The Sleepless Benedictine

By The Venerable Max Woolaver

Pretty well everyone I know is not sleeping well. There are myriad reasons for this. Would you like me to list them just to make sure your favourite is on the list? I didn’t think so.

 Let me, then, jump to the surprise —I have come to welcome the sleeplessness. To be more precise, I have come to welcome the broken sleep. I am not talking about complete and utter sleeplessness — this of course is a serious problem and counsel should be sought.

The broken sleep I am speaking of comes invariably between 2:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. and usually lasts between one or two hours. (Oddly enough, I have found through COVID-19, that I have an uncanny ability to know what time it is in the dead of night— often within five minutes or so. (This might explain why I am never late for meetings, which any colleague of mine will verify.)

Long before COVID-19 I did a little reading on the subject of sleep patterns in general. (See the citation below) It seems that this pattern of broken sleep, ‘sleep in two shifts’ or ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep could be quite natural and in fact the norm in our not too distant global past. I mentioned above that I usually know what time it is when I awake, much like the prisoner in The Tale of Two Cities who always knew what time it was even in the timelessness of prison. Dickens in fact mentions the phenomena of ‘first’ sleep in his novel Barnaby Rudge (1840): “He knew this, even in the horror with which he started from his first sleep …” It seems that it was common for folks to retire early, sleep for a few hours, be active, even visit neighbours, have a cup of tea, read, cozy-up with a partner (blush!) and then, “a second sleep until dawn.” “Interestingly, the appearance of insomnia in the literature in the late 19th century coincides in the period where accounts of ‘split sleep’ start to disappear.” To paraphrase, we may be putting too much pressure on ourselves with the ideal of “continuous consolidated sleep, adding to the anxiety about sleep and perpetuating the problem.”

 The time of broken sleep has become a time of prayer. My mind is crystal clear. All my sorrows, sins, joys, all my cares for my family, for the world and all living creatures, for the church, for my parish, for our Diocese come home to my heart, soul, mind and body. The broken hours are made whole. The broken time has become a Benedictine night office. It is a time when “even memory becomes an apprehension of Glory …” (St. John of the Cross)

It has brought home to me the beauty of our bedrock Anglican spirituality. We are Benedictines. To awake from sleep in the dead of night has been our practice with roots going back to Benedict himself sleeping in his cave in the 500’s. Jesus often prayed all night—a practice which may have come to him in his years of youthful formation—perhaps exemplified in the desert dwelling Jewish communities of ancient Palestine. We come by our night prayers honestly.

This is what I do in the night prayer: I lay still. I breathe in a slow, relaxed manner, exhaling more slowly than I inhale. I pray the Grace as I cross myself in sync with my breathing. I pray: “All graceful, all caring, ever-creating God, to you my heart is open, all my desires known and from you none of my secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of my heart so that I may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your Holy Name.” All of this with gesture and rhythmic, slow breath. I then pray the Shema (Hear O Israel, The Lord, our God is one, Love the Lord your God with all your heart …) You know the prayer. You are a Benedictine. “Deep calls to deep … in the night … God’s song is with me … a prayer to the God of my life.” Ps.42

(Citation: Melinda Jackson, Siobhan Banks, Humans Used to Sleep in Two Shifts)