Row, row, row your boat, Gently down the stream. Life is but a dream.
We don’t know when and where that popular nursery rhyme originated, just that it’s been passed along by oral tradition for a very long time and that it was first seen in printed form in 1852. There’s something pleasing and reassuring about it, and we can easily imagine lazily rowing our boat while the current gently carries us downstream. We can imagine the beautiful day, maybe late in the afternoon as the sunlight bathes the landscape with long shadows and sparkles on the surface of the water. We can hear the babbling of the stream, and the rhythm of oars entering and rising from the water. We’re completely at peace, joyfully allowing our journey to carry us where it will. Because we know that truly, life is but a dream.
The dream-like quality of that slow meander down the stream came to mind as I read a passage from Genesis. Like most great literature the creation story from Genesis has an overabundance of meaning. The meaning-making began in ancient times with Rabbinical commentary and continued with Christian allegory with, among others, Origen of Alexandria in the third century. The story of Adam and Eve, for example, has been a rich source of inspiration for how we understand human nature and our relationship with God.
As I was reflecting on the Garden of Eden story I saw it as a reference to God’s Kingdom, a reality that, as Jesus tells us, is always very near. So near, in fact, that it’s by the smallest act of recognition that we awaken to God’s truth within, allowing us to see and taste God’s Kingdom here and now. From this perspective, then, we never really left the Garden of Eden. Instead, our perceived exile, indeed this whole world, is but a dream.
Before this dream of exile began, Adam and Eve were enjoying the innocence of children, the bliss of ignorance. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Satan, our ego, blossomed into the seat of our identity, promising the knowledge of good and evil, and perhaps most importantly, promising by any means necessary to gather up all the good and protect us from the bad.
It’s hard to say precisely when this dream started, though certainly sometime before God executes punishment upon us, because, of course, God would never do such a thing. If anything, we punish ourselves, because while we’re still dreaming, we no longer experience oneness with God and forget that we are created in God’s image. In this dream, we busily go about our days working, playing, experiencing all life has to offer, and the whole time forgetting our divinity as children of Light.
Sadly, while caught in this collective divine amnesia, we fail to embrace our True Selves in Christ, causing great and unneeded suffering. Thankfully, there is an way through that suffering, namely we just need to awaken. Waking up allows us to be as children again, fit to inherit God’s Kingdom, as we pass through this dream into a more knowing innocence.
Like lucid dreaming, awakening to God’s Kingdom from this dream of exile is like becoming aware of a new life in Christ while still watching God’s dream unfold around us. Jesus called this being in the world but not of the world, a kind of lucid living.
Life is but a dream, God’s dream, because it’s only in God that we live, and move, and have our very being. This dream is filled with joy and wonder, but also tragedy and pain. Before waking up this world seems only a place of these stark contrasts, as we grip tightly to the good things, while striving mightily to avoid the bad. From the point of view of the dream these behaviors seem quite natural, but unfortunately this “knowledge of good and evil” can drive us a bit crazy.
We wind up using fantastic amounts of effort on acquiring the good and avoiding the bad, anything to find that elusive “happiness.” When we arise from our slumber, however, we row the boat of our lives gently through the world, peacefully and joyfully, because we know that while we might be in this dream, our true source of happiness is not of this dream.
No metaphor for God’s Kingdom is perfect. And you might have already noticed, for example, that when we awaken from this dream of exile, the dream world doesn’t just evaporate into mist, like our nightly dreams do. There is, however, a kind of dreaming, called lucid dreaming, where although you’re still sound asleep in bed, you somehow know that you’re only dreaming.
Like lucid dreaming, awakening to God’s Kingdom from this dream of exile is like becoming aware of a new life in Christ while still watching God’s dream unfold around us. Jesus called this being in the world but not of the world, a kind of lucid living. We still play our roles in this dream — our various professions, relationships, and other pursuits — while, at the same time, realizing a more fundamental truth, namely that we’re not just characters in this dream, we’re children of Light, one with our Creator.
So how do we wake up from the dream of exile and start living lucidly in Christ? Certainly, something called “waking up” should be pretty simple, but simple, in this case, doesn’t necessarily mean easy.
Richard Rohr once wrote that Moses had the difficult job of convincing people who felt enslaved that they were actually free. Jesus had the more difficult task, showing people who thought they were free that they were, in fact, enslaved.
The difficulty arises in part because in this dream of exile our ego’s search for happiness is primary, followed by the close second of keeping itself as the center of attention.
When we have the resources to keep our happiness meter filled by acquiring the good and avoiding the bad, the inner drive to awaken often fades. Why not just stay asleep and enjoy what seems to be a pleasant dream? This may have been why Jesus didn’t favor the odds of the wealthy abiding in God’s Kingdom.
Even if things seem to be going well in our slumber, though, we might start to notice something is off. Despite our ego’s best efforts, we begin to grow weary of the perpetual cycle of finding happiness. Just when we think we find happiness, we feel an itch of dissatisfaction, and slowly, we begin to realize we’re spending enormous amounts of energy to essentially go nowhere, like a hamster running on its wheel.
There’s nothing wrong with desiring pleasure and comfort in the world. The issue is that while we’re still asleep we believe that those things can cause us happiness. But true happiness, the joy of Christ, comes solely from within. In fact, as children of Light, we are the Peace and Joy of Christ. When we awaken, we can still lucidly participate in this dream world, acting in ways that bring relative satisfaction or happiness. The difference is that we’ll no longer feel the need to search for happiness in the world, because we’ll know the absolute joy of living in union with the Holy One.
But what about when the dream of exile isn’t going well. Very often as we sleepwalk through the world searching for happiness, this dream becomes so intolerable and painful it’s more like a nightmare. You might think this would force us to wake up, but it turns out that even when we’re suffering, our ego has a kind of masochistic streak. As long as everything revolves around us and our needs, waking up still seems like the worse option.
In our suffering, we might have gotten so attached to the strategies we use to protect ourselves, so wedded to the beliefs that keep us tied to this dream, that giving them up and waking up seems a terrifying risk.
Still, there are times, at the very bottom of that pit of darkness and despair, that the ego will just sort of give up. And then, as the ego’s role as the center of our identity dies, we awaken from the nightmare into the Light of Christ. As Paul says in Ephesians: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Whatever the particulars of our circumstances, though, our awakening is always fueled by a powerful, if sometimes subconscious, desire for union with God. It requires a radical honesty about ourselves, and a strong commitment to follow Jesus through the cross to resurrection. This might take the form of getting to know our inner selves better, committing more time to spiritual practices, or even just allowing more space in our lives for undistracted, less hurried living. Inevitably, the journey from sleepwalking through the dream of exile to lucid living in Christ will be painful, as the cross itself symbolizes. Our egos, fearing this kind of pain, will put stumbling blocks along our path, but we can pray for the courage and perseverance to keep moving forward, making our journey in Christ the priority. Perhaps most importantly, waking up from the dream of exile requires us to surrender relying on ourselves, and instead rely on God’s grace alone.
When our ego’s hold on us dies and we wake up from this dream, we see that true happiness, the Joy of Christ, isn’t something we acquire or protect. We come to see that the good and the bad are all just the unfolding of God’s dream, and so we hold everything in this ephemeral world with gentle and generous love. We realize we’re not limited to the character we play in this dream, but instead we remember our Divine Self and our oneness with God.
And so, having risen from slumber into the dawning of God’s Kingdom, we walk, walk, walk down the road of our life, ever so gently through the world. And abiding in Christ, we rest peacefully, joyfully, happily, merrily. Because, truly, life is but a dream.