Sunday, May 25, 2008


Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones. And when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake. ~Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

I love to sleep. If I had to worship a piece of furniture, I might bow to the god of sleep on the altar known as the mattress. Most nights, I have no problem luxuriating in eight hours of unbroken sleep. Then comes that odd night. I discover I’m wide awake at four in the morning for no apparent reason.

What do you do while lying awake in bed in the dead of the night? I’ve got a growing suspicion that four in the morning may be the finest hour in the entire day for returning and rest. There is truly nothing that needs to be done at that hour. There we lie like a beached whale, wiggling and twitching, unable to get back into that delicious ocean of sleep.

Two words for sleepless nights. Kyrie Eleison. They have been whispered quietly in the middle of the night for centuries. I learned these words from monks who taught me to utter them in rhythm with my breathing: Kyrie, as I inhale; Eleison, as I exhale. Once, I asked an old monk why I should pray in rhythm with my breathing. The brother told me that monks considered prayer just as vital to the human spirit as breath is to the human body. That seemed to make good sense.

For years now, I’ve practiced quieting my soul by breathing in rhythm with praying while lying in bed at 4 A.M. The green glow of the digital alarm clock illuminates my bedroom with the reminder of the hour, as I slip over into that inner quietude by breathing two ancient words, taken from the people of old: Kyrie, as I inhale; Eleison, as I exhale. Lord, have mercy.

We all return into a sort of childhood when we sleep. We are no longer in charge. We become vulnerable. Every night, we lay down our defenses and return to a primary state of dependency. For many people, this time of sleep opens Pandora’s box. Out pour our anxieties, unresolved conflicts, embarrassments, shortcomings, goofball self-delusions and the whole mess that sets us apart from slugs and sea urchins.

As Hamlet soliloquized, To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub.[i] How often have dreams in the middle of the night awakened you with their terrifying images? Our dream life counter balances our waking life, revealing through night visions veiled truths, repressed fears, hidden agendas, and all sorts of dark-side-of-the-moon mysteries.

Other people simply can’t let it go. They cling to responsibility, to work, to leadership, to all forms of power and thus they also cling to stress like grasping a life preserver. Sleep seems like wasting time. Time is measured by productivity and by making money. For many people, their identity is so tightly wrapped around career and business productivity that time away from work sleeping seems like wasted time.

If you have been troubled by sleepless nights, try breathing two words. Kyrie Eleison (KEAR-ree-ay, ee-LAY-ee-sohn). Unite these words to your breath, inhaling and exhaling your cry in the night, a prayer to God for mercy. Allow that simple ancient breath prayer to gently rock you to sleep, asking the God who never slumbers nor sleeps to settle your fears and embrace you with divine refreshment. God, our Night Watchman, never minds hearing from one of his children, even at four in the morning.

[i] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene I.

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