FOR something that we spend about one third of our lives doing,
it is remarkable that sleep is given so little theological
attention. There are few religious books or sermons about it.
Perhaps Christians have caught the spirit of the age in valuing
only activism and busyness. Perhaps we are interpreting too
literally Jesus's command to be alert: "Blessed is the slave whom
his master will find at work when he arrives" (Matthew 24.46).
Or perhaps we hate postponing decisions, and agree with Karl
Rahner when he writes that people "naturally assume that one always
judges and acts better . . . if onehas first 'slept on it'. Surely
itis often the reverse: often one sleeps away the highest
inspirations, ifone first sleeps on them before acting in
accordance with them and definitively making them one's own."
It is clear that, as Ecclesiastes surprisingly did not say,
there isa time for sleeping and time for being busy. Against the
muscular Christianity of activism and decisiveness, there is a
strong theological case to be made, not just for rest and
recreation, but for sleep itself and for "sleeping on things" - in
spite of Rahner.
The classic text is Psalm 127.2: "It is in vain that you rise up
early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he
[God] gives sleep to his beloved."
An alternative reading of the last line, given in an RSV
footnote, is "for he provides for his beloved during sleep". If you
have a decision to make or a relationship to resolve, or you are
trying to write something, it is amazing how often you can go to
bed not seeing the way forward, and wake up with the
THE latest scientific research can tell us of some of the
benefits of sleep: the brain seems to be sorting itself out. The
patterns of neuron-firing change from random and variable activity
during wakefulness to a more co-ordinated and synchronous pattern
during non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is the
There is an increase in the release of growth hormones -
cell-repair and growth being a clear function of sleep. As heart
rate and blood pressure drop in non-REM sleep, the heart is given a
rest from the demands of waking life.
The evidence is that anyone who is deprived of sleep for a
period has an ever-diminishing ability to perform high-level
cognitive functions. There is also a growing body of research to
suggest that the hormone melatonin, which regulates our circadian
rhythms, and which is produced exclusively at night in the dark,
helps to regulate other hormones, which can play a part in breast
and prostate cancers. Short or disrupted sleep is clearly
associated with low levels of melatonin, and may lead to a range of
So, in terms of both body and soul, as George MacDonald wrote:
"Sleep is God's contrivance for giving man the help He cannot get
into him when he is awake."
SLEEPING is not only a sensible receiving of all that God gives
to us in it, but is the ultimate act of vulnerability, and of trust
that everything does not depend on our own heroic activity.
The act of letting ourselves go into sleep is analogous to
letting ourselves go trustingly into God's hands in death. It is a
matter for regret that so many priests and church workers, by
imitating the world's pattern of overwork, show an existential lack
of trust in God.
As for dreams, which happen in the phases of REM sleep, no
theory of them has stood unchallenged, from the biblical idea of
dreams as a medium of divine communication to Freudian, Jungian, or
other psychological theories. They remain in many ways as
perplexing as ever.
If the brain is, as it were, re-booting itself during sleep,
then the images and experiences from our waking hours may only be
being randomly shuffled around. Yet, in my experience and that of
others, some dreams seem very meaningful: some are extremely
pleasant; but even in anxiety dreams it seems that I am sorting out
my feelings about my life.
Whether dreams are loaded with meaning, or are just an
epiphenomenon of brain activity in sleep, it cannot be wrong to
regard them as a gift from God. At the very least, when you wake up
from yet another liturgical débâcle, you can thank God that it
happened only in a dream.
THE writings of the French 20th century poet Charles Péguy show
a delightfully counter-cultural attitude to sleep. He describes
workaholics as "unfaithful to hope". His long poem The Portal
of the Mystery of Hope has God describing sleep as "perhaps
the most beautiful thing I have created". It ends:
He who sleeps like a child is also
he who sleeps like my darling Hope.
And I tell you, Put off until tomorrow those worries and those
troubles which are gnawing at you today,
Put off until tomorrow those sobs that choke you when you see
today's unhappiness. . .
Because between now and tomorrow, maybe I, God, will have passed by
your way. . .
Blessed is he who puts off. That is to say, blessed is he who
hopes. And who sleeps.
Activists may quote Gospel references to Jesus's having no time
even to eat, or praying all night, or having nowhere to lay his
head, but his response to pressure was to take the disciples off to
rest awhile (Mark 6.31).
There could be no better image for a theology of sleep than that
of Jesus's sleeping, trustingly, in a boat, while the storm rages
(Mark 4.38). As he also said, in a challenge to a Gentile world of
competition and status anxiety: "Do not worry about tomorrow, for
tomorrow willbring worries of its own" (Matthew 6.34).
In a time of declining resources in both Church and society, the
pressure to overwork is driven by competitiveness and guilt, but
the results of forcing ourselves on against nature are likely to be
diminishing. It is time that we took seriously a positive theology
Canon Nick Jowett is a retired priest in the diocese of