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A theology of slumber

14 February 2014

Sleep is a vital gift from God for the health of body and soul, and a desperately needed counter to activism, argues Nick Jowett

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 solution.

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 deepest.

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 health problems.

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 of sleep. 

Canon Nick Jowett is a retired priest in the diocese of Sheffield.

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