Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dream of the Two Columns

Saint Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA - symbol of Bosco's Prophecy.jpg

A carving on the exterior of Saint Mary Magdalen Church, in Saint Louis, Missouri.

It shows a sailing ship, with a cross on its mast, being tossed by the sea, approaching a tall tower surmounted with a flame. This likely illustrates the Dream of the Two Columns from 1862, by Saint John Bosco, who is better known as Don Bosco. The following is an extract from Memorie biografiche di San Giovanni Bosco, adapted from the website of the Salesians of Don Bosco:
A few nights ago I had a dream. True, dreams are nothing but dreams, but still I'll tell it to you for your spiritual benefit, just as I would tell you even my sins-only I'm afraid I'd send you scurrying away before the roof fell in. Try to picture yourselves with me on the seashore, or, better still, on an outlying cliff with no other land in sight. The vast expanse of water is covered with a formidable array of ships in battle formation, prows fitted with sharp, spearlike beaks capable of breaking through any defense. All are heavily armed with cannons, incendiary bombs, and firearms of all sorts-even books-and are heading toward one stately ship, mightier than them all. As they close in, they try to ram it, set it afire, and cripple it as much as possible.

This stately vessel is shielded by a flotilla escort. Winds and waves are with the enemy. In the midst of this endless sea, two solid columns, a short distance apart, soar high into the sky: one is surmounted by a statue of the Immaculate Virgin at whose feet a large inscription reads: Auxilium Christianorum [Help of Christians]; the other, far loftier and sturdier, supports a Host of proportionate size and bears beneath it the inscription Salus credentium [Salvation of believers].

The flagship commander-the Roman Pontiff-seeing the enemy's fury and his auxiliary ships' very grave predicament, summons his captains to a conference. However, as they discuss their strategy, a furious storm breaks out and they must return to their ships.

When the storm abates, the Pope again summons his captains as the flagship keeps on its course. But the storm rages again. Standing at the helm, the Pope strains every muscle to steer his ship between the two columns from whose summits hang many anchors and strong hooks linked to chains.

The entire enemy fleet closes in to intercept and sink the flagship at all costs. They bombard it with everything they have: books and pamphlets, incendiary bombs, firearms, cannons. The battle rages ever more furious. Beaked prows ram the flagship again and again, but to no avail, as, unscathed and undaunted, it keeps on its course. At times a formidable ram splinters a gaping hole into its hull, but, immediately, a breeze from the two columns instantly seals the gash.

Meanwhile, enemy cannons blow up, firearms and beaks fall to pieces, ships crack up and sink to the bottom. In blind fury the enemy takes to hand-to-hand combat, cursing and blaspheming. Suddenly the Pope falls, seriously wounded. He is instantly helped up but, struck down a second time, dies. A shout of victory rises from the enemy and wild rejoicing sweeps their ships. But no sooner is the Pope dead than another takes his place. The captains of the auxiliary ships elected him so quickly that the news of the Pope's death coincides with that of his successor's election. The enemy's self-assurance wanes.

Breaking through all resistance, the new Pope steers his ship safely between the two columns and moors it to the two columns; first, to the one surmounted by the Host, and then to the other, topped by the statue of the Virgin. At this point, something unexpected happens. The enemy ships panic and disperse, colliding with and scuttling each other.

Some auxiliary ships which had gallantly fought alongside their flagship are the first to tie up at the two columns. Many others, which had fearfully kept far away from the fight, stand still, cautiously waiting until the wrecked enemy ships vanish under the waves. Then, they too head for the two columns, tie up at the swinging hooks, and ride safe and tranquil beside their flagship. A great calm now covers the sea.

"And so," Don Bosco at this point asked Father Rua, "what do you make of this?" "I think," he answered, "that the flagship symbolizes the Church commanded by the Pope; the ships represent mankind; the sea is an image of the world. The flagship's defenders are the laity loyal to the Church; the attackers are her enemies who strive with every weapon to destroy her. The two columns, I'd say, symbolize devotion to Mary and the Blessed Sacrament."

Father Rua did not mention the Pope who fell and died. Don Bosco, too, kept silent on this point, simply adding: "Very well, Father, except for one thing: the enemy ships symbolize persecutions. Very grave trials await the Church. What we suffered so far is almost nothing compared to what is going to happen. The enemies of the Church are symbolized by the ships which strive their utmost to sink the flagship. Only two things can save us in such a grave hour: devotion to Mary and frequent Communion. Let's do our very best to use these two means and have others use them everywhere. Good night!"
Bosco referred to this dream as an allegory, which certainly is a fitting description; while others have called it a prophecy. The interpretation of dreams is a perilous activity, which is usually best left undone, but the Saint's many significant dreams led to Pope Pius IX's request that he write them down in minute detail. As a symbolic story, this dream is an excellent parable of the crisis of the Church (and a proposed solution to the crisis), and it would have value even if it were composed while awake. While this is his most famous dream, Don Bosco had many more that were even more remarkable, as shown in the book Forty Dreams of St. John Bosco.


