It must have been sometime in the early 1980s. I was either still working on my Master’s or had just recently graduated, and my spiritual life was nurtured mostly by reading books by the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill and the Christian Jungian Morton Kelsey.
And then one night, I had a dream.
In it I was climbing up a hill near the Ballston Metro station in Arlington, Virginia. The hill was lush, covered with trees and vegetation that provided comforting shade in the midst of the bright noonday sun. It wasn’t a steep hill, I reached the top without unduly exerting myself (or course, I was a young thing in my 20s at the time). Coming to the crest of the hill, I saw a long, white building across the street. It was a hotel: the “Hilton.”
The front of the building sported a long row of clear glass doors. I walked up to one, and entered; inside I found a vestibule as long as the building itself, with another row of glass doors directly in front of me, leading into the lobby proper. I walked confidently into the building. Once inside, I found a space that was tastefully and beautifully decorated, but not at all ostentatious or even particularly luxurious.
Ahead of me and to my right was the lounge area, while to the left was a store. I walked into the store; it was divided into two departments. No walls separated the store from the lounge, or the departments within the store; the entire space felt open, airy, unenclosed.
The first department was a toy store, filled with old-style wooden toys that seemed to hearken back to a folksier time, before electronic gadgets and pop-culture tie-ins came to dominate the world of children’s playthings. The toys were simple, brightly colored, and all seemed inviting and fun.
Beyond that was a little nursery, filled with houseplants: peperomias and African violets and other such indoor varieties. All were luscious, verdant, healthy; none were priced although small tags identified the species of each plant on display.
I’m not sure if it was while I was browsing the toy store or once I had wandered over into the nursery, but at some point I came to realize that I felt utterly, totally, and incontestably safe. Not just in an “I’m relaxed” sort of way, but in an “I’m immersed in the loving presence of God” sort of way. I did not have to question anything, or achieve anything, or make anything happen. It was probably the second most beautiful emotional tone I’ve ever experienced, the loveliest being the sense of Divine Presence that I encountered in 1977 at the Lutheran youth retreat.
Then I woke up.
It’s fun to look at this dream now, almost a quarter century later. I think it’s the loveliest dream I’ve ever had. How is it that a dream filled with such mundane imagery be given that distinction? Hey, I’ve had some splendid dreams, filled with majestic waterfalls, lush English and Irish countrysides, gorgeous women (!), and, of course, flying (both in human form and as a bird). Yet this unremarkable sequence of climbing a hill, strolling into a hotel, and browsing a store wins the prize. As I dreamt this dream, the fullness of heaven infused my consciousness. And that what’s makes this the loveliest of dreams.
Reflecting on the dream, I’m struck by how utterly alone I was: I don’t believe another human being was present in the dream at all. Maybe there was somebody with me at the bottom of the hill, but if so, that person was inconsequential and did not walk with me to the top of the hill or accompany me into the hotel. I’ve always been a loner, and in recent times that has bothered me somewhat: I wonder if I have burned too many bridges, allowed too many friendships to lapse, and held myself back both professionally and spiritually by my social anxiety and tendency to refrain from connecting with others.
That the hotel was the “Hilton” I’ve long taken to be a pun on Walter Hilton, the fourteenth century English mystic who has suffered the same fate as George Harrison (just as Harrison was an accomplished musician and songwriter who had the misfortune of being in the same band as two genuises — Lennon and McCartney — so was Hilton a fine mystic who unfortunately lived in the same country and at the same time as, and thus will always be grouped with and compared to, Julian of Norwich and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing). In many ways, I rather think I’m more of a “Walter Hilton” than a “Julian of Norwich,” — it seems that whatever I do in my life, I’m more of a Salieri than a Mozart, I can achieve competence but greatness always seems to elude me. Perhaps for many of my readers this may seem an obvious and normal dimension of experience, but I have the curse of the writer’s ego, which means that I am haunted by the desire to be great. Maybe finding existential safety in a hotel punderfully named after a lesser mystic can help me to find peace in my ever-present humility rather than in a chimerical grandeur.
Speaking of that which is unreal, I should also note that the hill, and the Hilton atop it, are not to be found anywhere near the Ballston Metro station in the “real” (i.e. gross physical) world. They exist only within my dreamspace. Isn’t that the way with dreams? My Hilton dream may be my loveliest dream, but it’s not my only truly memorable (or deeply emotionally satisfying) dream — and it seems that all my most wonderful dreams without exception ushered me into places that are “real” only within the dreamscapes themselves (the realm that Ken Wilber, following the metaphysics of the east, labels the “subtle”).
I don’t begrudge that my subtle paradise has no direct correlation in the gross world. Finding a glimpse of heaven on the subtle plane is good enough for me — it gives me two hopes: first, that I can somehow be a portal through which the experiential loveliness of heaven might find a beachhead here in the physical realm, and second, that no matter how icky things get here “in the flesh,” I can always trust in the veracity of a heavenly refuge that exists in reality on another plane, a refuge to which I will someday return — not only when I die, but perhaps as soon as my very next dream.
Note: In February 2019 I wrote a blog post about finding God in dreams. Having forgotten that I had written this post nearly 12 years earlier, I told the story of the same dream. You can read that post by clicking here.