The Christian custom of praying against nightmares has a long pedigree.
The nights are long and a chill fills the air. It’s time to tell ghost stories, scary tales of villains — and share what we saw in nightmares.
These stories have the power to terrify us because there is grain of truth in them. There really are ghosts (in a way), there really are very bad people, and Christians for years have considered nightmares to be demonic visitations of a certain kind.
I want to share two nightmares that haunted my childhood, but provide a little context first.
The very name nightmare is a reference to the old pagan belief that a demonic creature called a “mare” sat on your chest and haunted your dreams. This is a folk way of explaining what we now know are physiological experiences of nighttime paralysis brought on often by a stressful day — or PTSD.
But the Christian custom of praying against nightmares has a long pedigree also. An old monastic night prayer goes:
Vest us with the weapons of Light. Deliver us from nocturnal fears and from every thing that lurks against us by night. Grant us sleep, given for the renewal of our weakness, that is free from every diabolical fantasy.
The prayer assumes two things — that something “lurks against us by night” and that night fears are “diabolical fantasy.”
I remember two nightmares vividly — both from my childhood, between ages 7 and 9. Both worked by attacking the sources of safety in my life: my father and mother.
In the first one, I was walking with my parents out of the Fry’s grocery store, when I noticed oil dripping from the bottom of a motorcycle. I stared at it for a while, then commented on it to my dad, who I assumed was looking too. He wasn’t. He didn’t answer. I looked up. He and my mom were nowhere to be seen in the vast parking lot of cars.
I walked between cars looking for them, growing more and more anxious, finding no one. I was utterly alone. Finally, overcome with hopelessness, I began bawling, crying my eyes out as only children can.
It was then that I heard the “Squeak, squeak, squeak” of pedaling. I turned toward the sound and saw a strange little man on a tricycle. I can still picture him: reddish-brown hair long enough to cover his ears, and a big 1970s reddish brown mustache (like this guy).
His eyes were filled with genuine concern, and he said, “Why are you crying? What’s wrong?”
I had a strange feeling that he was evil, and I knew I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but I was at my wits’ end. I blurted out, “I can’t find my daddy!”
What he said to me next made me freeze with helpless horror. With a perplexed look filled with genuine sincerity, he said, “What do you mean, Tommy? I’m your daddy!”
I woke in bed, panting.
Dreams terrify us in the same way horror movies do — by attacking hope. They find something that we hold dear in our lives, some place of solace, and rip it wide open.
I have heard of dreams that even attack the Blessed Mother. My next nightmare focused on my mom.
I dreamed I woke up at night and saw my room all around me. Across the room, I could see my brother in his bed — and at the foot of my bed I could see a little girl with long gray-brown hair, standing and staring at me with an expressionless face.
She never threatened me, but a feeling of unease filled me with horror, and I could barely move as I fought to wake myself up to get away from her stare. When I did wake up, the same room would be there, surrounding me, but with the girl no longer there.
The dreams happened for months — once a week or so — until one final appearance by the girl turned nasty. In the dream, I tried to wake myself up and couldn’t, so I started screaming for my mom. This agitated the girl and then, when my mother appeared in the doorway, she crouched like an animal and leaped on my mom, pulling her down and scratching at her face.
Then I woke up, panting and terrified.
Scientists now suggest that dreams are a brain’s coping mechanism. They provide an “exposure therapy” that allows you to confront situations that you don’t know how to handle — being alone in a parking lot, finding someone unexpectedly in your room.
That is one way of saying that your nightmares can help you. Another is the Biblical stories of Joseph in the Old Testament and Joseph in the New Testament who both properly interpreted warnings from dreams.
But my favorite Biblical admonition about dreams is from Sirach that tells us that dreams mean nothing.
Still, just to be safe, I’ll pray that monks’ prayer tonight. And maybe add a Hail Mary for good measure.
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