Prayer is the bridge between our conscious and unconscious lives. Often there is a large abyss between our thoughts, words, and actions, and the many images that emerge in our daydreams and night dreams. To pray is to connect these two sides of our lives by going to the place where God dwells. Prayer is “soul work” because our souls are those sacred centres where all is one and where God is with us in the most intimate way.
Thus, we must pray without ceasing so that we can become truly whole and holy.
Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
The longer I go on in this life that is about prayer, the less I realise I know about it. As Rohr [says], prayer happens. Sometimes, I’m not even sure I am there. Prayer is all wrapped up in dreams, these days, too. Some nights are so filled with dreaming that is prayer, or prayer that is dreaming, that I’m not always sure what is sleep and what is not. But these are not dreams of the prophetic, “God gave me a dream – better sit up and write it down!” variety. They rise out of sleep like the wrecks of crippled warships rising out of sand and silt, full of pain and the memory of pain, and sink again in the half-waking susurration of the Jesus Prayer. They are nothing I do; their content has generally nothing to do with my life or even my experience.
Our dreams are rooted deep in a life we see little of in our waking hours; our prayer, I increasingly feel, is rooted there too. Certainly contemplative prayer draws on the sap that root lifts up from the dark soil of our human, and beyond human, connectedness. Each of us is the end-point of countless generations; still more, each of us is God-made, Spirit-breathed. The imprint of our making is on us, whether we will recognise it or not, and so is the imprint of our redemption: we are marked with the Cross. If this is what we are, how can we not be a part of each other, of all, ultimately, that is made, for “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1.3 NIV)?
In each of us the memory of our heart’s path is traced, often quite unconsciously. Everything that has moved us, grieved us, concerned us is there, waiting to be touched, woken. Associations will often do it, as Marcel Proust found when he tasted the madeleine he had dipped in his tea, but they produce a frail, surface recollection, quite unlike the deep and resonant representations of dreams.
Deepest of all, perhaps, is prayer. In prayer God is reaching out to us, far more than we are reaching for him, and he knows all; for in Christ all things hold together (Colossians 1.17). Paul also reminds us (Romans 8.27) that “God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
What is happening here? I think that God is reaching down to these hidden, seemingly forgotten connections with the needs and pains and brokenness of others, and is retrieving our unspoken prayers in the silence of contemplation, or of sleep. This is an extraordinary, profound thing, and I think it is here that the distinction between dream and prayer becomes blurred. To be honest, there is much I simply don’t know about these shadowed paths of prayer, but I think that possibly, if we (as is often attested to in the Orthodox tradition) find ourselves praying the Prayer as we go to sleep, it will run quietly on in some part of our mind even in the deepest sleep, and our hearts, remaining attuned to God in Christ Jesus, will be open to that gentle touch that lifts our memories to prayer. And who is to say that our dreams may not echo that divine lifting, that holy, unthought-of participation in the work of redemption that goes on, even as the Cross goes on, in every generation till our Lord’s return.