One of God’s greatest gifts is that of sleep, especially deep, peaceful sleep. Alas, like many hyperactive and overstimulated moderns, I sometimes struggle to find deep sleep. My mother often said that she was a light sleeper, so maybe I also got it from her. But when deep sleep does come, what a wonderful gift! A deep night’s sleep can be so refreshing, truly one of life’s great pleasures.
Some of the Psalms speak of sleep. This Psalm speaks with gratitude of the gift of God to fall asleep quickly and to sleep deeply:
I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety (Ps 4:9).
Another Psalm speaks to us of how God blesses us while we sleep:
In vain is your earlier rising, your going later to rest, you who toil for the bread you eat, when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber (Ps 127:2).
What a magnificent thing to think of God bestowing blessings on us while we slumber! The image I have in mind is that of a parent coming to the bedside of a sleeping child and gently kissing him on the forehead, making sure he is all tucked in for the night.
Yet another Psalm speaks of the blessing of not having to get up in the middle of the night (to take care of you know what):
I will bless the LORD who gives me counsel; even in the night he admonishes my kidneys (Psalm 16:7).
Yes, an unusual blessing that God would keep watch over my kidneys! Many of the translators, finding this peculiar, translate it that God keeps watch over our hearts at night. Now that’s a nice thing, too, but the first meaning of the Hebrew word kilyah is “kidney.” There’s something earthy and practical about God keeping watch over our kidneys. Thank you, Lord! Not having to arise several times at night allows me to sleep more deeply. Thank you, Lord, for watching over my kidneys!
So yes, restful and peaceful sleep is such a great gift, a blessing itself, and also a source of blessings. Grant us, good Lord, a restful night and a peaceful slumber!
Dr. Ralph Martin, commenting on a teaching by St. Therese of Lisieux, has this amusing and consoling reflection on the relation of sleep and prayer:
Therese shares about her own long struggle to refrain from falling asleep during prayer times and offers some interesting advice:
I should be desolate for having slept (for seven years) during my hours of prayer and my thanksgivings after Holy Communion; well I am not desolate. I remember that little children are as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as well as when they are wide awake; I remember, too, that when they perform operations, doctors put their patients to sleep. Finally, I remember that: “the Lord knows our weakness, that he is mindful that we are but dust and ashes.
[Dr. Martin observes]: Those of us who are parents know that we sometimes love our children even more when they finally go to sleep! Therese’s message is one of great confidence in God’s love for us. He knows our weaknesses and loves us anyway. If we just do the little bit we can, he’ll be able to continue the process of transformation even if prayer is sleepy and dry … little by little, even imperfect prayer will change us (Dr. Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of All Desire, pp. 283-284).
Of course it is also clear that one of the more unpleasant experiences in life is to have a restless or sleepless night, especially if it is accompanied by anxiety or fear. In the worst years of my struggle with anxiety in my mid-thirties, I was actually afraid to go to sleep. I would often fall asleep and then within an hour be startled awake, racked with fear and wrestling with a demonic presence in my room. Somehow, in falling asleep, all my psychological and spiritual defenses seemed to shut down and I would awaken to terrors and fearsome assaults. Those were the difficult years when I feared, as late night drew on, that it was time to try to sleep.
The Book of Job well describes the nights I once experienced:
When I say, “My bed shall comfort me,
My couch shall ease my complaint.”
Then you [O Lord] affright me with dreams,
and with visions terrify me.
In bed I say, “When shall I arise!?”
But the night drags on;
And I am filled with restlessness until the dawn (Job 7:13-14; 4).
I used to keep a printed version of this on my nightstand. And in those dark nights at three in the morning I read it out loud as a kind of complaint to God.
Thanks be to God, I am delivered from those awful times. Thank you, Lord! But I am sympathetic to those whose bed provides no comfort and whose couch permits no sleep. It is an awful thing and a difficult cycle to break. I can only, with sympathy, encourage them to make the journey I’ve had to make: growing in trust, finding greater serenity, and taking back what the devil stole—the gift of a restful night and the peace and serenity the Lord wants to give.
Ah, yes, the gift of restful sleep and quiet nights! It is a beautiful gift to seek from the Lord each night. In the night prayer of the Church, there are these beautiful lines:
Protect us Lord as we stay awake, watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep rest in his peace.
The office ends with the beautiful wish: May the Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death. The Salve Regina having been sung, the lights are switched off and we rest in the arms of God.
Here is one of the most beautiful Night Prayer Hymns:
God, that madest earth and Heaven, darkness and light;
Who the day for toil hast given, for rest the night;
May Thine angel guards defend us,
Slumber sweet Thy mercy send us;
Holy dreams and hopes attend us, all through the night.
When the constant sun returning unseals our eyes,
May we, born anew like morning, to labour rise;
Gird us for the task that calls us,
Let not ease and self enthrall us,
Strong through Thee whate’er befall us, O God most wise!
Guard us waking, guard us sleeping, and when we die,
May we in Thy mighty keeping all peaceful lie;
When the last dread call shall wake us,
Do not Thou, our God, forsake us,
But to reign in glory take us.