Monday, 1 September 2014

Dieulacres Abbey and the power of Dreams

2014 is the 800th anniversary of the founding of Dieulacres Abbey near Leek. How the Abbey was established in Leek is a fascinating story. It is a story of how a dream caused a medieval baron to build a monastery beside the Churnet. Ranulph the Earl of Chester dreamt that his grandfather Ranulph de Gernon visited him one night. He told his grandson to found an Abbey on the site of a former chapel to the Virgin Mary which the Earl did. He was a generous benefactor providing the monks with ample funds. The spirit told the Earl to transfer monks from a settlement in Cheshire on the Welsh border. The monastery at Poulton had suffered from Welsh raids, although only established about 50 years earlier. The monks welcomed the invitation of Ranulph to move to Staffordshire. How the Leek monastery got its name is equally an interesting story. When Ranulph told his wife about his vision and the proposed foundation she exclaimed in French: 'Deux encres'— 'May God grant it increase'. Ranulph then fixed the name of the place as 'Dieulacres' and gave it this name when he laid the foundation stone of the abbey in 1214. Dieulacres was a central part of the local community for the next three hundred years.

To the medieval mind a dream could either be interpreted as a message from God leading the recipient on a spiritual path or more darkly an attempt by a night demon to invade sleep. The Anglo Saxon word “mare” in nightmare means “demon”.

 Dreams continued to interest commentators into  modern times although we had to wait for Freud to attempt a systematic analysis. I was drawn to a recent article in New Scientist on the ability to manipulate dreams. In the 1950s a researcher at Chicago noticed Rapid Eye Movements during sleep signifying a time of intense brain activity when dreaming occurs. When people were awakened during this time they were able to tell researchers of their dreams. Taking this a step forward a psychologist as devised an app on a smart phone that could control dreams. The subject sets an alarm and a soundscape, such as walk beside the sea and then falls asleep. The app detects when the person is in deep sleep from breathing and movement patterns and plays the chosen soundscape. Once awake the individual recounts the dream and there is usually a strong correlation between the soundscape and the dream.

Further analysis has revealed that most dreams involve a playing out of some anxiety. They are the result of the mind attempting to deal with everyday worries by reinterpreting incidents. Scientists have found an interesting insight into the dreams of those diagnosed with depressive illness. These dreams are frequently negative and on waking the individual feels sad and dispirited, but those depressives who could alter the direction of their dreams to result in a more positive outcome recovered and eventually recovered their wellness.

Drawing together Ranulph’s experience of a dream that led him on a path of spiritual fulfilment and the modern hope that dreams can be influenced to improve well being it seems that they can play a role in determining our sense of completeness.