Dreams are everyday occurrences that nevertheless have no good explanation. According to Wikipedia:
It is unknown where in the brain dreams originate, if there is a single origin for dreams or if multiple portions of the brain are involved, or the purpose of dreaming for the body or mind.
Science doesn't even have a good idea of why we sleep; perhaps we sleep in order to dream. There is a suspicion, although not backed up by experimental evidence, that dreams may be how memories and thoughts are consolidated and organized. This seems to be plausible, for how many times have I gone to sleep troubled by a problem, only to become aware of a solution immediately upon waking?

There is, remarkably for our times, little good scientific study of dreaming, which is not surprising, involving as it does the self, since the self cannot have full knowledge of the self. Much good information on dreaming, like most successful psychology, is negative, that is, it relies on study of pathological conditions which can be characterized and understood quite precisely. It is normal dreaming, like normal psychology, that remains a mystery.

There are some people who do not dream, but perhaps they just don't have conscious recollection of their dreams.

Dreams are notoriously subjective, and their subject content relies strongly on individual experiences — typically of the previous day or week. It then, is no surprise that a priest would dream of religious matters, whereas a hockey player may have sports dreams, and so dreams would include anything that a person seriously considers or experiences during the day. This extreme subjectivism does not, however, rule out the actions of God's grace, as seen in significant dreams in scripture and the lives of the saints. Like in all life, we have to use the discernment of spirits, and so we would be safe to assume that dreams overwhelmingly come from ourselves in the common fashion, and so deserve no concern. Professional help (either spiritual or medical) is only needed in exceptional cases!

It is perhaps for these reasons, among others, that the routine practice of the interpretation of dreams is strongly discouraged. Indeed, scripture tells us that the interpretations of dreams "belong to God" (Genesis 40:8), for it is beyond our means, and is normally prohibited by the Law of Moses "You shall not divine nor observe dreams" (Leviticus 19:26), and the prophets "give no heed to your dreams which you dream" (Jeremiah 29:8). It is like psychoanalysis or medicine developed to treat pathology: it causes more harm than good in healthy patients. That so much dream-interpretation materials are of an occult nature merely makes matters worse.

Saint Thomas Aquinas gives a clear teaching on the divination of dreams (Summa Theologica, Secunda Secundae Partis, Question 95, Article 6), and states that it is only acceptable when they are inspired by God (which requires much discernment) or to help a physician diagnose pathology.

Certainly, dreams are good and useful, and follow the laws set down by God, which though known to Him are mysterious to us. But since Man is fallen, his dreams are also fallen, as can be seen in nightmares, or in dreams about participation in sin. It is usually held that we are not guilty of sin by our dreams, for our will does not control them, except possibly for lucid dreaming (where you know you are dreaming and can control the content of the dream). Possibly, dreams can be willfully influenced just before going to sleep.

How did unfallen man dream? Perhaps reason can give us a few clues. Assuming that a major purpose of dreaming is to organize and consolidate the events and memories of the day, then this organization and consolidation must be done truly, if it is to be of any value. By analogy, a library must have a good catalog so as to allow easy access to specific books on the shelves; and a library is useful for browsing only if the books are arranged in some natural order. A bad library makes it difficult or impossible to find specific books without searching every shelf, or if its catalog indexes the books wrongly. The same ought to be true for memories. An old theory of dreams (which I considered absurd as a youth, but now have reconsidered) states that the contents of dreams are expressions of archetypes: universal truths expressed in vividly concrete, yet symbolic ways. This makes a lot of sense if we think of dreaming as a way of organizing our thoughts; any organization is good only if it corresponds to reality, and ultimate reality, according to the ancients, consists of unchanging, pure ideas, belonging to the realm of the intellect or spirit, which are called archetypes or forms. It is not surprising that dreaming incorporates these higher truths, even if in an obscure way, and that these dreams, being a part of the internal workings of the mind, don't have to make conscious sense. The specific content of dreams is probably of little conscious importance, instead, the end result of having dreams is good and useful. However, we still are fallen creatures: if our dreams help conform our minds to the truth, then they are good dreams, if they do not, then not. If what goes on in here corresponds to what is out there, then we are healthy, otherwise we have a pathology; and the doctrine of Original Sin states that we all have some pathology!

If good dreams consist of concrete, symbolic representations of archetypes, then dreams like Don Bosco's Dream of the Two Columns certainly are allegories of greater truths, which are universal and possibly specific. What is true about attacks against the Church in the nineteenth century are just as true in the first century or twenty-first century. The specific content of these dreams is highly subjective, but due to grace they may consist of private revelation, and so the standard cautions and discernment apply; they are not matters of Faith, but may help increase understanding of the Faith. The specific interpretation of Bosco's dream is interesting to consider (but possibly problematic if taken too seriously), but it is far more important to learn the lessons of the importance of devotion to the Blessed Mother and the Eucharist. Likewise, it has been theorized that the Book of the Apocalypse has a similar symbolic imagery of unchanging universal truth, and that it is perilous to try to discover in it the specific chronology of the end times.

As the Saint stated, "dreams are nothing but dreams".

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