A catechumen once asked what he could do to get victory over bad dreams: especially lustful dreams that roused his passions and often led him into temptation.
I told him that this is one of those aspects of life in a fallen body that must be resisted and endured. One of the ways satan seeks to weary and wear out the saints (or those who strive to be holy) is through the constant going astray of our flesh. Our job is to resist and to return our attention to God and to whatever is good, true and beautiful.
Dreams, however, are often a two-way street. That is, not only can they arouse passions of all sorts (anger, lust, fear, despondency, etc.), but they are often (but not always) triggered by the subtle ways we have chosen to nurture these passions in the several days before the dream(s). Vivid dreams can sometimes (but not always) be a way our mind makes manifest to us sins or passions we have been dallying with—perhaps not even fully conscious that we are doing so. The energy of the passion works itself out in our dreams, which may in turn make us more aware of the passions already at work in us through our cooperation—even if that cooperation is not at a fully conscious level.
When it comes to the war against our passions, we are in many ways like little children: we really don’t know what we are doing. Just as a child could be unintentionally poisoning herself by eating the wrong things, so we unintentionally arouse the passions by paying attention to the wrong things. Like a child attracted to the red berry on a bush, so our attention is easily attracted to thoughts that are not good for us. It is only through instruction and experience and, well, attention that we learn to discern our thoughts and to direct our attention away from poisonous, hurtful and passion-arousing thoughts and toward Christ, toward what is good and true and beautiful.
It is really a battle for our attention. When we let the waywardness of our body and mind disturb us too much, we have, in a sense, already lost the battle (but not the war, so don’t give up!). Whether we give in to the passion itself or give in to despondency because we are so disappointed in ourselves that we are still tempted by passions we thought we had repented of long ago, spiritually the result is similar: our attention is drawn away from God and prayer and reflection on the real needs of those around us. Now this does not mean (I repeat, does not mean) that a failure in our thoughts is just as bad as going ahead and doing it with our body. By no means is this the case. That’s like saying tasting a bit of poison is just as bad as swallowing the whole bottle. Yes, both are unhealthy. Certainly, both are “eating poison,” but one is much easier to recover from than the other. But still, it’s better not to play with bottles of poison to begin with.
This is the real spiritual warfare. (c. f. 2 Cor. 5: 4-6). Spiritual warfare is about bringing our thoughts into obedience to Christ. But we must do this gently, recognizing that our flesh is weak, but must nevertheless be trained, like children—or in my case, more like a horse or dog. We, again and again, gently turn ourselves away from what is worse and toward what is better. With practice it gets easier, but St. Isaac the Syrian says it never goes away so long as we are still in the body. I have heard from very old men, men whose bodies are as good as dead (as it says in the Bible regarding Abraham), that even though they have not been able to act on such passions for years, still they have occasional thoughts of sexual immorality. Go figure. Like I said, struggles with the passions are not really about the passions. Spiritual warfare is about our attention. When our attention wanders from our Creator, from the awareness of God’s nearness, and from the continual contemplation and prayer to God in our hearts, then the passions, the flashy red poisonous berries, get our attention.
Part of what makes the Age To Come heaven for some and hell for others is exactly that we are freed from the tyranny of our twisted and broken bodies and minds. For those who battle in their minds and hearts against the raging of the passions, those who long for health and peace in their minds and bodies, those who cry out continually in their minds and hearts, “Lord have mercy!”, the New Heavens and New Earth will be the answer to their prayers. In the Age To Come we will be free of all that has tried to lure us away from our loving Lord. However, for those who find delight in their brokenness and in the twistedness and perversion of their bodies and minds, then the Age To Come will be rather hellish—outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth is the way Jesus put it. The least hellish aspect for these in the Age To Come will be that the perversion they have delighted in no longer exists, for sin stops at the grave. The greater aspect will be the inescapable knowledge of the love and loving help of God and others that they have spurned throughout a lifetime.
But as St. Paul says, I am sure of better things for you, things that accompany salvation. Warfare is our lot so long as we live in this evil age. But as St. Paul also says, our warfare is not against flesh and blood, it’s not against other people no matter how evil they seem to be. Our warfare is against our own thoughts and fears and passions. Our warfare is to bring every thought into obedience to Christ. This is how we defeat spiritual wickedness in high places. We each have besetting sins, passions, fears, or despondent tendencies. We each have our unique battles to fight, our own unseen martyrdom. Dreams sometimes play a part in bringing to our awareness areas of sin and brokenness we have been dallying in; and in our childish foolishness, we sometimes get quite caught up in and even addicted to sins before we even realize it. But once we do realize it, we can repent. We can turn our attention to the only One who can save us. We can turn the eyes of our heart to Jesus, the Son of God, who has mercy on sinners.
And so, practically, what do you do when you have bad dreams? You pray. You call out to God in prayer, not only in your mind and heart but with your body too. Cross yourself when you pray. Get out of bed and do prostrations as you pray. Light a candle before an icon and pray. Pray with your mind, heart and body. Beg God to have mercy as you pray. Short, repeated prayer is (in my experience) the best. The Jesus Prayer works marvellously well. But I have had seasons when other short verses from the bible, especially from the Psalms, or from the hymns of the Church have been very helpful in prayer. For example, “Let not those who wait on You be ashamed because of me,” was a prayer I prayed almost constantly for a certain season of my life. Or, “O God come to my assistance; O Lord make haste to help me,” the prayer recommended by the Rule of St. Benedict, has also been useful to me at various times. When I am tempted by worry about someone I care about, I often repeat as prayer, “Salvation is of the Lord” (i.e., not of me nor of my effort nor worry nor consternation. God is the One who saves).
The goal is to return our attention to God in prayer, not to deal with or somehow directly confront the passionate thought. Of course, if the passion has already progressed to the point of action, then we may have to take direct steps not to cooperate with or give in to that sinful action. You might just have to keep your hands clasped behind your back. (Forgive me for being so explicit, but it is an amazingly helpful technique to keep one from committing all kinds of sin). Using one hand to squeeze the fingers of the other hand behind your back is both a physical prayer and a convenient and always available means to keep your hands from sinning (from stealing things in the grocery store, from buying things you don’t need, from taking more food from the banquet table, from navigating to a pornography site on the web, etc. etc.). Of course this only really works if it is indeed a prayer, if your hands behind your back is the way your body is crying out along with your heart and mind to God for mercy.
When we turn our attention to Jesus, then Jesus fights our battles. One of the desert fathers said that trying to confront our own wicked thoughts is like trying to drive off wild dogs by throwing biscuits at them. We end up feeding the very thing we are trying to drive away. But if we turn our attention to Jesus, to the One who saves, to the One who made us and loves us and calls us to Himself, then the barking of the dogs fades away into the background. Then Christ Himself fights our battles, and we return to our natural place as worshipers of God, as those whose minds and hearts are attending to the one thing needful.