What in the world is sleep? You might spend as much as a third of your life in this condition, but it’s the third that most people tend to ignore. We greet each other and interact out in the waking world, but every one of us retires at night to a private time of passivity in which we accept no further input from the outer world. What are we doing with that third of our lives? And what is the theological significance of sleep?
In Genesis 2:21, God causes a deep sleep to come over Adam. Commenting on this, the second-century church father Irenaeus of Lyons remarks that God had to intervene specially to make this happen, since there was of course no sleep in paradise (in Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, chapter 13). I do not know where Irenaeus got this information. But after this first reference to sleep in the Bible, there is plenty of other material for developing a biblical theology of sleep. Consider:
God doesn’t sleep. “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121:4) A prophet like Elijah can mock the priests of Baal when their prayers go unanswered: “”Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (I Kings 18) When things are going as badly as they possibly could for the people of God, they make bold to ask the question, “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?” (Psalm 44:23) —a question fully as horrifying and desolating as Psalm 22’s “Why have you forsaken me?”
Those who trust God can sleep: “I lay down and slept;I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.” (Psalm 3:5) In fact, they can rest knowing that God is on the watch:
Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.
“He gives to his beloved sleep!” As John Baillie pointed out in his own essay entitled “The Theology of Sleep,” (Christian Devotions, 1962, Scribner’s) this verse might also be translated “He giveth unto his beloved in sleep.” This translation “speaks not only of the blessedness of sleep itself but of the blessed things that are given us through its agency.”
Sleep, or its absence, is a potent symbol in the Bible for God’s vigilance and our trusting response to it. But if we want to focus not on what sleep symbolizes, but on what sleep itself is, what can we say? What are we doing with all that time when we’re not busy doing anything?
Aside from a few vivid dreams which we may remember upon waking, we can’t really account for what goes on during all those silent hours when we’re checked out. When we brush our teeth, put on our jammies, turn out the lights and lay down, we are standing on the edge of the most uncanny pool of nothingness. I know that the human brain is no less active during sleep —in fact, sleep has been described as “by the brain, of the brain, and for the brain” by some researchers, and isn’t so much unconsciousness as a different kind of consciousness with theta waves and rapid eye movements and whatnot. But none of that adds up to me knowing what went on while I was out. How do we ever summon the courage to release ourselves into a state of total oblivion for a big chunk of the night? What safety net do we think catches us? These questions are enough to keep you up at night!
In volume 3 of his Theological Investigations, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner has an interesting little meditation on sleep, with the main title “A Spiritual Dialogue at Evening.” It is written in the form of a conversation between a doctor and a priest. After some chit-chat, the priest raises the question Irenaeus claimed to know the answer to: “Did Adam in paradise sleep, or is sleep one of the consequences of the Fall?”
The doctor too has a strong opinion about this question, but he takes the opposite view from Irenaeus, and provides reasons.
It is sincerely to be hoped that Adam was allowed to sleep in paradise! It would be dreadful not to be allowed to sleep… Is it not the case that the brightness of the day’s consciousness is delightful only because a gentle twilight can alway carry it over softly into the gentle, tired stillness of sleep! Don’t we renounce in sleep the clear sharpness of the light of day, the privilege of being autonomous persons who are thereby imprisoned within the confines of the consciously given, in order quietly to yield ourselves again to a life which is not ours but which in compensation is wise and limitless, because it moves and acts in yon dark kingdom where every individual is ever caught up in the movement of the All? Is not anxiety then an indication that a man has no trust, that he fears this great reality before which he ought to relax and yield himself up, in the sure knowledge that existence is good and not a dangerous monster waiting to gobble us up if we don’t look out?
The priest, after asking the doctor if he could please restrain his purple poetic outbursts a little bit more strictly, basically agrees about what a blessing sleep is. But he wants to explore how different Adam’s would have been. Was Adam somehow able to get the blessings of sleep without having to bury his alertness in the oblivion of slumber? “Was Adam able to move into this kingdom only by means of sleep? Or was this precisely one of the blessed gifts of paradise, that he could possess the shades while yet remaining completely awake…”
The priest and the doctor wisely agree to move on from unanswerable questions about the sleeping habits of Adam in paradise —and they never mention Eve, who, you may recall, was the result of Adam’s divinely-caused nap. The priest wants to return to his intuition that whatever goods may be found in sleep, “there is something dreadful about giving oneself up to sleep.” You just never know what images, moods, and attitudes may wash over you in that condition:
Have you yourself never experienced how during the night moods, attitudes, states which we struggled to acquire and build up in full knowledge and painful effort during the previous day are washed away by the Something into which we so innocently allow ourselves to sink?
These movements within your spirit during the time of sleep can set the tone for all the events of the day. The priest’s conclusion is, “Before sleep one should pray, one ought to pray really well.” I think he’s on to something here, and though Rahner doesn’t mention it, it makes sense of the earnestness of that childhood prayer,
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I always wondered why I should mention my possible nocturnal death to God every night, especially if I felt I was in pretty good health. Now I recognize that it makes sense to recite a kind of miniature “last will and testament” right before you turn off your conscious control of your heart and mind and recline into… into what? Who’s in charge when you’re not? Rahner’s priest character is right when he says that the moments before sleep are a great time to pray especially well.
What is the character of that bed time prayer? It should “have all the qualities, all the psychological and theological presuppositions and structures which are proper to all prayer in general,” says the priest, and lists some of those. But bed time prayer should also be tailored to the phenomenon of impending sleep.
Prayer at night should evidently be not only —let us say— a daily prayer said in the evening, but in addition should be of such a nature as to be adapted, more than any other prayer, to the peculiar character of that ‘kingdom’ into which man in sleep finds his way, so that he ‘arms’ himself against the danger of this region of life in sleep, in a sense exorcises and blesses it.
What is the ‘kingdom’ we enter in sleep? “This kingdom is the kingdom of images, but a divided kingdom of images..” There are good images and bad images, sweet dreams and nightmares. “What ‘moves’ the soul in sleep —the soul become defenseless and open— even where there is no dream evidently to hand, are these ‘images’ which are formed there and so supply its guiding image to the personal consciousness throughout the day as well.”
At the very least, sleep is a good opportunity to entrust yourself, your entire self, to God’s care. You’re trusting something when you lay down your body and, with it, the control of your conscious mind. That moment when you consciously choose unconsciousness, and let yourself go, is a daily opportunity to relinquish control to a God who you have to trust.
Sleep is good practice for death. It’s good preparation for life with that same God who you’re going to have to trust eventually. And it’s worth asking for sweet dreams, because he gives sleep to his beloved, and he gives to his beloved in their sleep.