“Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we're awake.”
-Duncan Idaho, Dune (2021)
After watching the 2021 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic novel, I found myself wondering if Duncan’s claim about dreams was true. In fact, the plot of Dune seems to show just the opposite. A lot of important things can happen while a person sleeps, things that can shape waking moments and change the path of life forever.
From one perspective, the dreams and visions presented in Dune could be construed as nothing more than a plot device. A deeper look, however, reveals how this epic science fiction film bears striking similarities to elements of Christian tradition that have been present since the foundations of our faith.
Dune’s Challenge to Our Modern View of Sleep and Dreams
*WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE 2021 MOVIE*
Paul, heir to the prominent House Atreides, begins to have mysterious dreams of a desert planet and the people there. As the film progresses, Paul (and the viewer) realizes the dreams are prophetic, giving him partial insight into the lives of the people around him and potential catastrophes of the future. The snatches of his visions are fascinating glimpses into what could, or perhaps will, be. He sees a beautiful girl, an epic battle, and the power of the desert in all its glory. Yet Paul isn't sure how the pieces fit, or if the things he sees will come about at all. It is these dreams, these premonitions of the future, that leave audiences hungering for more, waiting to see how everything will play out in Dune: Part Two.
While watching Dune, I was fascinated by the interplay of dreams and reality. In the West, we live in a society that largely views sleep in a utilitarian way. We sleep because out bodies require it, but it is often seen as an inconvenience when we would rather have more waking hours to do things we deem necessary or important. Rest can be thought of as a luxury when we’re always rushing for maximum efficiency. Sleeping in on weekends may be understood as a guilty pleasure and we take "power naps" as opposed to longer ones. For anyone raising kids, working night shifts, or suffering from insomnia or trauma, true rest can be frustratingly elusive. Sunday, our supposed ‘day of rest,’ can get lost in a flurry of commitments and other activities that leave the Lord’s Day looking pretty much like the rest of the week. Generally, our psychologically-aware culture doesn't afford dreams any special significance beyond the working of the subconscious.
In this cultural climate, Paul’s dreams can seem somewhat fantastical and unrealistic, a simple plot device. However, that’s only if we’re looking at it from a secular point of view.
Timothée Chalament as Paul and Zendaya as Chani in "Dune." © 2021 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Rest and Dreams Through a Christian Lens
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest and dreams are never viewed in a utilitarian way. God created the Sabbath and made it sacred by resting, weaving this into the very fabric of creation. This came before the Fall, meaning that rest is not a consequence of sin, but was part of God’s design from the beginning and is thus an important means for our sanctification. In the Ten Commandments and the other laws given to Moses by God, the Sabbath rest is to be honored by all the people of Israel, the animals, and even the land itself on the special Sabbath years. By the time of Jesus, the Sabbath is taken so seriously that one of the main accusations brought against him is that he cures on the Sabbath, and Jesus himself boldly claims the title, “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mt 12:8, Mk 2:28, Lk 6:5). After the Resurrection of Jesus, the early Church carried on this tradition by setting aside Sunday as the Lord’s Day, dedicated especially to the celebration of the Mass. It became a special time when ordinary work was put aside so that a person could make time for God, and this has continued to be an essential part of Christian life through the millennia.
Dreams play no less an important role than rest. Throughout the Bible, there are stories of God revealing himself to those in sleep through dreams and visions: the ladder Jacob sees going up to heaven, the ability of Joseph and Daniel to interpret dreams for their leaders, and God’s communication with Saint Joseph to keep Jesus safe, to name just a few. Many saints throughout the centuries also had visions or significant dreams sent by God, beginning with Saint Peter’s vision in the Acts of the Apostles, the catalyst for the first Gentiles being welcomed into the Church.
Jacob's Dream by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1660
Parallels Between Dune and the Christian Tradition
With this background in mind, let’s take a look at the dreams that Paul experiences in Dune.
- First of all, their origin is mysterious. Paul doesn’t have control over them or know their source, and even his mother, a member of the powerful Bene Gesserit order, doesn’t seem to fully understand their extent or meaning.
- These dreams are revelatory and prophetic, allowing Paul to catch glimpses of the future and giving him guidance. They help Paul intuit the path he should take in the present, showing him the people and places that will be key parts of his life. In this sense, they are also vocational, helping Paul to understand his role in the world and preparing him for the destiny in store for him. His dreams are what draw him to the desert and the Fremen people, and they play a large part in his decision to stay on the planet Arrakis at the end of the film. It is as though once he begins to find the people he has had visions of, he knows he has found the place where he ‘should’ be.
- His dreams are also practical, giving him an almost supernatural sense for the workings of the desert. It is the wisdom received through his visions that allow him to successfully pilot his ornithopter in what would have otherwise been a lethal sandstorm, saving both his own life and his mother’s. In this way, Paul’s dreams give him guidance about the present as well as insight into the future.
Ornithopter vehicles in "Dune." © 2021 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
When we look at these different characteristics in light of the Christian tradition, we can see that Paul’s dreams are not so alien after all. They bear striking similarities to many of the dreams depicted in the Bible.
