The Sleepy are Apt to Make Excuses

St Benedict ends today’s section of the Rule by urging the monks to encourage one another when they get up for the Work of God, ‘for the sleepy are apt to make excuses’. (RB 22.8). It is one of those tender touches, full of warmth and humanity, that make the Rule so attractive. Of course, anyone who has actually got up in the middle of the night to sing Vigils, day in, day out, and been faced with the long, cold trek into choir, where X is singing flat and Y flapping around like a wet hen because, yet again, he hasn’t prepared, may take a slightly more jaundiced view. Let us leave the monastic curmudgeons to their mutterings and reflect on the words themselves: ‘the sleepy are apt to make excuses’.

Do we sleep-walk through life, going through the same routines but never thinking very deeply about anything and avoiding, if we can, any engagement beyond the superficial, or do we cultivate a kind of moral sleepiness, deliberately keeping ourselves distant from everyone and everything, so that if we are taxed with bad behaviour or challenged about our attitudes, we can take refuge in excuses and evasion? It isn’t very brave, but as a survival technique it has something to commend it. If it always someone else’s fault, we can reassure ourselves that ‘our withers are unwrung’. If we don’t have to face up to the consequences of our actions, we can go on defending them. The trouble with that kind of approach is that one day we’ll wake up and find that because we’ve never been able to say sorry, we’ve never been able to accept forgiveness, either.

If I may be allowed a very large generalisation, I’d say that men are marginally more likely than women to have difficulty admitting they are wrong. It sounds like conceding defeat, weakness even. They prefer to go on the attack or continue to justify their actions when it might be more gracious just to smile and say ‘sorry’. Women, by contrast, sometimes say ‘sorry’ very quickly, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is necessarily meant as an apology or recognition of wrongdoing. Far from it! It can sometimes be a way of drawing fire, of avoiding responsibility. (Here let me just add that, if one is British, one is culturally predisposed to apologize to all and sundry, even the furniture, but I hope we can take a more international view of the situation for the sake of my argument.) Whether male or female, we are all familiar with the techniques of avoidance and evasion, both active and passive, but I don’t suppose any of us is very pleased to have them pointed out to us, not in ourselves at any rate. We prefer to keep our eyes closed, dozing our way through things.

Unfortunately, we can’t doze for ever, not in this life. The time will come when we must rouse ourselves and stop making excuses. Why is that important? I’ve already given one reason, the importance of both giving and accepting forgiveness, but I think there’s a second. When we are asleep, even half-asleep, we are less than fully alive. We’re slightly ‘out’ of things. Making excuses for ourselves, whether of the aggressive or defensive kind, is also a way of being ‘out’ of things, but that isn’t how we are meant to spend our lives. We aren’t meant to be moral cowards. We have been given the enormous gift of free will, and we are meant to use it. We have been given grace, signed and sealed with the Holy Spirit at our baptism. Is there anything we cannot face, even those shortcomings that wound our pride and undermine our sense of self? Of course not! And Lent is a very good time for facing up to some of them.

Today’s gospel, Matthew 5. 20–26, contains a very sober warning that we can’t drift through a life of virtue. Little things matter. We have to act, and act decisively. If there is someone we need to be reconciled with, it’s no good waiting for him/her to come to us. We must go out to them. That takes courage, because it means risking rebuff. But wouldn’t it be better to be thought a fool rather than actually be one, to be fully awake and alive rather than slumbering and semi-comatose? Today, I shall try to take my own advice because I believe it to be what the gospel asks of us. What about you?

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The Blessing of Sleep

One of the incidental blessings of my recent surgery has been the ability to sleep ‘normally’ again. After two years of disturbed nights, I appreciate how easily we are affected by aches and pains — and what a pain we are to others when we don’t sleep well!

You can find recommendations a-plenty for how to get to sleep and ensure your sleep is sound, but along with the milky drinks and the regular routines advocated by the sleep specialists, there is one conspicuous absence: the need for a quiet conscience. I don’t mean by that an innocent conscience. Few of us are fortunate enough to live wholly unblemished lives; but although we all sin, we don’t have to let sin define us. We have it in our power to repent, to change, to try to put things right. When St Benedict gives as a tool of good works ‘make peace with your opponent before sunset’ (RB 4.70), he is merely putting into concrete form something he alludes to many times in the Rule: never nurse a grudge, never allow your conscience to become accustomed to thoughts of revenge, see where your desire leads and check it if it is leading you astray.

The old practice of ‘examination of conscience’ before bedtime is a helpful way of reviewing the day’s events. It enables us to give thanks as well as repent of wrongdoing. It can also help organize our discordant and jangling impulses into a programme for tomorrow, when we will try to live more truthfully, lovingly, etc.

Despite years of research we still do not know all sleep’s secrets. Perhaps the most elusive is the way in which sleep fashions our future. We know that the wear and tear on our bodies is repaired during sleep; we also know the psychological benefits of a good night’s sleep and the way in which problems are often resolved without our consciously thinking them through; but what of the spiritual benefits of sleep? Sleep is the one time when we can’t put up any barriers to God, when there are no obstacles to the working of grace. You may not be a monk or nun, but before you go to sleep tonight, try making your own that lovely saying of the Desert Fathers, ‘the monastic cell is like Easter Night: it sees Christ rising’, and quieten heart and mind in readiness.

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Gentleness with Self

For many years it’s been my practice to try to get up an hour earlier than the horarium demands in order to have more time for prayer and reading before the busy-ness of the day starts. Recently, it’s been proving harder to do. It’s cold and dark, and my bodyclock has been in rebellion. If St Teresa of Avila could admit that there were days when she couldn’t swat a fly for the love of God, why should I have any problem with my duvet difficulty? Because, of course, I do: I’m slightly rattled that I want to sleep when I feel I should ‘really’ be praying.

It’s very easy to beat oneself up about what one has not done: to feel a failure because one has not lived up to standards one has set oneself. I think that often causes a great deal of unnecessary anguish. Sometimes it is the anguish of mortified pride, because what we decide to do, even though good in itself, is not always of obligation. We are annoyed with ourselves for failing to do what we wanted, not what God asked.

We are currently reading St Benedict’s chapter on the cellarer or business manager of the monastery (RB 31). I hope to comment more extensively tomorrow, but today I should like to draw your attention to just two points: according to Benedict, the most important quality the cellarer should possess is humility, and again and again it is stressed that he should do neither more nor less than is required of him by the abbot. The desire to do more can be commendable, but it can also be a form of spiritual ambition which is anything but godly. To tell them apart may require some delicate discernment. I may be wrong, but I suspect my need of sleep is greater than my need of extra prayer at the moment. God is being gentle with me. I just have to learn to be gentle with myself.

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