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Middle of the Night Insomnia: Vigilia Sancti

July 30, 2016

Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night, and have trouble getting back to sleep? Frustrating, wasn’t it. And the next morning you probably complained about having a terrible night. Middle of the night insomnia, it’s often called. Terrible thing.

Or maybe not so much.

The Bible doesn’t have all that much to say about getting “a good night’s sleep” as we understand the expression. The Book of Proverbs observes that keeping sound wisdom and discretion contributes to “sweet sleep” (Prov. 3:21-24).  And Psalm 4:8 offers a beautiful bedtime prayer: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.”

The Book of Proverbs advises us not to “love” sleep (Prov. 20:13) lest we make ourselves unnecessarily poor. One of the most delightful verses of the Bible is about NOT sleeping too much: “How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want like an armed man.” Delightful, except perhaps for the teenager whose parents are fond of loudly reciting it to him or her around noon on Saturdays.

On the other hand, Psalm 127:2 advises us not to be a workaholic to the point of routinely skipping sleep, because this reflects a lack of faith in God’s providence. (Apparently this reminder is especially targeted to young parents, because the rest of that Psalm is a reminder about how children are a gift from God…)

The Bible also speaks about sleepless nights: Jesus stayed up all night to pray (Luke 6:12); Jacob had an all-night wrestling match (Genesis 32:24); and Samuel cried out to the Lord all night (1 Samuel 15:11). I don’t know if Paul and Silas were up all night singing, or simply started up their concert around midnight. Either way, the Book of Acts states that it was in the middle of the night (Acts 16:25). And there are many mentions of nocturnal prayer and meditation on God’s word (Psalm 63:6; Psalm 119:55; Psalm 119:148; Luke 2:37) — and weeping and mourning (Job 7:4-5; Job 30:17; Jeremiah 45:3; Lamentations 2:19; Joel 1:13; Psalm 30:5; Psalm 55:17) — well into the night, if not all night. Paul acknowledges that his many hardships included sleeplessness (2 Corinthians 6:5; 2 Corinthians 11:27). Sleeplessness and restlessness is often associated with wickedness and a guilty conscience (Isaiah 48:22; Proverbs 4:14-16; Hebrews 3:11, 4:1-5; Revelation 14:11).

The Bible has examples of interrupted sleep. One example that might come to mind is when the disciples were on a boat with Jesus and woke him up from a deep slumber — in a panic — when a storm fell upon them (Matthew 8:24, Mark 4:38; Luke 8:23). But there are many other examples where people are awakened, or awake, in the middle of the night. 

Usually we think of interrupted sleep — and especially, middle of the night insomnia — as a bad thing. But notice Psalm 119:62: “At midnight I shall rise to give thanks to You Because of Your righteous ordinances.” So, what is the Psalmist suggesting? Are we being coaxed to set our alarms for midnight so that we can wake up and spend some time in prayer? Anathema! (Well, maybe not anathema, but, say it isn’t so!!!).

Part of our reaction to such a suggestion is that we define “a good night’s sleep” as approximately eight hours (give or take) of uninterrupted, sound sleep. We expect and anticipate this each night, every night. If we wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble going back to sleep, we’ll usually complain the next morning that we did not gave a good night’s sleep.

Middle of the night insomnia was not always considered a bad thing, though. The research of Roger Ekirch, a professor of history at Virginia Tech and author of At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (NY: Norton, 2005) has demonstrated that for much of history people slept in two segments separated by a waking period in the middle of the night. They would usually wake up and attend to various tasks, including the usual, plus tending the fire, checking on the security of their surroundings, and allowing themselves some time for prayer, reading and quiet thoughtfulness. There is much documentation of the notion of “first sleep,” followed by a period of waking, followed by a “second sleep”.  We also know that many cultures in warm or tropical climates also featured a corresponding segmented daytime that included a siesta … or, as we know it today, a “power nap.” Professor Ekirch shows that the Industrial Revolution, with its demands for efficiency and uninterrupted shifts of working hours (including early morning starting times facilitated by electricity, alarm clocks and the like), changed these patterns. “Early rising” was a reform movement during the 18th century, and as part of that movement parents were admonished to encourage their children to arise after “first sleep.”

Segmented sleep isn’t necessarily unhealthy. Some French scientists (Arnulf et al, 2011: “Ring the Bell for Matins,” Chronobiology International, 28(10), 930-941) researched the sleep patterns of a group of cloistered monks and nuns. The monastics adhered to the 10-century-old strict schedule of a night split by a 2- to 3-hour long prayer time (Matins) in the middle of each night. The research showed that the human body adapts to and even anticipates nocturnal awakenings, and that such biphasic sleep patterns did not have any adverse health impact. The researchers acknowledged that this study provides a living glance into the sleep patterns of medieval time.

Having fewer hours of sleep on a given night, once in a while, is also not unhealthy. We tend to think that we need eight hours (give or take), each night, every night. But if you do some reading (in addition to, or other than, the stuff put out be the National Sleep Foundation), you’ll discover that the 8-hours-each-night “requirement” is a myth. First of all, recent research shows that we don’t necessarily need a full eight hours of sleep. Second, the quality of our sleep is just as important as the quantity. Third, retiring earlier than later contributes to sleep quality. Fourth, don’t discount the need for a medical sleep study that might result in the use of a CPAP or other sleep aid. Fifth, most people experience sleep cycles that vary from night to night through the week… sometimes including a night here or there with only a few hours of sleep. Sixth, don’t forget about those all important power naps. Seventh, consult your Bible: there’s more than one reason for the Sabbath! Selah.

That said, let’s return to Psalm 119:62: “At midnight I shall rise to give thanks to You Because of Your righteous ordinances.” What if you do wake up in the middle of the night? Rise to give thanks! Pray. Spend time with the Lord. And with His word… maybe even doing some memorizing!! Allow this to be your own mini-monastic spiritual retreat, and be grateful — rather than resentful — for this vigilia sancti, this holy insomnia.

Oh, and leave the TV and the computer off. Don’t even look at your smart phone. Too much blue light.

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