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A Psalm for Sleepless Nights

Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Nov 12 2017


This is a psalm I think I have prayed without knowing it, and perhaps you have, too; for perhaps you have, you too have tossed and turned in a tangle of sheets, with your mind in a twist. Perhaps you too have known those covers-on-no-okay-well-how-about-covers-off, fluff-and-unfluff-the-pillow-and-flip-it-over-to-its-cool-underside-until-then-flipping-it-over-again kind of nights – nights when you are uncomfortably warm and so you kick free of the blankets only to then feel uncomfortably cold and pull them back over you, nights when you lie facing up to start and roll and are on your stomach and roll and are curled and roll and are cramped and roll and are facing up once more and roll this way and that and roll, and are awake, are miserably and unrelentingly awake. Maybe it was not really decaf after dinner, maybe that is what did it. Maybe it was jetlag. Maybe it was the dull racket from next door. Maybe it was your dear beloved snoring. Or maybe it was what you read in the news, what you heard on the radio. Maybe it was a phone call from the doctor’s office; maybe the test results had come in. Maybe something happened at work and then it happened again and again and again in your mind as you lay in the dark. Maybe it was a bad day and you could not be done with it. Maybe there was a hard conversation or a heated argument and wounding, and harsh words repeated and repeated themselves so that you were drawn back into the exchange, were reliving it in your imagination, saying what you might have said, what you should have said, oh, what you wish you had said – some perfect, silencing retort. Or maybe, after such a conversation, such an argument, maybe it was that you were alone on the sofa or in the guest room unsaying, if only to yourself, unsaying what it was that had pained someone you care for very much. 

This is a psalm I think I have prayed without knowing it, and perhaps you have, too; for perhaps you have, you too have lain in bed, longing for the worry or the disappointment or the upset of the day to fade away as you lose yourself in sweeter dreams. But perhaps you too have been held fast in the grip of some if-only or should-have or how-could-this-be or I-just-can’t-believe-it or what-do-I-do-now – the thoughts coming, adamantly coming, one after another coming, intruding against slumber, forbidding you to shut your eyes to the cares of the world. You, like me, may not have had the chapter and verse of it at hand, but if you have been up, stubbornly, frustratingly up, surely the sort of inner monologue that is Psalm 4 will have a ring of familiarity. It is the rambling meditation of a fitful sleeper, marked by the agitated, disorderly, stream-of-consciousness fretting and soul-searching and second-guessing that at least I have known from time to time. There are the rehearsals of grievances and wrongs and indulgent fantasies of do-overs – we catch the psalmist stuck in a mental loop, shaping and practicing the cutting reply it is too late to give: he sweeps away the criticisms and accusations he withered under with a confidence and assertiveness he had not known in the moment. ‘Lies!’ he pronounces. ‘Just stupid talk.’ ‘When will you get a life already?’ (And who of us has not kept ourselves up, putting it to a client or a classmate or colleague or crazy relative?) There are the unselfconscious pleadings with God, the conscriptions of God to one’s own cause that so often come when we are under strain and revert to more simplistic theologies; ‘Help me now like you helped me before,’ and ‘Remember whose side you are on here,’ and ‘Where are you?’ – these get at the essence of it. There are the tender shushings, the calls back to a calmer spirit – ‘I guess I do have a lot to be grateful for; others have it far worse off.’ And there are the coaxings to sleep – ‘Be still. Stop thinking. Breath. Peace. Peace.’ 

Of all the many thoughts that come to us in the late night and which Psalm 4 explores – the preoccupations and bargaining and fears and memories and unkindnesses and whatnot – it is these coaxings that seem to me most spiritually interesting. More often than not, in my experience anyway, these are whisperings from within that arise unbidden when I am maddeningly fatigued and the stress of not being able to fall asleep compounds the stress that has kept me awake in the first place, and I find myself almost in need of a reminding how to do it, how to drift off: Stop turning and turning. Just lie there flat. You know you will not fall asleep on your side. And enough thinking about that. No, no, no – do not let yourself look at the clock. My coaxing myself is prosaic like this, with a not-especially-religious quality. But the whisperings that arise from within the psalmist when he cannot sleep is ‘when you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your bed, and be still.’ In this, he is, I think, calling himself, and calling us, too, to relate spiritually to the experience of sleeplessness – to claim even those insufferable hours as invitations to a time of holy encounter, and to let the soul guide the body to a purer rest. He gently acknowledges the reality that we are, likelier than not, at the end of a hard day, that we are going to give ourselves to angry or despairing recollecting; we are prone to the sort of spinning out that foments distress more than to the centering in which we find peace. Even so, he chides himself lovingly: ‘when you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your bed and be still.’ He seems to believe that there is a thinking to ourselves that is deeper than thinking to ourselves, and that a spirit of prayerfulness can make working through all our mind’s confusion into something like meditation.

I suppose I believe this, too – believe that we can fall asleep Christianly, believe that how we lie down with loss and heartache and anxiety and trouble is as worthy of consideration as how we live with it and through it. I believe that cultivating a mood of reverence as evening comes – asking the One who is God over the night skies opening outwards, star upon star, expanse after expanse, asking that One to guide us further into the inner universe of our souls, ever opening inwards, light upon light, new depth after new depth1  – I believe that this can make for a more mindful and restorative sort of reflection than that to which most of us probably naturally incline. Of course, this is no cure for insomnia; approaching the long night with an expectant hope for the inner peace passing all understanding that comes from closeness with God – this will not work on you like a sleeping pill. But one could do worse than shaping a little evening ritual to put you in a spiritual posture of openness and calm so that you may receive the surprising gifts of the darkness for what they are. Perhaps you might purchase The Book of Common Prayer and read through the vespers or compline services it outlines each night at your bedside. Perhaps you might memorize this or some other psalm so that you pray it, knowing it. There is also in your bulletins a poem, though in an odd structure for a poem, by John O’Donohue; it walks through questions and wonderings which might be productive of contemplation and prayer. In closing, I would ask that you quiet your hearts and shut out everything else if you can and listen along and think to yourself in that way that is deeper than thinking to yourself, as I read through some of his poem now … 

1 This line (mostly) comes from an eventide prayer from the United Church of Canada’s Book of Worship.