How Dreams Are Helpful To Me as a Priest, Pastoral Counselor and Spiritual Director

Bob preaching at St. Francis chapel, Kanuga


One of the things that hooked me in the beginning of this dream path was Carl Jung saying he had a deep and abiding fear that the church was losing the experience of the Divine. If the church loses the experience of the Divine, the church will go down the drain. If the church goes down the drain, western civilization would go down the drain as well. When I read that, I knew I had a purpose and a partner on the journey.

Karen Armstrong, author of Battle for God, says that religion from the beginning was composed of both logos (reason) and mythos (mystery). Then, during the scientific era and the Enlightenment, we dropped mythos. We are all trying to recover mythos. The discovery of silence, meditation, dreams, and Jung has re-awakened mythos and the experience of the Divine for me. God does come to me in silence, and dreams truly are "God's forgotten language". I would like to share some of that journey with you, as it intersects with spiritual experience.

My first remembered dream

I only remember one dream before I was 40. Since then, I have remembered and journaled well over a thousand dreams. What made the difference? The difference was that, at age 40, I began to take dreams seriously and therefore, they took me seriously.

The first dream took place after my first vestry meeting as a new "wet-behind-the-ears" 26-year-old priest in charge of an Episcopal Mission in The Diocese of Western North Carolina.

Drowning in a Cave Dream

The dream takes place in a cave where, all of a sudden, I realize that a close friend is in some deep water in the cave and is drowning. I dive in to rescue him, going down, down, down. Then I realize I am down so far I might not be able to get back up. I am drowning and struggling to get back up top.

I did not know what to do with this dream until 14 years later. One layer of the dream was the revelation that I was, unknowingly, repressing all kinds of feelings at my first vestry meeting. There were things I wanted to say and things I wanted to respond to rather strongly but I kept my mouth shut. The dream was drawing a picture of something of which I was completely unaware: my shadow-self (the close friend in this dream) was drowning. My ego (my conscious self, all that I think of when I say "I") went to help but then I (my dream ego) began to drown also. I was struggling for air; I could not breathe. I was learning that when I try to help by repressing, I begin to drown also. At age 26 , I just felt the feeling. At age 40, I felt the feeling and became conscious of what was happening.

Another layer of the dream came when I learned later that the actual "close friend" who appeared in the dream was in deep psychological trouble. He was a missionary in Africa and was about to go under, psychologically drowning. Luckily, he got the help he needed and is now fine.

This dream illustrates two levels of a dream: one about me personally, and another about things happening half way around the world. I was learning that dreams are a whole 'other' world.

Vestry Dreams

You Are Stepping On My Toes

A vestry-woman comes up to me at church and says, "I dreamt last night that you and I are dancing and you are stepping on my toes".

That certainly gave me a clue and caused me to be alert as to how I was "stepping on her toes" in vestry meetings. I was stepping on her "standpoint," because legs, feet and toes are what we stand on, our standpoint in life. I began to ponder that and-because of the dream-she was able to tell me a critical thing which I needed to hear to facilitate our communication, friendship and working together.

Snake in a Cave

I never would have realized that the "snake in a circle in a cave" dream was also about the vestry. When I took this dream to my analyst, she immediately said, "Is there a snake on your vestry?" Being naïve at the time, I said, "No, there's no snake on my vestry". I learned two weeks later there very definitely was a 'snake'. I asked my analyst why she asked that question and she said, "In ancient times, the council of the tribe met in a circle in a cave... and your council is the vestry".

Now the snake on the vestry became very apparent. He was a big manipulator and did all kinds of sneaky things behind the scenes. I got so angry with him! In fact, I became overly mad. Luckily, I had learned that if I get that angry with someone, there is something of the same thing going on in me. So I asked myself, "How do I manipulate?" I responded, "I would never manipulate. It is a high quality with me". Finally, after asking myself five times, I said, "Oh, I am very sophisticated in the way I manipulate". As Jesus says, "First take the log out of your own eye and then you will see clearly how to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye". The snake of a vestry person was also my shadow. Robert Johnson says one of the highest moral acts we can undertake is to make friends with our own shadow. The reason I did not recognize the vestry person's shadow was that I was not acquainted with my own shadow.

Two Alligators

Another vestry dream from the archetypal level:

Two alligators come around either side of a pond to get me and there is no escape.

Alligators don't eat you up right away. First, they take you down and drown you. At the time, the vestry and I were at odds and I was slowly drowning.

I Ching

This was the one time that I threw the I Ching (a Chinese book of wisdom), seeking Divine wisdom and guidance. The reading that came up was "Stalemate". It talked about the goodness of stalemate. I realized that both the vestry and I had the goods to destroy each other but in the process, the parish would be destroyed. I swallowed my pride and remained in the goodness of stalemate. So many of the vestry dreams were simple and straight forward, giving me clues for everyday responses, while others were deep and life-changing. Some were from the Personal Unconscious, while others were from the Collective Unconscious. All of them, in my understanding, were from God through the unconscious to me.

Spiritual Dreams

God in a Box Dream

God comes to us directly and indirectly in dreams. God came to me directly as I was sleeping in the rectory of St. John's Church, Charlotte, NC.

