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How to sleep and the theology of wakefulness

04 October 2019

Sleep is experienced as a gift from God. But what if it is withheld, asks Laurie Vere


“AND so he giveth his beloved sleep.” How those words from Psalm 127 accuse me. Am I not God’s beloved? But he doesn’t often give me sleep.

Sleep, so everyone says — from the National Sleep Foundation to Dementia UK — is the vital ingredient to life that many of us are missing. A pithy line from Cymbeline has the ring of a proverb: “He that sleeps feels not the toothache.” Yes, sleep is potent, natural pain-relief. It

knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.


But what if you can’t sleep?

I have a high theology of sleep, and always have had — probably because I did not sleep well in childhood. Nothing in the NHS shocked me more than being asked by a training consultant how we would wake and shame a colleague if they should fall asleep during one of our training sessions. Why would you want to disturb them?

Of course, there is an entire theology of wakefulness to be drawn from the Bible and the Church’s tradition of vigils: the voluntary offering of something good in exchange for something better.

Vigils represented the first Christians’ voluntary embrace of death: a night ritual by the graves of those who had died, ending with a celebration of the eucharist at dawn, enacting their faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. This developed into the Easter vigil liturgy, the Church’s joyful proclamation that resurrection comes though death.

Keeping vigil is still practised, in the belief that the night watches are a “thin” time, when God’s presence is perceived more clearly.

But being hungry is not the same as fasting, and involuntary insomnia is not the same as keeping vigil.

For those who are keeping vigil involuntarily, but for love’s sake, surely God’s presence is also a sustaining, illuminating reality? As a young adult, when night wakefulness was caused by babies, I discovered compline, and loved the suggestion that, in saying the night prayer of the Church, I could offer some prayerful solidarity with all the other parents who were wondering how to cope with their relentlessly screaming baby.

To pray for them, for the sick and the dying — and for the armies of police officers, nurses, cleaners, engineers, truck-drivers, and others who labour through the night — could, in Shakespeare’s words, make virtue of necessity.

Now, sharing night duties for a grandchild fills me with awe of young people’s love and stamina. The lot of almost all new parents is to be strained to unimaginable limits by chronic sleep-deprivation. And spare a prayer for the many parents whose children never learn to sleep well.


CHILDREN aside, Shakespeare relates sleeplessness with a guilty conscience. Think of Brutus: “I would it were my fault to sleep so soundly. . . Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar I have not slept.” And, for Shakespeare, nocturnal disturbances become a figure for every kind of violent human rupture of the cosmic fabric.

But these are a playwright’s devices. Sleep departs from the nicest, dullest of us, withholding itself and its gifts from the worried and the elderly, whom, you might suppose, most need them. We are told that insomnia is inseparably part of age and hormonal changes — or, of course, distemper. Friar Laurence is surprisingly disapproving when Romeo appears at his chapel bright and early:

Young son, it argues a distempered head
So soon to bid good morrow to thy bed.
Care keeps his watch in every old man’s eye,
And where care lodges, sleep will never lie.

Romeo and Juliet

But are we blameless? Or is the steady flight of sleep from middle-aged onwards caused by the subtler, shared sin of growing up — the loss of faith and “sense of dependence” that, as Schleiermacher thought, underlies it. Charles Péguy certainly thought so:

I don’t like the man who doesn’t sleep, says God. . .
Unhappy people, they don’t know what’s good.
They look after their affairs well during the day. . .
As if I weren’t capable of looking after them for one night.

from “The Mystery of the Holy Innocents”, trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr (Eerdmans, 1986)

The sleepless may not be murderous or distempered; but living in a state of chronic stress, as many do when they reach the stage of taking responsibility from their parents — or, later, of their parents — is bound to infect the night hours. Anxiety as we age has many causes: overwork; unemployment; over-exercise; the lack of exercise; alcohol; and drugs.

We envy those who can switch off, but most of us do not have a switch, but a dial — one that becomes increasingly stiff, and won’t go below the three or four mark.

Even if people avoid individual concerns, it is hard to avoid the collective disrespect that our bodies are subjected to, such as noise and light pollution. My children are most communicative, textually, between 11 p.m. and midnight. My neighbour leaves for work in his noisy diesel van at any time from 5 a.m. to avoid rush-hour traffic.

There is plenty of good advice about sleep hygiene (see panel); but what if your circumstances do not permit those luxuries? And, even with these — and I have tried most — sleep can be elusive. Shakespeare’s Henry IV reflects bitterly on the drenched young ship’s boy who can sleep like a log, while he, “with all appliances and means to boot,” cannot.

Substitute students in damp bedsits for that ship’s boy: they can sleep, and I bet they have their phones on and within reach, too. Yet in even my minimalist, comfortable bedroom, I will still wake up twice a night for a pee. (Nocturia, if we’re being formal.) Once awake, it is hard to sleep again.

That is when I draw on another theology. Many psalms celebrate the saints who do not eschew sleep for vigils, but who lie awake at night on their beds to think about God. When sleep deserted me for a few years, a while back, I decided to embrace these dark hours to seek solitude with God, and listen patiently to what the night and silence would bring.

It was often excruciating to stay still and receptive to that nothing, and I could be very tired during the next day. I often fell asleep in meetings (thankful to those who resisted prodding me awake), and I discovered that I could fall asleep standing up (during the canticles and psalms).

In retrospect, it was a furrowing of my life, preparing a transition to different work, a different way of life, different responsibilities, and deeper spiritual sensitivity.

I have no final prescription, except the trusted maxim “Do what love demands.” In my case, that has meant applying the best hygiene rules of soul, body, and mind that I know, since love demands that I stay as well and useful as possible; and then accepting sleep, or wakefulness, as a gift, offering back whatever I have for God to use.

Laurie Vere is a pseudonym for a priest.

And so to sleep . . . ?

HERE are a few of the current recommendations to aid sleep. Neibuhr’s prayer couldn’t be more applicable: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

  • Keep a sleep diary and see what patterns you detect. Observe the effects of what you eat and drink during the evening.
  • Discuss any chronic symptoms with your GP, in case there is an underlying medical condition that can be treated.
  • Keep regular hours of sleep, even at weekends. Some people swear by a nap during the day. Others think these are to be avoided.
  • Have a peaceful going-to-bed routine.
  • Do not go to bed too early, and always get up at the same time each day.
  • Exercise every day, but not during the evening.
  • A weekly session of cognitive behavioural therapy might help you to recognise what beliefs and thoughts control your inability to sleep. (Sometimes, I have found something as simple as a star-chart has worked miracles with young people.)
  • Make sure that your bedroom feels safe, quiet, and relaxing, and has thick curtains. Keep it cool, and ensure that your bedclothes are warm but not too warm.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol if they keep you awake.
  • Learn techniques of relaxation, mindfulness, self-hypnosis, and meditation.
  • Don’t worry if you cannot sleep: read, get up and do something relaxing or creative, pray.
  • Use a sound app, such as Tom Middleton’s “Sleep Better: soundscapes to enhance sleep quality” as a primer to sleep.
  • Banish work, screens, phones, iPads, clocks, the news, Brexit, anything worrying or upsetting, before you get ready for bed. Invest in a small, non-ticking alarm clock if you are worried about oversleeping.
  • Keep a pen and pad by your bed so that you can immediately write down anything you are worried about forgetting — and then put it out of your mind.
  • Embrace anything that makes you feel happy and safe, especially before you sleep: teddies, blankets, lovely books, cocoa, a gratitude diary, seed catalogues, family photographs, a “holding cross”.

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