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After I woke up, I saw that the dream was true
Today is the Solemnity of All Saints, and I'm looking forward to Mass, because the first reading for the feast is from the Book of Revelation. This is the passage (Rev 7:2-4, 9-14) where the 144,000 are sealed, and then: "After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation … robed in white, with palm branches in their hands."
Just about anything from Revelation is music to my ears … but I know I'm in the minority here. Most people -- at least the ones I know -- don't seem to like it very much. Maybe it's the beast. Maybe they balk at the literal way some Christians interpret the tribulations. Do I read the book that way? Do I expect a huge beast with 10 horns to come and ravage one third of the land?
I prefer the way of the early church fathers, who read scripture in both the "literal" and the "spiritual" sense. There were further subdivisions within this broad "spiritual" category; different people gave the senses different names and belonged to different schools -- but they all agreed that interpretation of scripture went beyond fact and letter and history. So St. Augustine, a great allegory-maker, could write that the "eye of the needle" in Matthew 19 is the anguish we feel in suffering. St. John Cassian could say that, in the "tropological sense," the city of Jerusalem is the human soul.
In Beginning to Read the Fathers (Paulist Press, 1985), Fr. Boniface Ramsey says that "ancient peoples, as well as the church, believed that the world in which they lived was composed of two levels, that of the seen and that of the unseen." These authors agreed that the literal meaning was a necessary jumping-off point, but the spiritual sense was where the real meaning of scripture lay, in the mysteries and symbols that at first seemed hidden from us.
A few months ago I watched a PBS documentary about a geneticist who was trying to track how human beings had spread across the earth. He found a person in an isolated tribe in Africa who had a particular gene, and from there found people in Australia, Mongolia, Siberia and the American Southwest who shared a genetic makeup. The scientist came to the Navajo people with photos of their relatives from around the world, excited to tell them "where they came from."
The people said they respected his research. But first they wanted him to know that they already had a story about where they came from. The scientist was calling it a creation "myth," but the people said that their story, while not based on empirical evidence, was just as real and true as his account of genetics and biology.
I agree with those Navajo people: There's more than one way a thing can be true. I've always collected myths and dreams, because they tell me about the unseen level of my world.
In one dream I had last year, someone handed me a tiny elephant. They also gave me pages of instructions on how to care for it. The elephant looked like a toy; it was about the size of a peach pit and it felt like a wooden carving.
Then the little elephant blinked. Suddenly I realized that it was alive: What I held in my hand was a seed of a living creature. It was dormant, waiting for me to begin feeding it. I thought of all the instructions on how to care for the elephant and knew that if I started to nourish it, it would grow out of my control and take enormous energy for me to keep up. I thought: It would be easier just to let it stay dormant. But I realized that I had to give this living creature a chance to become what it should be.
After I woke up, I saw that the dream was true.
Did I have a little elephant on my pillow? No. But I did have a snapshot of my soul in those few images. I had long been turning over the germ of an idea, knowing that if I began to write and talk about it, I would have to work hard to shepherd it into being. I had been thinking of dropping the idea altogether because I didn't want to put forth the effort.
Dreams, myths and images tell me more than any historical-critical method ever will. Which brings me back to the Book of Revelation. I know John wrote it for his persecuted first-century Christian community. But its symbols (as with any biblical book) point to a truth beyond history or analysis. Revelation's powerful beast tells me that there is evil in the world. Today's reading tells me that there is a heaven, and that the saints are in it, and that God is in it and is more powerful than any evil.
I know there is such a place of glory. No one has to prove it to me. I've been there in my dreams.
Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
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