In the dream:

I know God is in my bedroom, I can feel God's presence. I notice that the bathroom door is closed but the hall door is open. I do not want God to escape so, on tip-toe, I close the hall door to keep God in the bedroom. When I do, the bathroom door opens, then when I close the bathroom door, the hall door opens. After this happens several times, God goes into the closet. I said, "Now I've got Him!" (God was "Him" in those days). As soon as I shut the closet door, this glowing psychedelic light became bigger and bigger... and even bigger, until it finally went puff! and these words form: "You are not going to put me in a box."

I was in the era of my ministry where I felt I had to have all the answers, especially all the answers about God. This dream had a dual effect on me. I really felt God's presence and I also realized, again, that I will never know God completely. Certainly, I can never put God in a box. I can relax. I don't have to know it all.

Two Monks Just Looking at Each Other

One night I had a simple dream:

Two monks sit at a table, just looking at one another.

There was nothing going on. A few hours after I woke up from that dream, it suddenly hit me! There was "nothing going on" in my spiritual life. If the Bishop had said that to me, I would have become defensive. The thing I love about dreams is that you can hear a stark truth in a way that allows you to accept and do something about it. If you don't, the dreammaker will paint another picture in a future dream. Dreams will also tell us when we are on and off of our path of Individuation.

When I first discovered the reality of the dream world, I was so excited I was telling everybody my personal dreams. When I went to see my analyst she said, "Dreams are like your private prayers; you are sharing them too much too soon with too many". The dream I shared with her that session gave her the information to confirm that this was, in fact, what was going on. This was a big dream for me.

Maltese Cross

I see the front page of a church paper where I am on the staff. $A$ priest friend is in a picture on the front page, kneeling down saying his prayers and holding a Maltese cross. My immediate response is to cringe and say, "He shouldn't be doing that in front of everybody".

My analyst pointed out that was exactly what I was doing with my dreams. The other clergyman in the dream was, again in Jungian terms, my shadow.

There was also a much deeper level to this dream, which my analyst sparked by asking, "What is the Maltese Cross to you?" I said, "I don't have any association, but I have been attracted to it all my life". She replied, "Well, if it were me, I would want to find out what is the Maltese Cross". The next morning I woke up at 4 AM and looked up Maltese Cross in my encyclopedia.

The Maltese Cross took me to the Hospitalers in Jerusalem during the crusades, whose patron saint was John; that took me to John of God who was Teresa of Avila's spiritual director. Teresa of Avila mentored John of the Cross. I never would have gotten to John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul or Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle without this dream leading me there. I knew nothing of the medieval saints and now I run a school for spiritual direction in the U.S. and Canada at a Carmelite Spiritual Centre; when I had this dream, I was

Rector of St. John's Church on Carmel Road. The encyclopedia said that Teresa was mystical, but also a realist and very active. That's what I wanted! I also read that John of the Cross' spiritual director said to him at the age of 40 , "You are sharing too much of your private prayer life".

How old was I? 40.

Three Snakes on a Paten

This next-dream comes from the deep Collective Unconscious. I told my analyst, "There's not much to this dream. It is short and simple".

On the front lawn of the church there are three non-poisonous snakes crawling over a paten, i.e., a bread plate in communion.

She asked "Are there three snakes in the grass at your church?" I said, "Yes. I made a controversial statement the other day and three parishioners have been snapping at me, but it doesn't hurt like it used to". The snakes were non-poisonous. This question evoked the Personal Unconscious. Then she took me to the Collective Unconscious when she said, "I am going to take you to a deeper level of the dream. The Gnostics, an early Christian sect, purposely had non-poisonous snakes crawl over the consecrated bread in communion. The snakes represented Divine Wisdom. If you, as a priest, will allow yourself, you can be conscious of the Divine Wisdom passing through you as you offer the bread at the communion rail".

Pastoral Care: Healing and Death Dreams

The Black Wisdom Woman

I have found dreams a very helpful guide in church pastoral situations. One day I got word that a 19-year-old girl in our parish had died of cancer. I went immediately to see the family. That night I had a dream:

A black woman stands behind me as I sit at the desk in my office. It takes awhile, but all of a sudden it hits me: the black woman represents soul to me.

I had not had soul time with that family. So, I went back out to the house and sat on the floor in the girl's room and cried with her mother.

High School Girl

My Youth Minister walked into the office one day and described a frightening experience during the youth beach trip. "One of our senior girls was in the corner of the dormitory room in a fetal position screaming. She'd been having nightmares". I said to bring her in so we could talk about it. I asked the girl to share her nightmare.

I am holding a big boulder. There is someone on the ground below me. I can't hold it any longer and I am afraid the boulder will crush her.

After empathizing that this was a scary nightmare, I asked her who was on the ground. "It looks a little bit like my sister and a little bit like me". "Tell me about your sister". "My sister has been retarded since birth. I have been her primary care taker. My mom and dad don't care for her the way I do and now I am going off to college". I became very directive and said, "Tell your parents they have to become the primary caretakers now. The dream is telling us that if you don't do this, the boulder will not only fall on your sister, but also on you".

