Zwei schlafende Madchen auf der Ofenbank, Albert Anker, 1895
Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
Psalm 127:1-2 (ESV)
Yesterday, I posted a review of Arianna Huffington’s new book, The Sleep Revolution. In a book filled with scientific research and lots of practical help, my only quibble was that the meditations offered were rooted in meditative practices of other faiths and she offered little about the resources within Christian practice for sleep.
I speculated that perhaps Christians themselves have neglected these practices and the instruction of others in them. It was striking that a quick search on Google only yielded two titles from Christian authors on this subject: Surrendered Sleep by Charles Page and The New Bible Cure for Sleep Disorders by Don Colbert M.D. I’ve read neither book and so do not know whether they are helpful or not.
The truth is, many committed Christians are as “macho” about sleep as the culture around us. How few hours of sleep we’ve had is a kind of badge of honor at times. I wonder what it would be like to interject the Psalm above with its statement about the vanity (emptiness) of rising up early and going late to rest. If the number of emails I find in my inbox from colleagues sent after 10 p.m. (and I’ve sometimes been guilty of responding to them) and often into the early a.m. hours of the morning are any indication, we have a problem!
This is often the case in meetings or conferences as well where we rise in the night to catch cross-country flights and then sleep walk through the first day of the conference or meeting. It was such a gift recently to speak at a conference where we were encouraged to arrive the day before to enjoy personal retreat time, or just to recover from travel. A nap shortly after arrival and an early night enabled me to jump with both feet into a day of teaching and personal meetings and still have something at the end.
“The bread of anxious toil” is certainly part of why we stay awake at night. We often carry the conversations, the conflicts, and the troubles of the day to our beds, and then struggle to sleep. In recent years I’ve come to value several practices that are quite helpful. One is the examen of consciousness. The classic questions are what has given consolation and what has given desolation in the day, to look to God with thanksgiving for the former and insight, and sometimes forgiveness, for the latter. I have also come to love compline prayers, which may be found in the Book of Common Prayer. I’ve also love the compline prayers developed by the Northumbria Community, a Celtic Christian community. This is a portion of the Wednesday compline:
I will lie down this night with God,
and God will lie down with me;
I will lie down this night with Christ,
and Christ will lie down with me;
I will lie down this night with the Spirit,
and the Spirit will lie down with me;
God and Christ and the Spirit,
be lying down with me.
* The peace of God
be over me to shelter me,
* under me to uphold me,
* about me to protect me,
* behind me to direct me,
* ever with me to save me.
What a marvelous thought to know oneself surrounded and protected by the Triune God. When I travel and am sleeping alone and in a strange bed, it is a comforting thought that I am not alone in bed but God is with me and protecting me in this strange place.
As we age, we often wake during the night. Sometimes, all I’ve needed to do is begin praying the Lord’s Prayer, applying each phrase to my own situation, and many times I do not finish. There are breath prayers, like “Lord Jesus, I love you” (breathing in on the first phrase, out on the second). There are also prayers for the night hours. Phyllis Tickle collected these in a book titled The Night Offices. When I am particularly wakeful, I have found it helpful to get up rather than toss and turn and pray these prayers.
I wonder at times if our denial of sleep in our culture reflects our denial of death. There is a verse in a hymn by Thomas Ken set to the tune Tallis Canon that says:
Teach me to live, that I may dread
the grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die, that so I may
rise glorious at the judgment day.
Christians are people who in one sense have already died with Christ (Galatians 2:20) and so while we love life and still consider death “not as it was meant to be” we no longer fear death. Our daily rest may well be preparation for our eternal rest. The little “surrenders” we make each day to sleep may very well be preparations for surrendering ourselves to God in death, trusting him to raise us in Christ to new and everlasting life. Hence, as the psalmist writes, sleep is a gift which God bestows on his beloved children. Will you welcome that gift this night?