The Sleepless Hours

The sick and the elderly will know what I mean: those long stretches of the night when sleep evades one’s eyes and one listens to every raspy breath and feels every little thump of the heart, all the time pondering seemingly intractable problems, great and small. After a while, we stop counting sheep or reciting every poem we have ever known and learn to make a friend of our sleeplessness. That is when the sleepless hours take on the quality of a vigil. It is not time lost or wasted but something very precious. We are at one with the night, with the soft darkness that holds so much mystery as well as the promise of a new dawn. We may pray, or we may not; but it is a prayerful time, when we come close to eternity and all the world’s hopes and fears are, in a sense, entrusted to us. Benedict was keen on night prayer, seeing it as one of the distinctive marks of the monk. For, beautiful as night is, it is also a time of sin and suffering when what we call the powers of darkness stalk the earth. Our wakefulness may seem like a small match-stick, easily blown out; but it is, if we will allow it to be,  a little light in the darkness, a tiny hope, a sign of redemption.


11 thoughts on “The Sleepless Hours”

  1. And, after three tries, it is half midnight and the sleepless hours have arrived. Good morning Sunday. Come to give me the rising sun as today’s gift?

  2. Thank you, Dame Catherine, for pointing out that sleepless nights are not wasted time.

    I experience sleepless nights frequently, but I have long stopped to fear them. When waking up in the middle of the night, knowing sleep won’t come back for many hours, one can turn to the Jesus prayer. It might not make one go back to sleep, but it fills those hours with sense. I also sometimes look at my watch and start reflecting on all those who are now “formally” up and awake, praying. While one is sleepless, the Carthusians are already at prayer; at some point in the early morning the Cistercians “join in” so to speak, and so do countless hermits. One might not be formally at prayer, and one’s bed is certainly nothing like the structured environment of a choir stall, but through this awareness one can still join them in a way, however little.

    Visiting websites of monastic communities, which often give very good descriptions of their night offices (or a couple of days’ retreat with the Cistercians, actually joining them for Vigils), will help in this “visualisation”.

  3. This is a beautiful post Sister, thank you. I will remember your words when I lie awake in the night, unable to sleep because of the many worries that take away so much quality of life.
    When thinking that my wakefulness can be a little light in the darkness for others, it is easier to accept not being able to sleep.

  4. Thank you, Dame Catherine. When I awoke my heart was heavy. Some fear entered in. I accept the will of God and the power of the Holy Spirit moving me. Jesus, I trust in you!

  5. One thing to keep in mind is the fact that the world is made up of different time zones, so there is always someone up and about praying the Office, involved in meditative prayer, working or trying to sleep themselves.
    When I’m awake in the middle of the night or in the small hours I can join them. Gregorian chant on an iPod or similar can aid one to sleep or one can just join in quietly or sotto voce if someone else shares your room like a spouse, partner or beloved companion like BroDuncanPBGV, or in my case, Anne and Mitzi. If Anne is awake, she prefers saying her rosary.

  6. An old friend of mine – I was a stripling in my fifties, he was eighty plus – used to say that if insomnia struck it was of no use to worry about it or get upset, just put the light on, make a cup of tea and read a good book. He alas is with us – at least on this earth – no longer, and I am now the one in his eighties, and I now follow his advice. The downside is is feeling tired the next day – but I sleep well the next night !

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