This is the first in an occasional series of my strong medicine dreams. An introduction to the series can be found here. The dream was recorded on the morning of March 4th, 1984. It has five scenes. Each of them — in a nod to internet readability — has been given a title and an illustration. Following the dream are some of the personal and cultural associations which the dream evoked.
I’m in a courtroom, sitting at a long rectangular table. To my right, at the head of the table, is the judge. To my left is an advocate. Although he seems unfamiliar to me, I somehow know that he’s my father.
Other people are seated around the table also. There’s an air of expectancy in the room. Everyone seems to be waiting for something to happen.
Then the scene shifts. The courtroom and the table don’t change, but there’s a different judge and a different advocate. This happens several times. With each shift, I intuitively know that while the judge really does become someone else, the advocate only appears to have changed. Beneath the shifting features of his face, the same person remains.
At one point I’m helping a judge into his robes. For the judge, the stature of the office is greater than the man who holds that office. For the advocate, however, the stature of the man exceeds that of his office. The judge is well aware of this. He considers it an honor to have the advocate in his courtroom.
After one of these shifts – which have a reincarnational flavor – the advocate turns to me.
“Do you recognize me?” he asks.
His appearance then changes to that of Caleb, my father.
Taking my recognition of him as a sign, he tells those in the courtroom that he’s going to lead us in the study of a book. It will apparently be a video presentation, for he pulls down a screen and turns on an overhead projector.
Flood Waters Rising
On the large screen we see a city street under six to eight feet of water. In the foreground are several men in scuba-diving gear. They’re members of a rescue squad who are trying to save some of the people who’ve been caught by the rapidly rising water.
Then my vantage point shifts. I am no longer observing the turbulent waters on a video display screen in the safety of the courtroom. Instead, I’m on a passenger train that has been trapped by that flood. I’m standing next to one of the dutch-style doors where passengers board and leave the train. The swirling waters come to just below where the solid, lower portion of the door meets the upper, window portion.
My brother Andrew is standing beside me. Suddenly he opens the window of the door. Maybe he wants to get a better view or talk to one of the scuba divers. I shout out a warning, reminding him not to let the train be flooded. Just as the words leave my mouth, a small amount of water splashes into the train car.
The Burning Tower
The scene shifts. The flood waters disappear. It’s night-time. The passenger train is slowly moving down a city street, following a set of streetcar tracks, in the middle of a strong earthquake. Everything is shaking violently – the train and its passengers, the pedestrians on the street, the nearby cars and houses. It’s almost impossible not to be thrown about. Struggling to keep my balance in the midst of this chaos, I’m struck by how familiar the sensations of the earthquake are.
“How can that be,” I wonder, “when I’ve never been through an earthquake before?”
Then I notice a tall tower made of brick. Fire is spewing out the top of it. The tower is swaying dangerously to and fro. I call out to my fellow passengers, trying to make myself heard above the deafening roar of the earthquake.
“If that tower collapses,” I shout, “it will set the whole city on fire!”
So far, however, the tower seems to be withstanding the incredible stress it’s under.
Choosing a Crew
The scene shifts again. It’s late at night, maybe two or three o’clock in the morning. The train has stopped at a small station far out in the country. A man walks down the aisle of the passenger car, his presence quiet but compelling. He’s about to leave the train and is choosing a small group of people to take with him.
His choices are intuitive, but they’re guided by two criteria. First, for a person to be considered, he or she must be awake. Since it’s the middle of the night, most of the passengers are asleep. The few he’s choosing from have either remained awake all night or have somehow roused themselves from sleep just in time.
Someone who’s awake, however, can’t awaken another person who’s asleep in order to give them a chance to be chosen. It’s each person’s responsibility to either remain awake or to wake up at the right time.
Not everyone who’s awake is selected, though, for the second criterion is a person’s basket-making ability. When the man nears the end of the car, two people wake up just in time to offer him a basket. A person may only present one basket. Part of the test is deciding which one to choose.
The man returns the basket of the first candidate.
“You haven’t learned your switchbacks yet,” he says.
He studies the second basket more closely. The woman who wove it has incorporated a unique type of diamond design in the bottom weaving.
The man pauses for a moment, as though unsure of what to say. Those of us he’s already chosen wonder at his indecision. It seems completely out of character.
Then he nods to the woman.
“You may come,” he says.
This catches her completely by surprise.
“But I ain’t ready yet!”
He nods again and moves on.
Then we realize that he’d been aware of her unreadiness all along. His pause allowed her to acknowledge this herself, rather than having the verdict come from him.
Under the Shadow of Thy Wings
Having selected his companions, the charismatic man steps down from the train onto the platform of the small country railroad station. Those of us he has chosen follow him. The night sky is filled with stars.
