One night in a dream I found myself near the Ballston Metro station in Arlington, Virginia (I lived close by there at the time). But as is so often in dreamscapes, the neighborhood in my dreams was radically different than in real life. For one thing, there was a large hill, covered with lush vegetation — almost like a rain forest. I decided to climb up the hill, and made my way through the vines and trees to the crest of the hill.
There, another surprise awaited me — a gleaming white building, fronted by a long row of shining glass doors. It was a hotel — the Hilton. I walked up to the doors, and was surprised to notice that, despite this being such a huge, urban hotel, there was no one else outside and maybe only a few folks inside. The entire place felt serene and peaceful. I entered through the glass doors into a vestibule that ran the entire length of the front of the building, with another row of glass doors leading into the lobby. I passed through those doors and into the spacious, carpeted lobby. The lighting in the room was mellow, not dim but definitely not bright. It was quiet — although a few people were milling about, no one was making much noise. The check-in counter stretched along the wall to my right, but what actually caught my eye was a couple of retail spaces, ahead and just to my left.
They were open spaces — no walls, just a few counters and tables in the middle with the merchandise artfully displayed. Closest to me was a toy shop — but not filled with plastic action figures or electronic gadgets. Rather, these toys were old-fashioned playthings, made of wood and brightly colored.
Beyond the toy store was another shop filled with house plants. Almost buzzing with vibrancy and life, all the plants were beautiful, verdant, appealing. A lovely peperomia particularly caught my eye.
It was at that point that I had the most profound emotional reaction. I realized that I felt entirely safe. As a fairly strong introvert who has struggled with a measure of anxiety my entire life, this seemed truly significant. Normally in a new setting like this, I just naturally am “on guard.” It’s not debilitating — it’s just how I make my way through life. But here, surrounded by these beautiful plants and colorful toys in a silent, peaceful hotel lobby (of all places), I felt utterly, completely, in-my-bones safe. It was just about the best possible feeling I could ever imagine having.
I realized I felt so safe because I was totally immersed in the presence of God. “In him we live and move and have our being.”
And then I woke up.
Where Do Our Dreams Come From?
I had the Hilton dream in the 1980s, when I lived and worked in Northern Virginia. The Ballston neighborhood at that time was rather run-down, but there was an old Catholic bookshop that I used to frequent, because they had inexpensive paperback editions of writings of the mystics — the Image Books editions of classics like The Cloud of Unknowing and The Dark Night of the Soul. Trust me: there is no hill in the Ballston area, no jungle-like vegetation, and certainly no gleaming white Hilton Hotel with a toy and houseplant shop in its lobby.
What is a dream? Walt Disney’s Cinderella sang that “a dream is a wish that your heart makes” and perhaps that’s not too far from the truth. But not all dreams are wishes. As a child, I had a recurring nightmare of a terrifying monster made of iron with spikes on his head and gleaming red eyes who chased after me — I still get a chill when I think of it. Perhaps a better way to describe a dream is simply a story our subconscious mind tells us.
The subconscious is truly an artist, and the stories it tells are profoundly immersive. Just the night before last I had a dream about visiting the apartment of a recently deceased or disappeared friend (in the dream I wasn’t sure) who left behind a magical but slightly unsettling living space filled with flickering candles — almost like an old Catholic church — but these candles came in all shapes, sizes and colors, and mounds of old candle wax covered the floor. In the dream I could feel the warmth of the candles, the pressure of the piles of wax beneath my feet, and marveled at the colors and flickering light in each of the apartment’s rooms.
Why do we dream? Psychologists theorize that our subconscious mind might just be letting off a bit of steam, or working through conflicts, or even — following Cinderella — engaging in a little bit of vicarious wish fulfillment, from sex to flying. Meanwhile, beginning with the Bible, we have a long tradition in the west of seeing dreams as the couriers of spiritual messages, whether prophetic (as in the Pharoah’s dreams of the coming famine) or simply instructive (as in the warning to Joseph and Mary to take baby Jesus to Egypt).
Is it far-fetched to assume that God can speak to us in our dreams? I don’t think so. After all, if the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5), why wouldn’t God use the stories of our subconscious mind to communicate with us? Of course, here as in all areas of spiritual practice, discernment is essential. I don’t think God was trying to tell me anything special when the iron monster was pursuing me (except maybe to be careful when talking to strangers). But perhaps my Hilton dream did, in fact, include a message from God: You are safe. You are loved. You can find places of peace and refuge — even within your own heart.
By the way, did you notice how my dream featured a delicious three-way pun? The hotel was called the Hilton, just like the famous hotel chain in real life. Perhaps this “Hilton” hotel got its name from being at the top of a hill (duh!) — but even more subtly, perhaps its name came from one of the great English mystics, Walter Hilton, author of The Scale of Perfection. After all, I had to “scale” the hill to reach the summit where the Hilton stood — and where I found this deep sense of peace and safety.
Since a dream is a story our subconscious mind tells us, it only stands to reason that puns and plays on words (or plays on images, or significant songs) all get thrown into the mix.
How to Find God in Our Dreams
Jesuit spirituality invites us to “find God in all things.” It only stands to reason, therefore, that our dreams might be one place where we can find God — whether or not God is actually trying to speak to us through any one particular dream.
I could find God in the iron monster nightmare by focusing on the lesson it contained (be careful around strangers) or how it showcased my own instinct for preservation — I knew enough to run for my life. More happily and more directly, I could find God in the Hilton dream in all sorts of ways: in the brilliant sunlight and the beautiful jungle on the hill, in the sense of safety and adventure I felt as the dream progressed, and most especially in the palpable sense of Divine presence within the lobby.
Was that truly a message from God, or just a reassuring note from my subconscious? Who can say — and does it really matter, anyway?
I think the way we find God in our dreams is simple: like any other aspect of life, we find God by seeking God. We look for evidence of God’s fingerprints. Evidence of love. Evidence of mercy. Evidence of promise and possibility. Evidence of hope. We listen for the rumors of angels, for the whispered stories that salvation is coming or indeed is already here. And then we look for ways that we can give all this God-goodness away. For I think it’s when we share it with others that God’s presence most fully reveals itself. Even in our dreams.
N.B. At the time I wrote this blog post, it had slipped my mind that, almost 12 years to the date earlier, I had written another blog post in which I told the story of my “Hilton Dream.” Read that earlier post by clicking here: My Loveliest Dream.