Of Butterflies and Mothers: The Numinous Dream

A month ago, I lost my almost 95-year-old mother. I felt that I’d been losing her incrementally, one small stroke at a time as she descended deeper into dementia for the last five years. At the end she was content, docile and sweet, though we had had some rough times in the years before when she was in the early stages.

As she lost her balance, she could no longer walk; as she lost her vocabulary, she would no longer talk. It was a heart-breaking experience for those who loved her and knew her as a strong, independent, beautiful woman for most of her long life. Eventually she stopped eating and drinking and in the last week of her life she was bedridden, her eyes closed to the world. For five days we watched her breath become shallower, her vital signs weakening daily. On the last day of her life she opened her eyes and struggled with her breath for several hours, made a little more comfortable with morphine.

Two nights before she died I had a very short but numinous dream. I am with a group of people outside somewhere and a flock of bright yellow butterflies swoops down upon us and then spirals off in synch above our heads. I think there is a sound of “ooo”ing and “ah”ing amongst us and the sense is that something quite magical has touched us, maybe even blessed us.

According to Wikepedia, the word “numinous” comes from the Classical Latin “numen” which infers the presence or power of the divine. In the early twentieth century Rudolf Otto popularized the word in his classic book The Idea of the Holy. Otto names two characteristics to a numinous experience, a reaction of fear and trembling, or a fascinating attraction. He also suggests there is a very personal response, as if one had had a sacred visitation from the transcendent world. The word sometimes implies a supernatural occurrence.

Many people begin their spiritual journey with a numinous dream. The magical quality of the images and the interaction between the dreamer and something deemed divine leave the dreamer with a lingering sense of having been “touched by an angel.” These are what C.G. Jung referred to as “Big Dreams.”  Even since I began listening to my own as well as other people’s dreams, I have run into this experience only rarely. But these are the dreams people remember forever, even if they do not follow, record and think about their dreams on a regular basis.

I’ve had a handful of these dreams in my life and in some cases they were initiations into deeper searching. In Jung’s terminology, the “Self” is divine. When we put ourselves consciously on a path to “individuation,” Jung’s term for becoming whole, becoming our best selves, fulfilling our purpose, we are moving toward expressions of the Self. Self with a capital S, contains and transcends “ego.” And in Jungian psychology we are intent on going beyond what the Ego knows, suppressing Ego in terms of self-aggrandizement, i.e. anti-egotistical. Usually in our dreams we are observing and experiencing the venture in terms of the ego’s point of view.

But there are often other figures, objects and landscapes that have their own existence, apart from ego, and in dream work we try to make these other ego-alien points of view more conscious so we can know what parts of us are unconsciously expressing themselves. These are aspects of our “shadow.”  But shadow is not necessarily negative. We can have a positive shadow, even a “numinous” shadow where knowledge or understanding seems to come from outside of ourselves.

In many cultures the butterfly is a symbol of the soul. In Greek it is “psyche” which also is a homonym for “soul.”  The overall atmosphere in my dream was infused with a rush of awe. I had the sense that we’d all looked up at the same time, that as the butterflies swooped, our heads raised up to meet them and for a brief moment we were all entrained together.

When I awoke, I immediately thought of my mother with wonder. She had stopped eating but she had done that before and begun again. This time I felt her soul was already in movement toward the other side. Often at the end of praying aloud for her, I had encouraged her, if she saw the light, to go toward it. Though she’d been a fervent Catholic, she looked at me as though she did not understand what I was saying. But I believe the day of my dream was the day she began to surrender.

Dreams that leave us in wonder and move us emotionally into awe, as if we’ve been graced with a transcendent presence, fall into the category of the “numinous.”  Sometimes these dreams may be actual visitations of the deceased, sometimes they are given messages from the unconscious, from other dimensions to which we are briefly given access. These dreams evoke beatific longings and a connection to superconsciousness.

Mine was a healing dream, if only for me. I felt reassured that she had begun her journey. Later I realized the etymology of her name “Stacia” is from “Anastasia” which means “Resurrection” in Greek.

I was comforted by the dream. I wanted her to go; she already seemed to have gone though she’d left her body behind for several years. Yet no one is prepared to lose a mother. It is a primal loss, one that, according to the French writer Marcel Proust, we never recover from. Still, I am so grateful for that numinous dream, the force of, not one, but a whole fleet of winged creatures taking flight, lofting upward to only God knows where mothers receive all the love they’ve given.

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1 Comment

  • By Cathy, November 6, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

    What a beautiful expression of your connection with your mom, D. A blessing that helped you let her go as well I’m sure.

    I love your writing. We’ll have to talk about an idea I had that involves some writing.

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