Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Column: Prayer of the exhausted - sleep

Patient Spiritual Director suggested (not entirely in jest, I think) I consider taking up sleep as a Lenten discipline, his theory being it would be a more difficult undertaking for me than giving up chocolate. (I didn't in fact give up chocolate for Lent, but am trying a modified version of what Mark Bittman and others are attempting. At the moment all I want to say about the experience is that it has been efficacious — and far more difficult than I anticipated.)

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 31 March 2011.

I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. — Ps. 4:9

Last Thursday morning, the high school principal found Chris and his friend, asleep, on the floor outside their first block classroom. “Is everything OK?” he wondered. Roused from his slumbers, Chris responded with a laconic, “Tech week.” Those two words explained much. The principal left the two to drowse away the last few minutes before the bell rang.

The school musical opens on Friday and rehearsals are in full swing. Chris is both performing and working as tech crew: alternately singing up a storm on stage and hauling huge pieces of scenery around behind the scenes. Mike is managing the technical end of the production; with a word whispered into his headset, he can cause witches to appear in mid-air and set a darkened stage alight.

There is no shortage of creative energy flowing in my house — this crew can get a paper mache cow to give milk. Sleep, however? No one is getting very much. That includes the parents who late each night collect the exhausted thespians, and sit vigil with them as they face the homework due the next day.

As Chris crept off to bed late on Thursday night, declaring he would fall asleep as soon as he was horizontal, this verset from Psalm 4 ran through my mind. He would indeed sleep in peace, his work for this day finished, his school bag packed for the next.

St. John Chrysostom, in reflecting on this psalm, would agree with Chris. Those who live virtuously, who possess God, will “in their waking hours enjoy life and at night rest with great satisfaction.” A clear conscience (or completed homework) doesn’t nag at you in the quiet hours of the night.

Yet there is more than just the rest of the righteous in the image of repose the psalmist evokes here. Recently, a friend lent me a little book of pithy advice on prayer by Keith McClellan OSB. Number 33: Sleep is the prayer of those who rest secure in God.

In his commentary on the fourth psalm, St. Augustine proposes that sleep is a metaphor for the presence of God. Just as we close the door and pull the shades at night to shut out any commotion on the street that might disturb us, Augustine suggests we foster a similar attitude with our interior world. He might be writing about our own time when he laments the ways in which a world that clamors noisily at the gates, which measures worth in terms of possessions, leaves us fragmented.

Augustine urges us to forgo the “countless images” and demands that take our gaze away from God. Cultivate a simplicity of heart, let this be the cloak we might wrap around ourselves to shut out the world and rest in God.

As the mid-point of Lent approaches, I wonder if I, like my kids, epically short of sleep these days, might look to Augustine’s wisdom. The exterior world makes many demands, fragmenting my attention and my patience. God has but one desire, that I rest in Him alone.

Can I turn off the computer with its countless images and burgeoning inbox, close the book, ignore the laundry, and sleep — secure in God? I suspect it would be harder than giving up chocolate, and likely bear more fruit.

Lord our God, restore us again by the repose of sleep after the fatigue of our daily work: so that, continually renewed by your help, we may serve you in body and soul. Through Christ our Lord, Amen. — Closing prayer from Thursday Night Prayer


  1. This past week I've been home alone. Everyone gone on various trips and with important things keeping them occupied.

    This both frightens and intrigues me. Such beautiful silence. Such terrible silence.

    For years I would get too nervous to sleep here. And often at 10 or 11 I'd high-tail it to a local motel or my parents' house.

    But the LOH helps in such an amazingly practical and down to earth way. Night Prayer simple re-aligns my life, my soul, and my brain.

    Protect us Lord as we stay awake watch over us when we sleep; that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep rest in His peace.

    I say that til I do fall asleep, resting in his peace.

    And then it informs my day. A night full of trusting and resting has made my days easier to fill with gratitude and praise.

    (I'm also taking the "...and protect us from all anxiety...." at Daily Mass totally personally)

    This is odd to admit, but I know prayer works for others .... I participate in it and see it. I am humbled and grateful to see that it works for me too.

  2. Cindy,

    This is a beautiful reflection in and of itself, thank you for sharing it!

    Rabbi Abraham Heschel said "Prayer is not a stratagem for occasional use." and I might add my voice to yours and say prayer is an eminently practical practice.

    grace and peace,


  3. Speaking of prayer: Denise, if you read this:
    Thank you for the link! I briefly responded here-

  4. Oh, and the above was me. I keep forgetting to maintain consistent logins. :-)

  5. Sleep as a Lenten discipline--I could get behind that idea! This post calls to mind how I, years ago, was planning on going on a retreat but was so busy. I remember commenting to a friend at the time that it was because I was so busy and had no time for retreat that I needed to take the time for retreat. Now I remember the retreat, not the other things I was "supposed" to do that weekend.

  6. Katherine, you're welcome! I'm glad it was helpful.

  7. Denise -

    I laughed about your being "too busy" to go on a retreat. Last October I got a speeding ticket on my way to a retreat!

    I found that hilarious (except when writing the check) and was very grateful that on the way home - no speeding, no ticket!!

  8. So this morning when I awoke before 5:00, I thought about sleep as a Lenten practice.

    You'll have to tell PSD that I am thinking about this one seriously. It has been an awfully long time since I had a night's uninterrupted sleep.

  9. Similar to what Cindy said - from the Order of Compline we have: Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.

    Michelle, thank you for this post and for the others who have commented.

  10. Cathy, I remember when you were posting lovely Compline prayers each night on FB.

    And Denise and Cindy, I would be laughing over the too-busy to go on retreat and the ticket except that I had an experience where I arrived on retreat in what could properly be called a tizzy (here) and ended up having one of the most settled retreats I've ever had...

  11. Robin,

    I will tell PSD that his advice is seeping out. I go back in a couple of weeks (it's one way to celebrate birthday)!