He walks around to a meadow on the other side of the train, then kneels down on the grass and begins to pray. His brief prayer is quiet but intense, and it ends with four distinct syllables. Even though the invocation is in a strange language – perhaps it’s Celtic, Welsh, or Gaelic – I am somehow able to translate the words.
“Under the shadow of thy wings, Yod-Heh-Vau-Heh.”
The final syllables are his spelled- and spoken-out rendition of Jehovah, the ineffable name of God.
The prayer releases three deep knowings that well up within me. I know that we won’t be returning to the train and that my familiar life is over. I have no idea where we’ll go or what we might be called upon to do, but we’re going to leave all outward security behind and move into an unknown reality.
My second sudden knowing is that the man who’s leading us into this brooding darkness is the same advocate who had initiated the adventure by facilitating the study of a book in a courtroom. The book had become a movie on a screen. Then, when some of the flood waters splashed into the train, we had been catapulted into the living story itself. Rather than simply being observers, we had become participants.
The final realization is that this had been the intention of my father all along. He had wanted us to become fully immersed in the story. It’s as though the story itself had needed and perhaps even demanded our presence in it.
The advocate had responded to this need by projecting himself and us into the story, just as Mary Poppins once took two children into a magical world by leading them through a chalk-drawing on a sidewalk.
Now that we are inside the book, everything has become unpredictable. For the story’s still being told and the ending hasn’t yet been written. So standing there in the middle hours of the night, gathering up the courage needed to step into that darkness, there’s no way for any of us – not even the advocate – to know how it’s all going to turn out.
* * *
Amplifying the Dream
It’s helpful to go back and forth between focusing on the content of a dream as it was recorded, and exploring the context within which that dream is embedded. It’s a balancing act. Move too far in one direction and I remain mesmerized by the surface level of a captivating story and I miss its deeper implications. Move too far in the other direction and I lose my way in a tantalizing web of personal and cultural associations. Even a strong dream can then become anemic.
If content and context are creatively counterbalanced, though, each can enrich the other. So having now told the story of my adventures with the advocate, I’ll share at least a few of the rich associations that cluster around each scene of the dream.
My Father. I awoke with the dream called The Advocate on the morning of March 4th, 1984. The night before, we had celebrated Douglas’s 54th birthday. I was 38 at the time. Doug had been an influential figure in my life for almost a decade, his role having evolved from guru to mentor to best friend. I was also starting to see that much of what was unresolved in my relationship with my father was being played out with Douglas.
I myself was about to become a father. The following month our daughter Lauren would be born. It’s not surprising, then, that the opening scene of the dream focuses on fatherhood. In so-called waking life, my own father was an attorney and a well-respected – if sometimes controversial – professor of law.
Moving from personal to cultural associations, the root meaning of advocate is “one who has been called.” It might also mean “one who has received a calling.” In a judicial sense, an advocate pleads the case of another before a court of law. In John 14:26 (NIV), Jesus tells his disciples that “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have said to you.”
In the Old Testament, father refers to one’s biological father or to one’s ancestors. In the Gospels, though, the startling concept that God is a father is introduced. Throughout his ministry, Jesus spoke of and to his Father. Sometimes he even addressed Him as Abba, which in English would correspond to Daddy.
Such a god concept is equally radical today, once the gloss of familiarity is stripped away. Imagine addressing God as Daddy in our modern secular age, with all the complex array of feelings, needs, and assumptions which this word conveys.
In the opening scene of the dream, there’s “an air of expectancy” in the room. To expect means to look out for, to await. It implies a degree of confidence in that which is expected. A pregnant woman is said to be expecting. Edgar Cayce said that the literal meaning of the word Essene is expectancy. A similar sense of expectancy may be discerned today. Perhaps we are waiting for something to be born.
Flood Waters Rising. My brother Andrew did scuba-diving while growing up on the coast of California. A scuba is a Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. It allows one to breathe underwater.
What does breathing underwater suggest if water is a metaphor for the emotions, or spirit, or the stream of consciousness, or the collective unconscious? What might flood waters imply? Or do we take Noah’s flood literally and go searching for an ark somewhere on Mount Ararat?
This becomes a recurring choice of orientation. Is scripture to be taken literally or figuratively? Is the Garden of Eden – with its man and woman, its two trees, and its wily serpent – history or myth? What about the life of Jesus? Or a dream about an Advocate? We return to that crucial balancing act between being mesmerized by the surface level of a captivating story and becoming lost in a rich thicket of allegory, mythology, and theology.