Dream Before and After My Dad's Death

Two weeks before my dad's death I dreamt:

The whole family is in a car headed for the airport. We drive under the airport and go on down the road. I nonchalantly notice that everyone is still in the car, except for my father.

I felt this dream was preparing me for his impending death.

Two months after I had this dream, Dad died.

Crucifixion Dream

Some dreams seem sexual when they are not about sex at all. I hesitate to share the following dream but it is a sacred dream to me. At a time when I felt like I was being crucified in the parish, I dreamt:

I hang on the crucifix while two nuns caress my genitals.

The dream was deeply healing. My masculine principle had been hurt. The feminine Divine was the route for healing this hurt.

Guidance Dreams

I had two dreams telling me that three particular calls were not for me. One was a call to a large parish: A friend, who became Rector of that church, appears in my dream inside the fence of that church. The other two dreams took place while I was in the process of being elected a Bishop: I see a station wagon with four flat tires. There was something comforting about receiving this message from a dream. It had the essence of "This is not what you are meant to do. Your path is elsewhere".

Baby Crib for the Church

By having dreams which said, essentially, "No," I believed all the more the "Yes" dream when it came. I was in Washington D.C. for four days with a vocational consultant; he asked me to come in after the weekend with the plan for the rest of my life. (Sure!) I was quickly writing my plan on Sunday afternoon when I decided to go to Church. The Washington Cathedral was next door. When I entered the Cathedral, I realized that the Labyrinth from Grace Cathedral, San Francisco was having its first appearance at Washington Cathedral. I saw Lauren Artress, Seminary Professor at General Seminary, NY, Canon at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco and Founder of Veriditas, which is responsible for the amazing spread of the Labyrinth in the United States and Canada. She said: "We haven't seen each other for three years, but let's walk the labyrinth first before we visit". On that walk I had a conversion experience, inspiring me to start what is now the Haden Institute. In the center of the labyrinth I said, "Jesus, let's do it".

That night I dreamt:

A doctor and his wife give me $4,000 for a baby crib for the church. I say I can get a baby crib for less than $4,000.

Upon awaking, I had confidence that this would be a new birth for the church and that there was the proper container for this baby. This dream gave me the courage to take the risk and set the plan in motion that resulted in the The Haden Institute.

Mrs. Jung's House

I had a dream earlier that spoke about this calling in broader terms, revealing who I am. The dream took place in Mrs. Jung's house:

There are three rooms in the house. The first room is the cafeteria and is full of analysts. I want to sit down there, but there are no seats.

I pass through the middle room, which has only a few people in it, to the third room, which is half-full of theologians. I sit down and enjoy it for awhile, but then become bored. I return to the middle room where I feel very comfortable and at home.

I get my sustenance from psychology and I enjoy theology but my real place is as a broker between the two. One of the purposes of The Haden Institute is to integrate Jungian psychology and spirituality.

Five Camels

Another earlier dream spelled out yet another piece of finding my identity. It is my favorite dream. In the dream:

I am handed a machine gun and told this is just a dream, so I can shoot anyone in the parish I want to shoot. I shoot one lady in the mouth because she talks too much and another in the stomach because I cannot stomach her. A certain man is not even worth shooting.

So, I just write "SOB" in the sand with the machine gun. Then, I'm at a church service where I dance with a liturgical dancer. There is a choir of 40 male voices singing. My family joins me in the dance. We dance out the front door of the church, get on five camels and go up I-85 to Kanuga Conference Center.

Launching the Haden Institute was the next step after the time I was Program Director at Kanuga.

Alan Jones and the Pope-Mobile

I had a funny dream the night of my first event as the Haden Institute.

The Dean of Grace Cathedral is on a round roller skate in his liturgical cape skating down the street in front of the Cathedral. This is funny enough but the PopeMobile on his head is even funnier. In front of him is a rough and tough Spanish nun, also on a round roller skate. I find myself jumping on her back for the ride.

In my first outing at the Haden Institute I was trying to be too erudite. That is not me. I now travel more naturally on the common sense, down-to-earth feminine.

Two Airplanes and Six People

Guidance continues. One dream saved the Institute and me. If I had not listened to it, the Institute would not be and I would have had another wreck, ended up in the hospital, financially broke. I dream:

There are two small airplanes and six people. The idea in the dream is to go three-and-three. My oldest son, who is very intuitive and fun, is the pilot of one of the planes. All six of us decide to go with him. He decides to take off on the beach rather than the runway. A voice says, "Someone tried that yesterday and crashed".

When, upon awakening, I heard the word "crash," I knew I had better listen to this dream because it was a warning that I was about to 'crash'. Upon reflection, I realized that I was about to launch six new projects and if I did that, I would 'crash'. The dream gave the clue to divide the projects three and three. I put three projects on the back burner and the Institute began to sail.


There has been guidance all along the way but it was only after I took dreams seriously that they took me seriously and became a guide for me. Some dreams have healed my soul and some have given me some very practical advice. All of this wisdom is coming from an autonomous source that is beyond me, but speaks in me, to me. This Mystical Presence speaks in a metaphorical voice, the language of God, the language of dreams.