Probing meanings in artistic and religious dream worlds

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Salvador Dalí once confidently asserted that “One day it will have to be officially admitted that what we have christened reality is an even greater illusion than the world of dreams.” While such a statement has scientific and material applications — we know now for instance that the physical paper or mobile device on which these words are appearing to you are more empty space than solid matter at the subatomic level of neutrons, protons and electrons — it also holds deep theological truth. For heaven and earth, as Shakespeare put it, contain more than is dreamt of in our philosophy.

Dalí was long fascinated with the insights of Sigmund Freud, whom he both met and sketched. After the conversation, the Austrian psychiatrist overcame his initial impression of the surrealist movement as a collection of “cranks.”

Our world has been indelibly marked by the valuable contributions of a realization of the power of the subconscious, of spiritually-integrated psychotherapy, and of 12-step and addiction therapy. While, of course, not everything Freud posited can be accepted in a Christian worldview, theology and pastoral studies have a responsibility to take the expertise of contemporary science seriously if they hope to engage the contemporary world in an effective and transformative way. The mysterious “stuff” of dreams and their bearing on history — from the Josephs of both scriptural Testaments to premonitions and trauma processing — is undoubtedly grounds for legitimate theological and artistic reflection.

Dalí encouraged, as part of his paranoiac-critical method, particular methods for apprehending that hazy middle ground between sleep and consciousness. He even described how he would sit with a key above a plate in his outstretched hand until he began to drift off. Then, when the key clattered onto the ceramic, it would awaken him in the first nanoseconds of sleep. He could subsequently capture these “waking dreams” in his art. Much of Dalí’s work is rooted in this “delirium of interpretation,” as he called it, where his fantasies, hallucinations and figments of his imagination, when represented on canvas, sculpture or even jewelry, could be perceived differently from different angles or distances. This interpretive “game” allowed him to, in his words, “materialize the images of my concrete irrationality” and thus to organize “the limitless and unknown possibilities of the systematic association of subjective and objective significance in the irrational.”

Transposed into a theological vein, we all have an ecclesial imagination that informs our appropriation of the faith. This uniquely contoured and highly personalized integration of the truths of Catholicism and our own individual and collective experiences and belongings relies on art, music, literature, pop culture or other sensory memories. It’s the mysterious element that lets liturgical seasons mold and form us without becoming dull and monotonous repetition, and why the smell of incense or ringing of church bells has meaning for us. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”

To enter into that world of imagination is largely what defines life as a Catholic — everything from flickering candles at the feet of religious statues to Ignatian spirituality to the inseparability of November grey skies and falling leaves (in the Northern hemisphere!) from remembrances of departed saints and loved ones, and concomitant reflections on Last Things.

The ecclesial imagination and its expression in popular piety serve as the beating heart of the sensus fidei, the “sense of the faith,” that enables belief to transcend memorization and repetition. Dalí’s approach to religious and secular themes may not be the most familiar depictions of them to many of us, but his dream-world plucks the strings of a chord that we can all recognize in our own way.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.