By Calvin Lane
I am not a good sleeper, a challenge since childhood. I used to watch my younger brother fall blissfully asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. To this day, falling asleep is terribly hard for me. Of late this has been compounded by anxieties tied to the pandemic, navigating remote learning with my children and remote ministry with my congregation, and (a real treat) having Baby Boomer neighbors in their 60s — my parents’ age — who are evidently trying to recapture their youth with late-night backyard get-togethers even during a global health crisis. At any rate, I have worked on my sleep hygiene: no coffee past noon, going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time every day, taking just a little non-prescription melatonin, and frankly guarding my sleep.
Perhaps the change that is most important, and one with theological resonance, is not working up to bedtime and instead turning off screens earlier. I sense that, a large part of my wrestling with sleep is a certain work sensibility bound up with control. And, though it may seem a cliché, the loss of consciousness at a deep level must have some association with death, that last and final abdication of control. This is not a judgment on the validity of those “issues” which, moment to moment, I am attempting to master in my head, such as whether we should continue with remote learning. That misses the point. Falling asleep is, in an ascetical sense, a resignation to tasks ephemeral, weighty, and even eternal. The issues are real and valid and yet I am mortal, finite, limited. There are moments when I need to hush even as shadows lengthen.
For this reason, I love a prayer written by John Henry Newman. I first encountered it on page 833 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but it also appears in Common Worship and in the Church of England’s proposed prayer book of 1928 (not to be confused with the Episcopal Church’s 1928 prayer book). Newman included it at the close of his “Sermon on Wisdom and Ignorance” in his 1843 Sermons on Subjects of the Day. Bits of the prayer’s language also emerge within another sermon in the same volume, “The Work of a Christian.” I commend this imagery as a balm in these strange days, but in a larger sense, as a help in admitting our weakness and finitude before a strong and merciful God at the close of our workday in the hope that all our days — all our business — would give way to his sustaining providence.
O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows
lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is
hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.
Then in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest,
and peace at the last. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane is affiliate professor at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and associate rector of St. George’s, Dayton, OH. He is the author of two books and has also taught for Wright State University and United Theological Seminary.