First, an experiment: Imagine building a sandcastle. Imagine building that sandcastle right now, as you read this. Imagine driving to the beach, parking your car, walking out onto the sand, going down to the surf and getting the wet sand. Fill up a bucket. If you forgot to imagine bringing a bucket, imagine driving home to get one. Pack the sand in good. Dump it out in an even bucket shape. Do this four times, and have each upside down bucket of wet sand be a corner of the castle. Sculpt walls of sand between the corners. Dig a moat around the castle. Now, how easy was it to imagine all of this?
Now, when you go to sleep tonight, imagine building the same sand castle while you dream. That will be very hard, you say. It is easy to control my thoughts while I am awake, but very hard to control my thoughts when I am asleep.
What is a body for? Dante knows. The body is for dreaming, and dreams are not merely dreams. Understanding the logic of dreams sets our waking bodies free to pursue virtue with all our might.
Too often I regard the affairs of the body as an unforgivable distraction from the affairs of the soul. Most of our lives revolve around food. When we wake in the morning, we begin to cook. We cook, then we eat, then we wash our dishes. Then we prepare food to take with us to work. We go to work to earn money, and a quarter of our earnings are spent on food. Throughout the work day, we break at least once to eat. We return home in the late afternoon and wash the dishes we have dirtied at work. We then begin cooking our evening meal. We eat our evening meal and then wash the dishes. Later, we make a list of foods to purchase on the weekend, when we have time to shop. Come Saturday, we drive to the store. We buy our food. We bring it home. We put it away. Then we take it back out again and cook it and eat it and clean up after ourselves. When we are not driving to the food store, buying food, taking food home, putting food away, cooking food, laying out the utensils with which to eat food, cleaning the utensils we used to make food, cleaning the utensils we used to eat food, talking about food to buy, or talking about food we ate, from time to time, we find occasion to pray or read something wholesome. But most of our time is spent serving our endlessly needy bodies. “Curse this belly of mine,” says Odysseus, “it is never full.” Amen, amen, amen.
Though we should note that Odysseus does not make it to Mt. Purgatory. He does not dream.
Only in the Purgatorio does Dante dream. There are no dreams in Hell, and none in Heaven. Hell is too awful a place to find the peace necessary for sleep and Heaven is too thrilling to look away from. Purgatory is the narthex of Heaven. Sublime, though exhausting. Purgatory is even more taxing than Hell, for Hell is nastily cyclical, morning returning to morning without a night of sleep between. Hell is unnatural and the logic of the Inferno is, for the most part, purely arbitrary. Purgatory, on the other hand, allows for the poetic justice of cause and effect to take over and lift a man up to God. Hell is all effect, though, for sin is impotent and thus without cause (anti-cause), just as darkness and silence have no cause. Dreams are natural to sleep, and sleep is natural to waking. “Evening and morning were the first day.”
Why do the persons who end up in Dante’s Purgatorio have to spend so long toiling there? Simply put, because they are dead, and without the body which is natural to the soul, the soul is unwieldy, just as the thoughts of a man are unwieldy in sleep. Progress is possible, but difficult. When we sleep, we enter into a state like unto death. In sleep, as in death, we lose control of our bodies, and in so doing, nearly lose control of our thoughts. We do not lose control of our thoughts completely in dreams, though, for all men have had that uncanny experience, perhaps for just a moment, wherein control over the events of a dream is seized. That experience is so singular, so strange, and so imbued with a feeling of power, many men will tell you it feels divine. The imagination is so powerful that controlling it makes a man feel like a god.
This is counterintuitive, though. Let us return to the experiment described earlier. With the power of the body at a man’s disposal, controlling the imagination is comparatively easy. But does the body not often feel like a terrible distraction to controlling the intellect? The spirit? Do the concerns of the body not weigh heavily upon the spirit? What feels godlike in sleep seems pedestrian while awake. Perhaps if a man trained himself, waking hour after waking hour, to think of one particular image while asleep… perhaps after many months he could do it. How diligently, then, must we concentrate our thoughts on Christ while alive if we want to return to Him after we die? And yet God has given us bodies so that we may easily center our thoughts on Him. To serve the soul— this is proper use of the body. To serve dreams— this is proper use of waking.