A Meditation on the Beautiful Gift of Sleep

deep-sleep=giftOne 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.

13 Replies to “A Meditation on the Beautiful Gift of Sleep”

  1. Thank you Monsignor Pope for a lovely reflection and hymn to end my day. I had no idea that there were psalms about sleep. May God continue to inpsite you to write your blog.

  2. ‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
    If I should die before I wake, I pray to God my soul to take.’ What a prayer for kids and adults alike.

    We remember serving in a Marriage Encounter Weekend and we had to prepare a participants’ album to be given the last day. We ended up about 12:30 to 1:00 am, Sunday and will wake up 4:00 to 4:30 am for morning worship. We just asked and prayed for a deep slumber as though a whole night’s sleep equivalent and GOD was accommodating and just gave us that, such that we were thoroughly refreshed and praised GOD joyfully that early morning. Yes, Monsignor, it is a gift, a most wonderful relief each night as we pray deep thankfully for the day’s gift.

  3. As Maria Von Trapp sang:

    Strength doesn’t lie in numbers
    Strength doesn’t lie in wealth
    Strength lies in nights of peaceful slumber

  4. Another beautiful thought is from the Fr. Lausanne Latin Missal asking Jesus to help us love Him even during our sleep. Having insomnia is an intense suffering that impacts every aspect of one’s life. Sleep is a blessing we should never take for granted.

  5. Hilaire Belloc had an appreciation of sleep: one sonnet that’s sort of about sleep, and a character in The Four Men stating simply that “Sleep is the best thing in the world” after the others had disputed about what was best.

    1. The Aramaic bible in plain english renders it. I am not aware fo any other English bibles that render it this way. But that is the literal meaning of the Hebrew text.

  6. ‘Night is falling, dear mother, and the long day is o’er; before thy loved image, i am kneeling once more; to thank thee for keeping me safe through the day, to ask thee this night to keep evil away…….’ God bless you, Msgr. Pope.

  7. Thank you again Monsignor for a beautiful meditation and for the prayers. Well do I relate to your years of night terrors. I still have them at 63. I never sleep more than an hour as I am up six times a night for the bathroom. My edema seems to drain during the night. Seven years of this I suffer. And worse pains from arthritis. I had to make a doctor’s appointment recently with a driver’s license just 2 weeks expired. I can only get into my own car and only on the driver’s side. You guessed it: I got nailed. Now I have to go to traffic court, somehow get to the Registry and get my license and registration, then go for a car inspection that I know will fail. I can barely walk. And my insurance does not cover medi-van service. I also read that sleep in necessary for losing weight. Who would have thought that. No wonder I am almost 300 lbs. Please, if you read this, pray for me, a stranger. It’s not my kidneys but my liver that caused the edema and my drinking. I will use your concluding prayer.

  8. Thank you for this beautiful article, Msgr. Pope! And a special “thank you” for ending it with a hymn that brought back poignant memories for me. When our sixth child, David, was dying in utero at 5 to 6 months gestation, he’d be thrashing around in pain during much of the night. Whenever I quietly sang this song to him while rocking in our rocker, he quieted down & seemed to sleep for a while. David was stillborn at 6 months gestation on Dec. 7th, 1995. Thank you for some very precious memories that I hadn’t recalled for a long time.

  9. “The Honour of Israel Gow” by G.K. Chesterton

    “Sleep!” cried Father Brown. “Sleep. We have come to the end of the ways. Do you know what sleep is? Do you know that every man who sleeps believes in God? It is a sacrament; for it is an act of faith and it is a food. And we need a sacrament, if only a natural one.”

  10. I had horrific demonic dreams for years. I learned to escape from them quickly by simply calling Mary’s name. I would be out of the dream immediately.

  11. Monsignor:
    Thank you again for another thoughtful post. I try to pray daily for all priests, but especially those who have heard my confession, celebrated Mass when I was there, and given me aid and comfort. You are in the last category.

    I am a convert, as are my siblings and parents. Just tonight my mom and I were agreeing that our lives are so much richer for our faith since we became Catholic. I have prayed the Night Prayers before. Having recorded them, I sometimes listen to them on my way home in the evenings. I especially like the line you quoted, “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.”

    Even before my conversion I kept Rosary beads by my bed. Should I wake in the night I try to remember to pray, the Rosary, the Memorare, the Lords Prayer, all sources of comfort in the dark watches of the night.

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