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.
Once upon a time, when I was young and foolish, I despised the very idea of taking a nap. How could one waste precious moments of daytime asleep, when one could be reading or walking or busy about some activity that the daylight hours favoured? Now I am older, and wiser at least in this. The siesta, the midday nap, is a great blessing. The drowsiness of a summer’s day can be given into without a single, Anglo-Saxon guilty pang. The chill of a wintery afternoon and its greyness can be forgotten as one loses oneself in a few minutes’ quiet slumber. For those of us whose energy levels have been sorely affected by age or illness, it is a great restorative. St Benedict assumes that his disciples will have a noonday rest (though he wisely allows us to read quietly during that period). What more can I say? Only this. One of my favourite quotations, trotted out whenever I have caught myself falling asleep over my prayer or some other religious duty: Ego dormio, sed cor meum vigilat. ‘I am sleeping, but my heart keeps vigil.’ Only sleep puts up no barriers to God. Perhaps we should all take a nap more often.