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.
After a certain age, sleepless nights become commonplace. We may lie awake pondering the awfulness of Ebola and the sluggish international response; or we may toss and turn over some more immediate, personal problem concerning family or finances. I wonder how many of us, however, register the sounds of night-time. Here in the country, where traffic slows almost to a stop, the soft soughing of the wind and the snuffles and shrieks of small creatures mean that the night is never completely silent. The nocturnal soundscape has its moments of violence—the high-pitched bark of the vixen or the scream of the rabbit caught by a predator are not easily forgotten— but the general impression is of life proceeding purposefully on its course. Our lying awake is part of that process, not to be resisted or fought against, nor always to be filled with displacement activity (think, cups of tea and the radio). In Christian tradition, the night hours are specially privileged times of prayer. They form a kind of desert moment in our busy lives. Peter of Celles loved the long winter nights when he could give himself more completely to seeking God without the interruptions of business or people. We can all learn from him. Whether sleeping soundly (no barriers to God) or lying awake watchfully (keeping vigil), we can still claim to have had a good night. The important thing is to have allowed God some share in it.