Monastic Prayers and Sleep

Monastic Prayers and Sleep


From an NPR program:

One particularly fascinating sleep fact that Randall reports is that the sleep rhythms of the human brain have fundamentally changed over the centuries. Medieval literary texts, medical manuscripts and tales make reference to a mysterious “first sleep” and “second sleep.” The “first sleep” began shortly after sundown and lasted until after midnight. When people woke up, they would pray, read, … whatever. The “second sleep” then lasted until sunup. In experiments, researchers have found that when people live solely by natural light, they revert back to this ancient “segmented sleep” pattern and that, chemically, the body in that interval between first and second sleep is “in a state equivalent to what you might feel after spending a day at the spa.” It seems that, thanks to the light bulb, the entire industrialized world is sleeping unnaturally.

Actually, you can do your own research and find out that in sleep studies, this is now the fairly established view. That is, segmented sleep, bimodal sleep pattern, bifurcated sleep—whatever it is called—was the normal sleep pattern through most of human existence. References to this divided sleep have been found in the Odyssey. Psalm 119:62 says, “At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee because of thy righteous judgments.” Of Paul and Silas in jail it says, “And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them,” Acts 16:25. And even when Martin Luther writes, “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day,” it is just as likely that he is speaking about the time after midnight between the first and second sleep.

Because that sleep pattern fell out of favor, it means that we can often misinterpret those references when we read them. And, it also means that we can misinterpret the patterns of prayer that developed in the Early Church as a result of those patterns of sleep. The most often misunderstood patterns are the monastic hours of prayer, which the West calls the Canonical Hours. How often have you heard someone commenting on the putative sleep deprivation of the monks and nuns who pray the Midnight Office? For instance, in the Episcopal Café, one article says:

The ancient monastic practice of rising sometime between midnight and two in the morning to pray sanctifies the night hours. To me the idea of nuns and monks rising from their beds in the middle of the night and shuffling down a darkened hall in pairs by candlelight, half asleep, to sing and pray in a cold chapel is both appalling and comforting. … Beyond these memories of sleep deprivation, however, the image of nuns and monks singing in the cold chapel in the middle of the night is comforting. … A friend of mine who is a hermit calls Vigils “the prayer office for pious insomniacs.”

But, that is actually a false assumption. Look closely at the monastic hours. Think in terms of a sleep which begins shortly after dark and is split into two parts. Think in terms of a brief afternoon nap, which is still part of the sleep pattern in many Mediterranean countries. Now, look again at the monastic hours. They fit perfectly into that type of sleep pattern. That is, the monastic hours grew to allow the monks to pray during parts of each of their waking periods, of which the midnight waking period is one.

Thus, contrary to modern popular belief, the Midnight Office was not an office of self-mortification, but a continuation of a pattern as old as the Old Testament, a pattern in which the midnight waking time is a good time to pray. It is a quiet time, a relaxed time during which the soul may most richly pray to God. It is not a time of sleepy prayer, but a time of gentle rich prayer.

I am not suggesting that we all return to that pattern. There is at least one study from France that appears to say that those who have grown up on the modern sleep pattern do not easily switch to the older sleep pattern. This is merely to say that the ancient prayer patterns were not started simply on a whim, but followed the natural cycles of asleep and awake.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

About author

Fr. Ernesto Obregon

I am a Cuban. My sister and I arrived in the United States of America in 1961. I was nine years old at the time and my sister was five. Yes, alone. Our mother, a widow, put us on the plane in La Habana, and we were taken to an orphanage upon our arrival in Miami. No, I never lived in Miami for longer than about six months. Yes, we and our mother were re-united. She escaped from Cuba by boat about four or five months after we arrived in the USA. We were re-united and were sent by the Catholic Welfare folk to Ohio, where they had found my mother a job and us a foster home while she learned English and got situated. So, I grew up in Ohio, had a paper route, learned to build snowmen, and moved from place to place as out mother got better jobs. Eventually she met a good man and re-married and we settled into his house in Mansfield, Ohio. I was a 15-year-old teenager.

Needless to say, none of this was necessarily guaranteed to keep me strong in the faith, although my mother tried. I rebelled during my teenage years and left Roman Catholicism for some vague hippie philosophies and a lot of rebellion. By 1970 I had been expelled from college after my first year, a year in which I was very confused and quite directionless. When I returned to Mansfield in defeat, I was approached by a friend who had become a “Jesus Person.” He took me to this “farm” that was filled with about four middle-aged adults and lots of early 20′s Jesus People. One of those adults was a Southern Baptist pastor, a former Campus Crusade staffer, and uncomfortable supervisor of hippy Jesus People, and is now the Very Rev. Gordon Walker, an Archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. His story, along with others whom I know, is chronicled in the book, “Becoming Orthodox” by the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist.

My journey was different. I eventually ended up as an Anglican priest, and a missionary. My wife and I served in both Bolivia and Perú, and our three intelligent and very perspicacious daughters spent a decade of their formative years in South America. I ended up as The Archdeacon of Arequipa of the Anglican Church of Perú, which is part of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is part of the Anglican Communion.

We returned to the USA when our children began to attend college, and I took a parish in one of the dioceses of The Episcopal Church. Within less than four years, we realized that this was not a Church in which I could doctrinally live.

It was at this point that Fr. Gordon Walker came actively back into my life and told me that it was time that I came into Orthodoxy. He was right, and I have been Orthodox ever since. I was ordained in the Antiochian Orthodox jurisdiction, but am currently serving as an attached priest at a Greek Orthodox Church. God has blessed us. We have wonderful grandchildren. And we are truly blessed.