Today’s Advent Reading:
USCCB — December 18th
Perhaps it is unsurprising that Augustine didn’t believe in ghosts. (That is, he didn’t believe in ghosts that appear in dreams; he passes no judgment on non-dream-dwelling ghosts.) According to Augustine, any ghost (or figure in dreams in general) that might appear to your sleeping mind is simply that: an appearance. Just as you might appear in a friend’s dream, or a friend in yours, so might a dead relative or a half-familiar figure pop into your sleepy head. There is nothing of that figure actually present in the dream, just a shadow of a person and an echo of his voice. Surely, the figures speak the truth every once in a while, but as Augustine points out, even something that looked like himself had given good pointers on Latin grammar in his friend’s dreams. But no matter how good the advice was, Augustine declares, the figure still wasn’t the real Augustine.
Far be it from me to second-guess a father of the Church, but I think Augustine is wrong. There is just too long of a tradition of biblical dreams for them all to be comprised of images. We have the dreams of Laban, Nebuchadnezzar, Jacob, the other Joseph, Abraham, and Abimelech, to name a few of a great many. Sure, one could say that Augustine is only talking about dreams in which human figures appear, but if he calls the validity of some dreams into question, doesn’t he call the validity of all dreams into question?
I’m not alone here. Augustine’s Carthaginian pal, Evodius, similarly wondered about what to make of dream visions, and he came down on the opposite side. Considering specifically Joseph’s dream in Matthew, in which “an angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream,” Evodius asks why dream figures can only be images. For Joseph’s dream, we know, was true in the sense that it communicated truth of the Incarnation, but are we forced to consider that it might be untrue in the sense that there was no angel? Does it not undermine truth to say that it comes from an image and not from an angel?
Surely, Joseph could have thought so. Indeed, if Joseph thought like Augustine, he could have woken from his revelatory dream and done nothing. But Joseph awoke from his dream, and “he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” Wasting little time wondering if what he had seen was an angel, a dead man, or an Augustine waiting to help him with his Cicero, he just got up and did what he knew to be God’s will.
I had a teacher in high school who used to say it was incumbent on each Christian to “make the will of the Lord happen.” But frequently, I wonder what the will of the Lord even is. Again, I’m not alone here: I believe indecision is in some way a hallmark of the modern American college experience. What does God want me to study? What does God want me to do for a living? Where is God calling me to live? Who is God calling me to marry? Is God calling me to marry? How on earth will I know? Will it be a gut feeling? Will I feel it in my chest? Lord forbid, will it be revealed to me in a dream?
Joseph had no such period of questioning. He exercised no Augustinian caution. He just went forward and made the will of the Lord happen. Today and every day, I pray to God for the same faith.
Tess Fitzsimmons ’19 is a History & Literature and Religion joint concentrator in Lowell House.