The Burning Tower. While growing up, I constantly listened to my parents’ collection of Folkways Records. Among my many favorite songs was Woody Guthrie’s version of “Sowing on the Mountain.” In the second verse he sings that “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time.” In my dream of the advocate, the scene of rising floodwaters is followed by one featuring a burning tower. Upon awakening, I immediately associated to Tarot Key 16, which shows a lightning-struck tower on fire.
Given that I was born in San Francisco, another obvious association was the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. All told, perhaps 3,000 people died, more of them from the uncontrollable fires that broke out than from the earthquake itself. In 1945, the year I was born, that earthquake was still a very recent trauma for the city and many of its residents.
It makes me wonder whether the unresolved trauma of a place can be subliminally transmitted to someone born in that place. Or whether my parents’ apprehensions about living directly on top of the San Andreas fault might have been transmitted to their first-born.
Beyond this tapestry of personal associations, fire is like water. It reliably shows up in the dreams, myths, and scriptures of people from around the world.
Choosing a Crew. The train has stopped at a small station in the middle of the night. A charismatic man – I had not yet recognized him as the advocate – is choosing his crew. His first criterion is that a candidate must be awake. Here again, strong personal associations come into play.
I’ve had a life-long love affair with trains. My first cross-country train trip was when I was six months old. (That’s part of a much longer and more formative story.) On each of my later railroad journeys I have walked through the coach cars in the middle of the night. There’s such intimacy in seeing all my fellow passengers fast asleep, sprawled across their seats.
It’s also a searing metaphor. In the occasional lucid intervals when I see how chronically self-absorbed I am, I realize that I spend far more than the normal third of my life asleep. During one of those intervals, I was gifted with an insight that became The Four Cairns. (It can be found here.)
In that paradigm, the second facet of the third cairn speaks of “awakening in a world of sleepwalkers.” A biblical passage puts it this way: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Eph. 5:14 NIV)
In the dream, only those who are awake can be chosen. So wakefulness is that strange man’s first criterion. His second gauge is a person’s basket-making ability. In the early, hyper-frugal years of Light Morning, some of us supported ourselves by weaving Appalachian baskets and selling them at craft shows. There’s a direct personal correlation, then, with this portion of the dream.
Shifting the teeter-totter back toward metaphor, the first step in crafting a basket is to lash together its vertical and horizontal hoops. This brings to mind other complementary pairings: the content and context of a dream; literal and figurative orientations; heaven and hell; Adam and Eve. How do we lash these pairs together? Basket-making provides a clue, for the two hoops are bound together with a diamond-shaped weave. It’s called a God’s Eye.
Under the Shadow of Thy Wings. Each image of a powerful dream is freighted with meaning. But amplifying the dream of the advocate has already sent us a good way down a rabbit hole of metaphors and allusions. So I’ll close with two final observations. The first is that strong dreams continue to be relevant and evocative long after we first awaken with them. A short time ago, for example, I experienced the advocate’s closing prayer in a new way.
Until recently, I had been attending a monthly chanting circle at our local Friends Meeting. Due to the pandemic, however, the Meetinghouse – like so many other gathering places around the world – had closed until further notice. These are strange and disconcerting times. It’s perhaps natural, then, that one chant in particular keeps coming back to me: “I will take refuge / under the shadow of your wings / until this time of trouble has gone by.” Chanting these words from Psalm 57, I discover that I’m simultaneously participating in the prayer of the advocate.
The second observation is that strong dreams are medicinal not only for those who receive them but for others as well. A few weeks ago, for example, I followed an inner nudge to send The Advocate to a friend and fellow Quaker. Tony responded by saying that it had come alive for him, and had raised some of his crucial issues about faith, trust, and discernment.
He said that as a child, he had always been puzzled by stories of Jesus telling prospective disciples to “set aside what you’re doing and follow me.” And they would invariably do so.
“It seemed to me,” Tony said, “almost like they were possessed; like Jesus was a kind of Pied Piper and they were incapable of resisting his music.”
The Pied Piper is not only an appropriate metaphor for the advocate – those of us he chose were ready to follow his charisma into a dark night – but there’s a personal association as well. My grandfather’s grandfather was a Philadelphia artist. One of his better known paintings shows the Pied Piper and the town council of Hamelin engaged in fruitless negotiations.
The earliest version of the legend dates back to the 1300s. There are multiple theories about which historical event might have caused the disappearance of the town’s children. The story itself has been revised and retold for six centuries, most recently by Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, Walt Disney, and my great-great grandfather, to name but a few.
What I find fascinating is how a myth like the Pied Piper, or stories about Jesus, or a powerful dream about an Advocate, can have such staying power. This finally brings us back around to Joseph Campbell’s insight from last week’s post: “Dreams are private myths; myths are public dreams.” What numinous resonance keeps these strong dreams and mythical stories alive, pulsating, and mutating in our collective imagination?