We are told that the most commonly experienced emotion in our dreams is anxiety. Indeed, many of us have had a kind of recurring dream that is all about anxiety. Mine has come in different forms over the years, and it’s been some time since I’ve had it, but I know its outline well enough. I am horribly late for something. I’ll never be able to make it on time. I am unprepared. I have the wrong clothes on, or no clothes at all. And I am late, late, late. There is never an outcome to this dream; the moment of embarrassment or failure never arrives, is never lived out to its potential. But that, of course, is not the point. The point of the dream is about the anxiety, the fear, the possibility of failure, embarrassment, exclusion.
I could dream another version of this dream. There is a high and long wall that seems to enclose someplace I want or need or yearn to be. And I am walking or jogging alongside the wall, looking for a way in. The wall seems to stretch out for miles as I traverse its length. When it finally makes a turn at a harsh right angle, as I turn the corner, I see that it continues to stretch out ahead of me, with no opening in sight, as far as I can see. There are places where the wall is low enough that I can see over it. Maybe there are chinks in it that I can peer through. Or maybe there are trees outside the wall that I can climb that let me look over it, to see the pleasant land the wall encloses, the happiness on the other side. But the trees allow me only to see inside – the branches do not reach over the wall and allow me access. I can run beside the wall for miles with my hand grazing its rough surface as I go: searching, feeling, hoping to find a door, a gate, a passageway; to discover the way in.
I do not even know why exactly I desire so much to be on the other side of the wall. Except that as I look around me, I see there is very little here on this side of the wall. It is a barren and dry land. Only a few small trees and a distant horizon that looks unappealing, and not very much in between. And so it is my recurring dream to find a way through this wall: to locate a gateway, a door, a passage inside.
But in my anxious dreams I am never delivered to any outcome. I never find either doorway or gate. I never find a way over the wall and into the land it encloses. And there is no chance of tunneling in. So I am doomed in these dreams to grope along the wall, searching, feeling, hoping.
Anxiety fills our dreams.
Into my dream there walks in the barrenness of the landscape outside the wall, a shepherd, who strangely has with him no sheep. It is as though he is looking only for me. It is not clear to me how I know he is a shepherd, since he has with him no sheep, but I know. Maybe he carries a staff, maybe he looks familiar to me. This is what he says to me: “Child, why are you groping along that wall? Why are you panting in exhaustion and frustration? What are you looking for?”
“Sir, I am looking for the way in to what lies on the other side of this wall. Do you know the way through?”
The shepherd smiles, and says, “Follow me.”
This is no end to my dream, no outcome. I am still on the other side of the wall, still searching. But he is, after all, a shepherd, and I am in the wilderness. It seems to me that I am not unwise to follow a shepherd in the wilderness of my dreams.
There follows a long journey alongside the wall. Cool breezes seem to waft over from time to time, while the sun just gets warmer and warmer on our side of the wall. Music I hear carried on the breeze, and the aroma of something sweet baking in an oven that does not burn too hot.
For extended periods the shepherd says nothing. He never runs his hand along the surface of the wall, as I so often do. He doesn’t reach out to the wall with his staff and scrape it, as I would if I had a staff to carry. Sometimes he tells me stories, as if he wishes to alleviate my anxiety. Sometimes that is the point of the story (“consider the lilies of the field”). Sometimes he speaks to me in the poetry of the David, singing to ancient chants that have been long forgotten. Sometimes he says the 23rd Psalm, and I can say it with him from memory. Sometimes he seems to be telling me about what lies on the other side of the wall, in parables about weddings, and mustard seeds, and lost coins. But in my dreams these visions are too swift and disjointed to put together a picture of what lies beyond the wall.
I have an anxious dream-within-my-dream that at times the shepherd has left me, and I am walking on my own. At these times I start to run alongside the wall until I am out of breath. I shout for him to wait for me, or to come to me, or in frustration I demand to know what happened to him. I look down to see if I have any clothes on; I am afraid that I am naked and stupidly stuck forever on this side of the wall.
But there is never an outcome to the dream-within-my-dream either. I am never abandoned completely, never left to rot naked beneath the sun outside the wall, never condemned to some fate worse than my searching, grasping, hoping. Always I find that the shepherd is there with me again, saying “Follow me,” just when I thought he had disappeared completely. And I do follow, because what else would I do? Something he has told me – I am not sure what – about what lies inside the wall makes me absolutely certain that I must find the way in.
I wonder why there must be this wall, why whatever blessings abound inside it must be protected, cordoned off, why it must be so hard to get in? What is it about me that makes me have to work so hard to find the way in? Haven’t others been given an easier time? Aren’t there better, faster routes to the cool breezes and the soft music and the hearth-baked sweets? And sometimes in my dream my anxiety drifts toward anger at what appears to be this extraordinary effort to keep me out.
From time to time the shepherd stops. He turns with his back to the wall and looks at me with an open face. He extends his arms as though inviting me to embrace him. He opens his mouth to speak, and as he does some thunderous noise inside my dream, like the sound of a jet flying low overhead drowns out the sound of his voice, and for some reason I cannot read his lips.
And I stand there stupidly, because I think it would be weird to embrace this man beside this wall. I cannot see why he wants me to do it. So I resist the strange invitation. I am happy enough to listen to his stories, and to mull over his parables, to let his poetry fill my head, but I am not going to wrap my arms around him in the wilderness. I have my limits.
In the middle of the day of my dreams, when the sun is hottest, I sometimes think I see a way in, a doorway opening and a shadowy figure beckoning me inside. But these are only mirages, like the pools of water that appear on hot asphalt. And when I investigate them, I find that they have taken me far from the shepherd’s side, and I have to run in the heat to catch up to him, because there is something convincing in his recurring call, “Follow me.” So I do.
Eventually in my dream I ask the shepherd about his sheep. It has dawned on me that they are on the other side of the wall, and that he is going to them. This is why he seems so trustworthy a guide. This is why he must know the way in. And when I turn my attention to him in this way, when I turn to listen to him, I find that all of a sudden this is a different dream – no longer a dream of anxiety. I find that my nervous pace has slowed, and there is no sound of an engine roaring in my dream, only the soft chirping of birds from the other side of the wall, and a faint music.
The shepherd has turned again with his back to the wall. His face is open, and his expression is what I can only describe as love, even though I did not know I knew what love looked like. His arms are open.
And I am tempted again to think this is weird. But I am overcome by the scent of the sweetbreads baking. And the music seems to be getting louder now. And the cool breeze seems to be enveloping us both, flapping his long loose robe in its path, like a drapery that is blowing beside an open window.
I am mystified by all this and I look to him for guidance, for hope, for relief, for reassurance. I am strangely un-anxious now, in this new dream. And I can see that he is about to speak, about to tell me something that I need to hear. And when he does, it is so simple, so easy, and I realize that he has been trying to say this to me all along. That every time he stopped and turned, it was to give me this simple message that I was not ready or willing or able to hear, even though it was the desire behind all my anxiety.
So I listen as he says it: “I am the gate,” he says.
And without thinking I run to embrace him. And as he welcomes me in his arms and envelopes me in the folds of his garments, I discover that I have entered into the sheepfold, I have passed through the gate and entered in, and I am among his sheep, on the other side of the wall where I know I have always longed to be, always believed I should be, in the cool breeze, and the swelling music, and the sweet-smelling good things.
And I realize that in my anxious dreams I could only see the wall, although the gate was there for me all the time. And there was never any effort at all to keep me out. There was only this long, patient beckoning to me to enter by the gate, if only I would turn, and love him.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
15 May 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia