IT IS a strange thing we do every night. We lie down on padded platforms, close our eyes, and lose our consciousness. As the sun disappears, so we make ourselves vulnerable to attack, losing control over everything we know and possess. And yet, a new and fantastical world opens up to us; unvisited parts of us come up for air. We dream. Our brains don’t sleep. They enjoy playtime.
This daily physical ritual of sleep is how we regenerate ourselves for another day. Sleep deprivation is consequently recognised as torture by the United Nations. Our life returns with the dawn, and it is a life mysteriously connected to the life that we live in sleep.
Can we make any theological sense of this? It is a question that Karl Rahner asked and one that Andrew Bishop pursues with a contagious interest. He finds the richest examples of “theosomnia” articulated in Christian practices such as compline, vigils, the examen, and evening hymnody. He looks at neuroscience and the evolutionary purposes of sleep, as well as the many scriptural and mystical references to God’s using sleep as a place of encounter with his people. He explores the themes of vigilance and watchfulness, and the connections made between sleep and resurrection, time and eschatology.
Bishop’s conclusion is that our sleep is “a time of grace and posture of being oneself without inhibition before God”, such as that known by Jesus in the storm-rocked boat. Sleep, he argues, is a time when we are dissociated from our egos and projections, sustained beyond our conscious capacities, and reconnected to our creatureliness. Seen Christologically, it is about kenosis, an emptying that immobilises our powers with grace for the sake of another day.
This is an accessible and thoughtful book. It draws out some practical consequences of a theosomnia, too. There are pastoral issues to face in a world where the workplace demands longer hours and our sleep patterns are fitful. In the Church’s call to be a school for relating, it must address itself to the decline in the quality of our relationships and poorer mental well-being when sleep isn’t taken seriously and is just viewed as a way of killing time when we are exhausted.
There are also ecclesial reminders: “a theosomniac Church resists the societal impulse never to rest, always to be active.”
The old proverb tells us that one good turn gets all the duvet. It might be a more devout thing to do than we thought.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.
Theosomnia: A Christian theology of sleep
Church Times Bookshop £40.50