We bless Thee, O God, in the highest and Lord of mercies, who ever workest great and mysterious deeds, glorious, numberless and wonderful, who providest us sleep as a rest for our infirmities and as a repose for our bodies tired by labor.
This is the first part of one of the concluding prayers of the morning prayer service that most lay Orthodox pray each day upon arising from bed. In this short but rich sentence is contained, it seems to me, the fundamental Christian orientation of heart and mind and living.
Even as Christians, ours is a naturalist worldview, the world of cause and effect. We surmise that since we have awakened from sleep tens of thousands of times, we will always do so. We fail to remember the words of Psalm 103 (104 in Protestant Bibles):
Thou wilt take their spirit, and they shall cease; and unto their dust shall they return. Thou wilt send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created; and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.
We view sleep as wholly natural, even, if you will, neutral. After all, sleep is just physical rest for the body, we say. And we have all sorts of biological and physical data about sleep: how much we should get, what sort of mattress we should have and so on. But in this increase of one sort of knowledge we have grown ignorant in another. As the holy Elder Paisios put it:
While, in our own days, knowledge has increased, unfortunately, logic has shaken people’s faith from the foundations and filled their souls with questions and doubts.
—Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters, p 15
This ignorance has led not to better, more restful sleep, but an increase in the use of sleep aids and pharmaceutical means of coercing the body to sleep. We depend upon ourselves, and we thus find ourselves deprived.
Sleep is not merely a physical, biological phenomenon. It is, in fact, a place of spiritual struggle. This is why we are instructed to pray this question while facing our bed and before going to sleep at night:
O Master, Lover of mankind, is this bed to be my coffin, or wilt Thou enlighten my wretched soul with another day?
As mundane and as “natural” as sleep and awakening from sleep is for us, we lose sight of the fact that this is one of God’s “great and mysterious deeds, glorious, numberless and wonderful.” We tend to view sleep from wholly physical and pragamtic lenses: from the rubric of cause and effect. We fail to see that even sleep is a spiritual battleground where we struggle in the power of God’s Spirit or we succumb to the machinations of the enemy. As the Song of Songs (5:2) says, “I sleep, but my heart awakes.” And therefore one of the prayers of the Compline service requests of God:
And grant us, O Master, when we go to sleep, repose of body and soul; and keep us from the murky slumbering of sin and every dark voluptuousness of night. Calm the violence of the passions, quench the fiery darts of the evil one which are treacherously hurled against us. Subdue the rebellions of our flesh and quell our every earthly and material thought. And grant unto us, O God, a watchful mind, a chaste thought, a sober heart, and sleep light and free from all satanic phantasies.
One of the great and mysterious deeds of God is his sustaining us when we sleep. Here our conscious will is not active. Here the passions–those sinful thoughts and feelings and habits we have cultivated by what we have allowed to enter the gateways of our senses and upon which our minds have dwelt–are less under our volitional control. This is why our dreams are both important–for what they reveal of our hearts–and dangerous–in that we can be lead astray by them. And this is why we pray for God’s deliverance from all these things, the things, Jesus says, which lie in our heart and defile us. This is God’s great and mysterious work: our deliverance, while we sleep, from all these things.
Our life cannot be subsumed wholly to natural cause and effect. Our world is full of spiritual realities. It is true that our world is a natural world of cause and effect: if we stay up late, we’ll be groggy the next day. Our hearts become full of that to which we devote our attention. But what we too often fail to remember is that the bedrock of reality is not energy and matter and their equivalence but the Tri-Personed God. And because this is so, cause and effect is always bounded by God’s love. Whether we call them miracles or acts of God or simply acknowledge that all of reality is God’s activity–in Christ all things hold together (Colossians 1:17)–the fact of the matter is that much of our life is suffused with the gracious love of God. We are saved from untold dangers of body and soul and spirit, we are blessed in uncountable ways, every single day. Each and every breath we take is a gift from God who sees all we do, knows all we think, observes all our desires at every moment of our existence. He is a God who loves us and sustains us and to whom we will have to give account for all that we have said and done and thought (Matthew 12:36)–but who awaits our repentance and accounting now with open arms of a loving father.
And this love is shown us in the dangerous world of sleep, where he sustains our life so that we may arise for prayer, and where he protects us against all the assaults of the enemy, even those assaults that arise from our own self-cultivated weed garden of the heart.
We bless Thee, O God, for Thy ever present love and mercy.