- Just as Paul’s dreams come to him as gifts from a source beyond his control and understanding, so too God’s communication through dreams and visions comes as a free gift that is often unexpected and unasked for. Think, for example, of Jacob’s surprise upon waking after his dream of God’s promises: “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” (Gen 28:16).
- Furthermore, many of the dreams spoken of in the Bible are revelatory visions regarding the future. King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, once interpreted by Daniel, allows him to know of the empires that will follow his own, and the dream that Joseph interprets for Pharaoh enables him to save Egypt from seven years of famine.
- We also see how God uses dreams to reveal one’s specific vocation. The prophet Samuel, as a boy, first hears the Lord calling him while he is sleeping. It is through a dream that Saint Joseph is invited to be the foster father of the Son of God and take up his role as Guardian of the Holy Family.
- The life of Saint Joseph also beautifully manifests God’s penchant for providing supernatural guidance this way. It is through warnings in dreams that Saint Joseph is able to keep the Holy Family safe from Herod’s men and return Jesus to Israel at the proper time.
Dream of Saint Joseph by Luca Giordano, c. 1696
In all of these ways, we can see how Dune draws on, or at least parallels, a rich understanding of sleep and dreams that has been part of the Christian tradition since the beginning.
So, what does all this talk about rest and dreams mean for us today? I’m not suggesting that naps should be mandatory, nor that most (or any) of us will have a miraculous vision when we fall asleep tonight, but this understanding of rest and dreams can inspire us to take up a few simple yet important practices that help us to live out of this Christian Biblical tradition:
- Keeping Holy the Lord’s Day: God wove rest into the fabric of creation and asked his chosen people again and again to honor him by laying aside their regular pursuits to spend one day of the week for him. Our rest should be recreation (re-creation): something that renews us and returns us to the source of our life, namely, God. We can reflect on how we live our Sundays. Do they look different from the other days of the week? Are they a time of rest and renewal spent with God? What can we do to make our downtime more re-creative?
- Sanctifying Our Sleep: Bedtime prayers aren’t just for children. God wants to be a part of our entire lives, and we spend a large chunk of every day asleep. Praying before we go to bed is a way to invite the Lord into that time more intentionally. This isn’t a new thing. You’d be surprised at how many Psalms are about sleeping (or trying to sleep). In the Daughters of St. Paul, one of the last things we do before going to bed is read the Gospel for the next day's celebration of the Eucharist. This is a simple way that we let Jesus’ words fill us and set the tone for our nights’ rest, so that we can, as the Psalmist says, “muse on [the Lord] through the night” (Ps 63:6). We can reflect on how we prepare ourselves for rest. What do we do in the last minutes before we go to bed? How can we invite God to be with us throughout the night?
- Learning from the Biblical Dreamers and the Saints: We might never have a miraculous vision or an angel speak to us in a dream, but we can learn to have a similar openness to God’s voice in our lives. Maybe one reason God uses dreams so often is because sleep requires a certain vulnerability and surrender. It’s almost impossible to fall asleep when clinging to consciousness, but it’s easy to drift off when you let go. This sort of openness and surrender is the fertile ground God uses to make his voice heard. We can practice it when we’re sleeping, but it’s just as much a habit to cultivate when we’re awake. We can reflect on how to live with a listening heart. How much do we really let ourselves relax and be vulnerable before God? What do we need to let go of in order to make space to let God in? What does surrender look like in prayer?
Does Everything Important Happen When We’re Awake?
Now, we return to Duncan’s initial claim: “Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we're awake.” The plot of Dune shows that this isn’t strictly true. Yes, Paul had to be awake to implement what he learned from his visions. But without those dreams, it’s unlikely that he would have survived to the end of the movie, and even more unlikely that viewers would be so eagerly anticipating the second installment.
Timothée Chalamet as Paul in "Dune." © 2021 Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.
Duncan’s claim holds even less water when we take into account the rich history of God revealing himself and his will through dreams. God shows us that even in our weakest, most passive moments, he can break in at any time and transform something so ordinary as sleep into something holy and miraculous. Because of this, we can be confident that the Lord will hold us safe in our sleep, and that even in our dreams we are never beyond the reach of his transformative love.
We don’t have to be the chosen Lisan al Gaib to experience this power of God at work in our lives. We just have to trust God with our waking and sleeping and let him take care of the rest.
Prayer to the Sleeping Saint Joseph (a devotion made popular by Pope Francis)
O Saint Joseph, you are a man greatly favored by the Most High. The angel of the Lord appeared to you in dreams, while you slept, to warn you and guide you as you cared for the Holy Family. You were both silent and strong, a loyal and courageous protector.
Dear Saint Joseph, as you rest in the lord, confident of his absolute power and goodness, look upon me. Please take my need into your heart, dream of it, and present it to Jesus (mention your request).
Help me then, good Saint Joseph, to hear the voice of God, to arise, and to act with love. I praise and thank God with joy.
Saint Joseph, I love you. Amen.
-taken from the St. Joseph Prayer Book by Mary Mark Wickenheiser, Pauline Books & Media, 2021
Our guest blogger is Sr. Allison Regina Gliot (@sister_allison). She is from Falls Church, Virginia, has a degree in Theology and Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, and made her First Vows with the Daughters of St. Paul in July 2021. She’s been a sci fi nerd since childhood.