Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House
If you are still looking for a New Year’s resolution, you might set yourself the task of getting the right amount of sleep. Sleep is a favourite subject for many writers on Christian spirituality and readers might be surprised by what they say. Teresa of Avila had no time for correspondents who think that being woken up in the night is the Holy Spirit nudging someone awake to pray. She often made the point in her letters that the middle-aged especially need plenty of sleep. Bishop Edward King (whose centenary falls this year) advised that a good eight hours in a bedroom heated to 60°F was essential to being a good steward of the body (and he, despite a sickly childhood, was still in active ministry at the age of eighty-five!).
With profound irony Jesus pointed out to Peter, James and John that ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ when they ‘could not watch for one hour.’ Jesus knew weariness and he knew that the remedy was a good sleep (we have a vivid account of him asleep on a cushion in the stern of a boat during a storm).
The essential message is that if you have a rule of life it ought to include a rule about sleep. This is a particular problem in our day and age. Gone are the days when the television would go off air at 11pm with the screen disappearing into a white dot. Day is as busy as night. The 24/7 world has its effect on us all.
The truth is we cannot separate the natural requirement for rest and recuperation out of any rule of life that takes prayer and attendance at worship seriously. I have had, in the past, a spiritual directee who was so unable to go to bed at a sensible time that he fitted timers on all the lights and appliances in his home and set them to switch off at 11pm. It was a practical solution to a practical problem. It is a challenge toeveryone’s self-discipline.
Some people find sleep impossible for emotional or physical reasons. This is another problem and presents different challenges and opportunities. In these circumstances it is even more important to rest and to be very strict about it, but in these cases the quiet of night can bring an opportunity for clarity and intimacy in a relationship with God. If you are regular waker make sure you have some spiritual reading to hand, such as a favourite book of prayers or hymns. It is always good to have a copy of Compline by the bed.
Night Prayer or Compline is especially useful for those who find getting to sleep a problem. Some of its prayers can be quickly learnt by heart and some of its phrases can be used repeatedly to quieten the heart and mind, providing holy comfort and solace to the troubled and vivid imagination. I am thinking particularly of ‘Into thy hands I commend my spirit, for thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, thou God of truth,’ and ‘I will lay me down in peace and take my rest, for it is thou, Lord, only, that makest me dwell in safety.’