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“Ask a Priest: What If a Dream Involves Something Normally Sinful?
Q: If a person is having dreams about sinning against the Ten Commandments like mortal sins but he does not wish them, what does it mean? I ask this because I have been experiencing this off and on, and I wake up feeling shame and guilt. I have felt many times to not receive the Eucharist because of the severity of the dream and so I missed daily Mass. I now know that is wrong. What do you recommend besides discussing it in confession and spiritual direction? A priest told me temptations and dreams don’t need to be confessed – but what if they lead you to sin? What should I do? -P.B.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: It takes a delicate conscience to refrain from receiving the Eucharist when one thinks he has fallen into grave sin. So your heart seems to be in the right place.
First, let’s recall that someone in mortal sin should refrain from receiving the Eucharist. Mortal sin requires three conditions: 1) the object is grave, or serious, matter; 2) the sin is committed with full knowledge; and 3) it is done with deliberate consent (see Catechism, 1857). A person in mortal sin should try to get to confession as soon as possible.
Now, when we are asleep and dreaming we are not in full control of our will. Physiological factors such as stress or bad diet or lack of exercise could have a lot of effect on what we experience in dreams. Deliberate consent assumes that we are conscious (or substantially conscious) and aware of what is happening around us.
Gray areas can abound here. States of semiconsciousness (such as when we drift in and out of sleep) will affect the level of awareness we have of things. When a line is or isn’t crossed, is not always easy to distinguish. As a rule of thumb we could say this: A person who habitually resists certain temptations when fully awake can probably give himself the benefit of the doubt when a temptation occurs in a dream or in a state of semiconsciousness. In such a case one need not refrain from receiving Communion. In any case a person can always attend daily Mass.
You mention about confession. True, we don’t need to confess temptations and dreams. What could be matter for confession, though, is the things we do that bring on temptations. Let’s explain this point. We need to guard our senses — that is, we need to be careful about what we look at and listen to during the day. If we are careless about what we watch on TV or the Internet; if we fail to guard our gaze around the magazine rack at the checkout line; or if we listen to music with provocative lyrics — we might put ourselves in an immediate occasion of sin. Later, those bad images or lyrics could trigger memories and temptations. While these later temptations in and of themselves are not sinful, the negligence that brought them on could be considered material for confession.
Now a penitent could choose to mention temptations in confession. Someone might find comfort in speaking about a particular or ongoing temptation, because it helps them to share what they are going through. This could also give the priest a broader view of the penitent’s state of soul. But again, the mentioning of temptations is optional.
Your reference to confession and spiritual direction indicates that you are serious about your relationship with God. Keep taking advantage of these means of grace (and having a regular confessor who knows you well can be a plus). Consciously renounce temptations. Also keep working on positive points: prayer, physical exercise, balanced ascetical practices (such as being moderate in the use of food and drink), a healthy social life, and regular recourse to the Eucharist and the sacrament of penance. Stay close to the Blessed Virgin Mary too; she is a great interceder in heaven.