, and as the Thou of “Thou art with me.” How awesome is that!?
At first I started to write that there is nothing I can do to set the stage for a numinous encounter and now I think that isn’t quite right. While there isn’t an App for that, it isn’t an event to be scheduled on chronos time with a recipe book, there are, I think, three conditions that I can identify:
A receptive state (which for this ego-driven, hyper-rational, task-crazed person means an altered state of consciousness, like sleep or its extreme opposite-or even, I wonder- emerging from a pandemic-imposed hibernation).
Time for intentional prayer (each of these encounters has occurred when I have been devoting a good deal of dedicated time to prayer or meditation).
There has been a generative question at the heart of each of these dreams or encounters: How can I survive? How shall I live? What gives meaning to my life?
I find that when life gets in the way and throws hurdles in the way of actions inspired by these numinous dreams, I can approach those dreams as a touchstone to help me remember. Even if the memories are poor replicas of the real thing, I can attempt to capture a smidgeon of what they felt like in the moment. And I pray that the dreams that speak to me in sleep (or visions) will empower my days in ways that I can’t yet fully imagine. Here I am, Lord. What would you have me do with this encounter?
I will close by drawing a line from one Godly vision to attempting to live my faith. Last year in my Prayer and Creative Writing class, recalling the circumstances of my first numinous dream and how Mary had saved me then, and responding to the politics of late 2019/early 2020, I wrote this intercessory prayer to Mary, Mother of God:
That time when I was crawling on the floor to the bathroom, and that other time when my best beloved boy nearly flung himself headfirst from his crib into eternity. And that other time when I moved into a new house with 86 boxes marked Miscellaneous and a brand new baby and clogged ducts, which sounds like a plumbing problem, but which actually means my breasts weren’t up for their one job. I laugh now. I laughed then when I changed diapers, singing a Gospel verse, "I've got pee like a river." At night I held my best beloved son as the sky holds the crescent moon.
To come that close to death in childbirth, to pour myself, blood and breath, song and sobbing, into this child so that he may grow in wisdom as he grows in stature, even if - in this moment - even if it is him or me and he must come first.
Imagine all this, all this and even more, and my best beloved were ripped from my arms and locked in a cage.
Merciful Mother of God, be fierce in your solidarity with us, laughing and grieving parents,
In the name of all that is holy,
Here are some queries for our open worship time together: What numinous experiences do you recall? How has a Godly dream changed your life? How can our life and work together as people of faith be informed by “nods from God”?
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