Sleep and Spiritual Work

I often find myself thinking and talking about spiritual work. I think that what I mean to say is that the most basic things we need to remain sane and human, the things that perhaps should be natural, really take work, because there are unseen forces at work out there to really mess with our minds and with the deepest parts of our souls.

Another way of thinking of this is that there are many of these basic human functions that, as a child, are easy; but they become oh so hard as we age. Why? Because we live and move and have our being in the deep woods of the world. 

(You see, there it is—one of those things: that concept of “age” or “aging.” When we are young, the word “aging” just flies by, little affecting our consciousness. But when we are older and hear a TV ad for something like fish oil—something our good doctor says we should definitely be taking, and the pitch man on TV says it is of the category of items of interest to “the aging,” the words suddenly shock us. We have become older; and things that are easy and natural, suddenly have become harder. We have to work at them.)

Thus, we need to dedicate ourselves to our spiritual work.

One of those things-once-easy is sleep. As babies we fall to sleep. When we are old we must work to sleep. Here is my current list of things to do in order to sleep: I stop eating at about 6:00 p.m. I try to stop thinking about money and scheduling conflicts by about 9:00 p.m. I watch some television. As one of my grandmothers once said, it is great “chewing gum for the brain.” I then count out my pills. To sleep I have two tablets of antihistamine, a spoonful of magnesium powder, one or two melatonin tablets and another secret, natural sleeping pill. I then take a hot bath or shower, perhaps have a message from my loving wife, turn on a humidifier, put in some ear plugs, make sure the eye shades and Kleenex are within reach, pile up some pillows or try once again to use my fancy “bed wedge” from Bed, Bath and Beyond, turn out all the lights and lay me down to wait for sleep to slip up on me.
When you are “aging” as I am, it doesn’t come so easy. In fact, when you struggle to sleep as much as I have been lately there is a tricky thing that goes on inside your brain. In the darkness of the night and of your soul you actually begin to get lost in a kind of existential approach-avoidance conflict: you crave sleep, but as it approaches you dread it. On the one hand is the fear of not sleeping and on the other is the fear that the sleep that comes will be the sleep of death.

I never thought a thought like that when I was young. My trust in God was purer and I didn’t have such goblins tormenting me. At one point in my youth there were nightmarish nights when my brother in the next bed turned into a sadistic machine-gunner, or the railroad tracks out back turned into a river into the jungle. But I never feared the sleep of death because death was an Enemy long vanquished. I knew it by looking into my mother’s eyes when we prayed, kneeling at the bedside.

So here is this point at which, I believe, spiritual work is called for. When I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Or do I? At that moment and during those many moments when my sleep is broken by the jolts of my own snoring or choking on my own aging and thickening tongue, is it the embrace of eternal life or eternal death that I feel?

I do not exaggerate in the least when I say how much I work at sleep these days. I do have all those pills and pillows and every time a doctor or sleep expert or friend recommends some new chemical or gadget or exercise, I’ll undoubtedly try it. What do I have to lose?

But I also have prayer books and Bibles by my bed (I’m a pastor – so I have multiples of each). Do I always use them as directed? Not as I should. Sometimes I get pretty worn out with all that other preparation and forget. And each time I do forget my spiritual work, I do it at my own peril.
That little, deceptively easy prayer: “Now I lay me down the sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” It is a prayer that expresses, in simplest of forms, that profoundest of sentiments that has echoed in the prayers and litanies of saints and sinners down through the ages. It is sort of an ultimate expression of faith. One saintly woman in my life had a banner in her office that read, “Faith is not having to know what’s going to happen next.” Ultimate faith is not having to know the exact shape of the moment after the sleep of death starts, but knowing well that the arms that will receive you are The Kindest Arms of all. Such faith lets us say with Jesus, “Into thy hands, O God, I commend my spirit.”

Spiritual work is paying acute attention to the kindness of God that is holding us always. It is allowing such blessed assurance shape our thoughts and actions. In the tricky game of sleep it is simply drawing a teensy-weensy little bridge extending the road of life we have already traveled into the dark beyond of our aging imagination. It is carrying that thought of a most certain bridge with us to bed.

Because we are not young anymore, all this requires work. It requires sweeping away the voices of goblins in our head by means of the voices of the saints who have traveled this road before. Pills and pillows will help, but if we are to fight off the forces of darkness that rattle our nights we are going to have to pick up those prayer books and Bibles and use THEM as directed.
I’ll just share one of my favorite prayers, in the form of a song. It was composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stőlzel, but it was made famous because it was included in J. S. Bach’s Anna Magdelena’s Notebook. The poem is a marvelous expression of that ultimate trust that we should reach for more and more as we do our spiritual work for a restorative sleep. Here it is in one English translation from the original German:

Be Thou with me, then I will go gladly
unto [my] death and to my rest.
Ah, what a pleasant end for me,
if your dear hands be the last I see,
closing shut my faithful eyes to rest!

God grant all of you a restful night and a peaceful, blessed end. Amen.