“How did you sleep?” is a question I ask each of my children on a near-daily basis. It’s more than a way to greet them in the morning; I hope my kids will grow up with healthy sleep habits and prioritize rest. I hope this not only for the sake of their physical and mental health (though sleep is essential for both), but also for their faithful response to God. That might sound odd, but hear me out. We all have habits—some cultivated consciously and others fallen into by default. If, as we in the Reformed tradition like to remind each other, every square inch of this world and of our lives belongs to Christ, then the way we live every second and in every situation matters. Our actions not only reveal but also shape our priorities. In this sense they are liturgies, and as such, they deserve a closer look. Tish Harrison Warren puts it this way: “…our daily life is the place of formation. Who we are is formed in our daily living and in our habits, more than by the theology we profess. A lot of what makes us who we are is what we do every day.”1 Let’s consider the liturgy of sleep.
When life gets particularly busy, sleep is often one of the first things we sacrifice, staying up too late and getting up too early. Certainly, there are times when sleep must be put on the backburner. There are times for keeping vigil, when a loved one is sick, for example. Doctors, nurses, and many others forgo sleep to work overnight shifts and to be available for emergencies. Nursing moms spend nearly sleepless nights with newborns, and they can experience broken sleep for months or even years. I think an extra measure of grace is given to people in these cases.
But often, we sabotage sleep by underestimating its importance. We develop habits that keep us “tired but wired.” In The Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren points out, “If rest is learned through habit and repetition, so is restlessness. These habits of rest or restlessness form us over time.”2 Teenagers, who need more sleep than adults, often develop dysfunctional sleep patterns already in high school—with sobering results.
My sleep has been disordered at times throughout the years, too. When I worked shift work for several summers during college, the shifts rotated every week or two—sometimes from working an overnight shift to an early morning shift, which was brutal. In college, like most of my fellow students, I kept late hours; as a freshman, my curfew was midnight—so midnight was when I would return to my dorm and begin homework. It makes me cringe to think of it now. How did I even function on so little sleep? I have four children and nursed each one in the year following his or her birth, which meant months and months of broken sleep. I suspect we all have times when our sleep was seriously mixed up. It can be too easy to settle for broken, elusive sleep as the new normal.
For almost two thousand years, Christians of different traditions have paused at specific times of the day to pray. According to Seven Sacred Pauses by Macrina Wiederkehr, the 9 pm hour, often known as Compline, is referred to as “The Great Silence.” The approach of night historically brought with it silence and darkness—two things that many of us fear in our modern world and we do our best to avoid both, surrounding ourselves with noise and lights.
Fear of darkness often comes from associations with sin and with suffering. Wiederkehr acknowledges this fear, and encourages us to pray about these kinds of darkness: “We ask to be protected from unhealthy kinds of darkness. We pray to be sheltered under the shadow of God’s wings …In our night prayer… we remember the darkness all over the world and the many places where our sisters and brothers may be in danger of harmful confrontations, violence, wrong choices, and suffering.”3
But darkness need not always scare us. Both darkness and silence provide opportunities to rest our external senses so that we can see with the eyes of our hearts and listen for God’s still, small voice.
Despite cultural messages to the contrary, we humans have very real limits and a recurring, persistent need for sleep. When we sleep, we demonstrate our vulnerability. We show that we are not in control. Every night when we put head to pillow, when we slip into unconsciousness, we are reminded of our dependence on God.
That can be frightening. However, sleep is also a reminder that God protects us. When we cannot care for ourselves, he does. We are reminded in the Psalms that “…He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”4 God does not sleep, so that we can.
We need sleep to function well. Sleep helps us regulate emotions, fight off illness, maintain a healthy weight, learn and think clearly. In addition to these, I think sleep is one of the ways that God equips us to live holy lives. I know I function better with sufficient sleep, and I am much more patient, energetic and cheerful. Sleep is one way that God helps me cultivate the Fruits of the Spirit.
However sometimes sleep eludes us, despite our best intentions. That can be for physical reasons, such as chronic pain or a mixed-up circadian rhythm. It can be for mental reasons; if we are overcome with worry or anxiety and cannot quiet our thoughts. Few things are as frustrating as lying awake in bed, unable to fall asleep.
If you have young children, chances are they have a bedtime routine. Establishing a routine of your own can help your body learn the rhythms of sleep. For example, your bedtime routine could involve reading a book for half an hour before bed. You might spend a few moments practicing the Examen, reviewing your day with God and acknowledging the good and bad moments.
Psalm 127:2 reads, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for grants sleep to those that he loves.” This verse does not mean that God doesn’t love you if you have trouble sleeping. It means that sleep is a gift. As such, it is meant to be treasured and appreciated. Have you ever received a special gift from someone and instead of using it, put it away for later? That misses the point; gifts are meant to be used and appreciated. Even more, sleep is a gift to pursue, just as Jacob wrestled with the angel and refused to let go unless God granted a blessing (see Genesis 32:26).
In the liturgy of sleep, we acknowledge our limits as we slow and then stop for hours each night. We sink into sleep trusting that God watches over us. We wake again, refreshed and ready to live another day for him.
Do you need help establishing better sleep habits? In the book Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson shares practical ways to promote better sleep. Here are a few that help at my house:
- Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon and evening.
- Turn off devices with backlit screens an hour before bed (the blue light from screens signals your body to wake up).
- Take magnesium, either orally or applied topically in the form of magnesium “oil” (actually brine). Among many functions in the body, magnesium helps muscles relax.
- Put devices on airplane mode before bed, or turn off wireless internet overnight. This keeps you from compulsive internet checks at night (especially if you cannot sleep), and it also helps clear the air of EMFs (Electric & Magnetic Fields).
- Sleep in a dark room.
- If you are sensitive to noises, try earplugs or consider a white noise app or machine.
- Diffuse a relaxing essential oil like lavender, or put a drop of it on your pillow.