Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sleeping Like a Monk

Last night, the time change that occurred last weekend caught up with me (for readers outside of the U.S., we moved our clocks back one hour, ending Daylight Savings Time).  I  fell asleep on the couch at about 8:30 p.m., and got up and went to bed a little before 11 p.m.

Of course, I couldn't get back to sleep right away.  Even though going back to sleep was what I desired, I could take comfort in two things as I was awake in bed: (1)  I was actually following the natural sleep pattern of our ancestors, and (2)  I had the opportunity to engage in the Biblical and monastic practice of praying at night.

Recent studies have shown that our bodies naturally prefer "segmented sleep", meaning two distinct periods of sleep at night.  Roger Ekirch, a professor of history at Virginia Tech, has located numerous references in  historical records to the time of "first sleep" and "second sleep"  Before the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of artificial lighting, our ancestors would go to sleep for a few hours after sundown, then would rise in the middle of the night for a few hours of activity, and then would fall back asleep until sunrise.  So, my sleep pattern last night was perfectly natural.  For more information about "segmented sleep", read this article: http://slumberwise.com/science/your-ancestors-didnt-sleep-like-you/

These recent studies are not news to certain monastic orders who follow the ancient patterns of prayer.  For centuries, Carthusian monks have used our bodies' natural segmented sleep pattern to get up in the middle of the night to pray.

A Carthusian monk goes to bed at 7:30 p.m., and rises at 11:30 p.m. for a period of private prayer in his cell. At 12:15 a.m., the monks gather in the chapel for communal observance of the prayer offices of Matins and Lauds, which last approximately 2-3 hours, and then they go back to bed, where they remain until rising at approximately 6:30 a.m.

There are also numerous references in the Bible to the importance of prayer at night - "watching and waking":

"How often is it mentioned in the psalms that the person who prays 'meditates' (Psalm 1:2) on the law of God not only by day, but also by night, that he stretches out his hands to God in prayer at night, (Psalm 77:3, 134:2), that he rises 'at midnight to praise God because of his righteous ordinances' (Psalm 119:62)....

Christ was accustomed to spend 'all night. . . in prayer to God' (Luke 6:12), or 'in the morning, a great while before day' to go out in the wilderness to pray. (Mark 1:35).

Hence the Lord urgently admonishes his disciples, also, to 'watch and pray' (Mark 14:38, Luke 21:36), and indicates a new reason for it: 'You do not know the time' of the return of the Son of Man (Mark 13:33) and could therefore, weakened by sleep, 'enter into temptation.' (Matthew 26:41)."

(From pp. 79-80 of "Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition" by Gabriel Bunge, O.S.B.).

So, the next time you have a bout of insomnia like I did last night - don't fret - take advantage of the time you are awake, and pray like a monk.

UPDATE (11/7/13): This article has been cross-posted on the Living Lutheran!


  1. This has pretty much always been my sleep pattern but I didn't make the spiritual connection until I was in my 40s.

    At that point I did exactly what you suggested! I stopped railing against the insomnia and started saying/praying, "Ok, God, I'm awake. Now what?"

    1. There must be something about turning 40!

      I go through stretches of time when I get up every night, but it seems like after I wrote this post, I've slept through the night every night! When I do get up, about half the time, I will stay in bed and pray something like the "Jesus Prayer" and other times, I'll get up and pray an office or do lectio divina.

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