Reading through Christus vivit recently, I found a section labeled “Dreams and visions” (§§192-197), a six-paragraph-long exegesis of Joel 3:1: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” I would like to share a brief thought—or tell a brief story; and Pope Francis says in this section that the young tend to tell shorter stories than the old!—about a memory of my own that I connect, in reading the Holy Father’s words, to what he says about the relationship between the old and the young.

First, one paragraph from the Holy Father:

The elderly have dreams built up of memories and images that bear the mark of their long experience. If young people sink roots in those dreams, they can peer into the future; they can have visions that broaden their horizons and show them new paths. But if the elderly do not dream, young people lose clear sight of the horizon. (Christus vivit §193)

Often when I read statements like this about the elderly and about relationships between the old and the young I think about my grandfather. He was a World War II veteran who had an almost archetypal midcentury businessman’s working adulthood–Harvard MBA, house in North Jersey, a stint working in South America. He was not a perfect person (for one thing, he worked as a fossil fuel executive, after it should have become clear what that industry was doing to our shared home), but he was someone I came to greatly love. Unfortunately, this was not the kind of love that comes from intimacy, exactly; my grandfather was not somebody I was as close to as I now wish. He was not literally my grandfather but the father of a family friend; earlier in my life the primary intersection between his life and my own comprised periodic visits to his home in which I interacted mostly with his son. Later, as his son and my mother became closer and eventually married, our families’ lives became more intertwined, but by this point he was already dying of Alzheimer’s Disease and got harder and harder to reach meaningfully just as I began to want to reach him more and more.

One thing that struck me very clearly in the last years of his life and that I still think back on whenever I read about the dreams of the elderly is way he said grace at each meal. He made sure to say it before even so much as a tray of supermarket sushi. My grandfather said grace in terms that I imagine are familiar to almost every Where Peter Is contributor and reader: “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord, amen.” These are easy words to remember; say them ten or twenty times and it is unlikely you’ll ever forget them. Say them two or three times a day for seventy or eighty years, and then say them in front of your teenage grandson, and they become, so to speak, unmoored from their meanings and turn into a word-picture that exists in the same sense and possibly for the same purpose that music does. Bach dedicated every piece that he composed “To the greater glory of God, and that my neighbor might be benefited thereby,” and in Japan there is a religious concept called kotodama, the idea that words, qua words, have souls. I don’t know about the grace having a soul, but the way someone says it can certainly lay bare what is most important about that person’s soul. The word-picture of the grace constituted, for me when I heard it (and I was not yet a committed Christian at this point), a reverie on something just out of my reach but critically important.

While we’re on the subject of Japanese literary production, the writers of the Heian period a thousand years ago used the image of a “floating bridge of dreams” to describe the preservation of beauty in literature. The prayer heritage of the Church, which is a series of literary artifacts in that all prayers were at some point composed, creates just such a bridge, spanning centuries, into which (to mix a metaphor) we can sink roots as the Holy Father says. “We grandfathers and grandmothers need to form a choir,” Francis says a few paragraphs later in Christus vivit. “I envision elders as a permanent choir of a great spiritual sanctuary, where prayers of supplication and songs of praise support the larger community that works and struggles in the field of life.” (§195) What I remember when I remember my grandfather saying grace, is a voice in just such a choir. It’s my hope that today he is a member of a choir that will never be out of tune and never lose its voice.

Image: “Jacob’s Dream” by William Blake. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Nathan Turowsky went to elementary school in Vermont, high school in New Jersey, and college in Massachusetts, where he now lives. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in social services.

Dreams and Grace

5 Responses

  1. Jessica says:

    I’ve always puzzled over the difference in this passage between dreams and visions. They’re both prophetic, so why would young people receive prophecy while awake while old people receive it while asleep?

    Maybe it *is* a reference to thinking more about the future vs. the past.

    • Nathan Turowsky says:

      Hi Jessica,

      Yes, that’s puzzled me for a long time too. I love Joel 3:1, but how to interpret that distinction has never been very clear to me, which is part of why Pope Francis’s treatment of it caught my eye. I once saw an art critic describe Marc Chagall’s body of work as a “reverie,” and that’s sort of what this use of “dream” reminds me of. (I originally wanted to use Chagall’s Dream of Jacob painting rather than Blake’s for the header to this piece, but Chagall’s wasn’t on Wikimedia Commons and I didn’t want to run into an IP issue.)

      Thank you for your comment,

    • jong says:

      The difference is the Age of Enlightenment, the young of today is living in digital era. We have access to many resources of old and can understand our situations by discernment and this old resources help us omplete the puzzle to have a better understanding. While the old can only do it thru prayer meditation & contemplation.A good example is Pope Leo XIII vision, the Church Fathers teaching on the coming of Anti-Christ, Ab.Fulton Sheen prophecy on the counterfeit catholic church, etc. All these prophecy and old teachings can be studied by the young while awake and recriving of God graces can envision the future path easily while the old since they are not akin to digital age researching can only understand or envisions things thru dreams or contemplation.
      But the young who got both zeal in researching & studying the writings of old like the Church Fathers and Popes and have the prayer discipline can receive the gift of visions and it will be the instrument to prophesy things or events.
      But, those who will prophesy things are those who are willing to be humble like a child. Because the Remnant Church is composed only of faithful catholic who have true devotion to Mary and had totally consecrated their life to the Immaculate Heart. Mama Mary is the Great Prophetess starting in the 19th century and all the Marian apparition chooses a child to reveal the future and prophectic messages.
      Its no wonder in our age the young contemplatives can envision our future and can prophesy.

  2. Marie says:

    A beautiful article Nathan, and definitely a testament to the important connection between these generations that is not present in the parent child relationship. The love and respect between the two are unique and the lessons learned and cherished by the younger generation are truly remarkable.

    • Nathan Turowsky says:

      Hi Marie,

      Yes, there’s definitely something unique about the grandparent-grandchild relationship that isn’t just a special case of the parent-child one. It’s a relationship that unfortunately isn’t talked about much these days, at least in my experience.

      Thank you for your comment,

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