“If you don’t get enough deep sleep during the night, expect prayer time to become nap time”

If dealing with distractions is not bad enough, few things can be as defeating as battling sleep; perhaps not deep REM sleep, just the gentle dozing that keeps the head bobbing up and down. This is one of those areas of struggle about which it is important not to spiritualize. If you don’t get enough deep sleep during the night, expect prayer time to become nap time. If you’ve been blessed with narcolepsy during sermons that merit that response, it will probably show up in prayer time as well. Some people stoke themselves with coffee and find that helpful. Others will try to caffeinate themselves into contemplation and end up with a prayer period of the most apocalyptic sort imaginable. You simply do the best you can. Old-timers often have too little good-quality sleep during the night, so any opportunity for a nap is going to be used for that. Hence, the importance of finding comfort in the Psalmist: “The Lord givers to his beloved while they slumber” (Ps 127:2).

There are other times outside official periods of prayer, which may be used to extend our practice. Virtually any stretch of time when the discursive (thinking) mind is not need (which is a fair bit) will work, as when peeling vegetables, vacuuming, ironing, washing the car, gardening, and so on—all sorts of opportunities exist that we can and should use in addition to “official” prayer periods. Self-recrimination is rarely any help.

There is one group of people who experience this sleepy boredom on a regular basis, but not owing to lack of good-quality sleep at night. Certain people have a way of relying heavily on discursive reason. This is quite irrespective of native intelligence or level of formal education. Such people are going to find the practice of contemplation rather tough going because they have a strong habit of thinking about everything (again the thinking in this case has nothing to do with being right or wrong about something). If the discursive mind is not being stimulated, even though the deeper intuitive faculties are being disposed to the interior quiet that nourishes them, these individuals may soon find themselves hunched over in a snooze. There are worse things that can happen to a person. In this case, some little contemplative aids such as posture and abdominal breathing might help (presuming you are not physically exhausted and in actual need of sleep).

If you sit in a chair, sit up on the edge of it so that you do not use the back of the chair for support. The practice of contemplation is not a leisurely activity. If it were, we would use a hammock or a sofa. Sit up straight, shoulders back, but not rigid, allowing the natural S-curve of the back to support you. Breathe through your nostrils. Into the Silent Land shows how proper posture and especially attention to the breath have a long history in the Christian tradition, but the medical world has also been telling us what proper breathing can do. Breathing deeply through the nasal passages releases nitric oxide, which serves as an effective lung and blood vessel dilator. One effect of this is a sense of being more alert. Ancient wisdom and modern medicine converge on the role of the breath in facilitating alertness during prayer.

Fr Martin Laird

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3 Responses to “If you don’t get enough deep sleep during the night, expect prayer time to become nap time”

  1. J Clivas says:

    Sleep has become a fetish in recent years, especially among sleep specialists seeking grant support for their research, I like Charles Laughton’s line: For the old, sleep is a waste of time,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I’ve been a chronic insomniac since my teenage years. It’s a killer. What I wouldn’t give for the kind of deep, restful, re-creative sleep that some people enjoy.

      Your comment reminded me of this article by Maria Popova: “Sleep Demons.”

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Only we insomniacs can truly understand the joy of a full, deep night’s sleep. I seldom have such nights, and I am constantly apologizing to God for my distraction during prayers. I figure He should understand.

    Liked by 1 person

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