Question Time wit Fr John Flader
Question: Is a person guilty of sin who has unchaste nightmares or dreams and wakes up realising what just went through their mind in a dream?
Answer: This is a frequently asked question and it is good to address it in this column.
The first thing to say about dreams is that they are something that happens to us when we are asleep and we have no control over them.
We do not choose what we are going to dream or what we are going to do in a dream.
Often dreams make no sense when we think back over them since they involve a series of totally unconnected events and places.
They sometimes involve real people, places and events in our lives but usually what happens in the dream has little relationship with reality.
Dreams are simply a natural phenomenon, part of our psychological makeup.
On the other hand they do have something to do with our real person, especially when they involve people or places we have known.
Thus a football player is likely to dream from time to time about football and a singer about singing, a truck driver about driving and a mother about raising children.
In this way dreams are in some way a reflection of our real life, especially of our subconscious.
In view of this, what can we say about the moral significance of what we do in dreams?
For any act to have moral significance, whether sinful or meritorious, we must be aware of what we are doing and we must freely choose to do it.
This is the case with most of our actions. There are some actions, however, even while we are awake that lack this moral significance.
For example, we may sneeze in Mass or we may become distracted in prayer through no fault of our own. Similarly, while asleep we may snore or talk or even walk. In all these cases there is no moral fault because we are not in control of what we are doing.
Passing to dreams, it is clear that while asleep we cannot be consciously aware of what we are doing nor can we freely choose to do or not do something.
Even though the dream may seem real at the time, and we may seem to be in control and to be acting knowingly and willingly, when we wake up we realise that we were not acting at all.
It was only a dream.
In view of this, it is clear that there can be no guilt or merit for what we did or did not do in a dream.
If in the dream we did something that in a waking state would have been a sin, we are not guilty of a sin, even though we may have a certain sense of shame or remorse for even having dreamed it.
And if in the dream we did something meritorious, there is no merit.
Nonetheless, dreams do reveal to some extent where our heart is in real life.
Thus if we find ourselves frequently dreaming of committing certain sins, it is likely that we have been thinking consciously of those sins or even desiring to commit them when we were awake.
Alternatively, if in our dreams we were tempted to commit a sin and we did not commit it, that may be a sign that in real life we would not have committed it either.
Or if we often dream of working hard to spread the Gospel in some other country or of dedicating ourselves to feed the poor, our heart is probably in those activities.
Thus the subject matter of our dreams can show us at least the tendencies of our heart.
A virtuous person will tend to be virtuous in dreams and a sinful person sinful.
While we are not responsible for what we do in dreams, we are responsible for what we think about and desire when we are awake.
It was probably the connection between dreams and desires that moved the Roman emperor Dionysius to have his subject Marsyas decapitated because Marsyas had dreamed of cutting the emperor’s throat.
Foolish though it was, Dionysius undoubtedly thought that if Marsyas considered killing him in his dreams, he would have carried it out in real life.
The popular saying “I wouldn’t even dream of doing such a thing” reflects the notion that our dreams do reveal something of our character and that, even though we might consider doing certain things which are wrong, there are others that are so abhorrent that we wouldn’t even dream of doing them.
In short, what we do in dreams has no moral guilt or merit it itself, but it may reveal something of our character.