Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. (Jeremiah 6:16)
You often hear older people say ruefully, “The older I get, the more I appreciate how much my mother [or my father, or my parents] knew.” It’s only after you’ve grown up and experienced some of the same things that they did that you begin to understand why they told you what they did — and how much you, as a callow youth who thought you knew it all, didn’t know. (Thanks, Mom, and thanks, Dad, for teaching me so much and being so patient with me!)
The same can be true in the church. To take one example, awhile ago I read that monks would rise at midnight (or 3 am, depending on where they lived — local custom varied) to begin their prayers. These monks would wake up — literally in the middle of the night — just to pray! Most people, even dare I say most Christians, would see that as a touch excessive. Couldn’t you just as well pray when you got up for the day, at a more convenient time?, we’re tempted to ask. And behind that is the unspoken question: Isn’t sleep more important? Many today unfortunately answer that question with their actions, sleeping and snoring away when they should be in the Lord’s house or about their God-given work. But even for Christians, getting up to pray at that hour doesn’t seem all that, well, practical. Wouldn’t you be too sleepy to do any good?, we might wonder. How would you be able to pull that off regularly? And most of us would shake our heads and conclude we could never do that.
But sometimes there’s accumulated wisdom at work, a deeper wisdom, in things we don’t understand that our forefathers did. For about seven months now I’ve been waking up at all hours of the night, due to our darling younger daughter. It’s occasionally murder on the conscious thought process, and sometimes you feel like a zombie, but you get used to it after a while. It’s part of the vocation of father, and all told I don’t mind. I’m doing what God has meant for me to do, and that is a good feeling to know that. The other morning I rolled out of bed at 4 am to fetch the baby. It turned out that all she needed was to be picked up and burped a little, so she drifted off again almost immediately. As I was rocking her back to sleep, I realized I felt fully awake — but I’d been fully asleep mere minutes before, and I knew I would be in my bed again and fast asleep within five minutes. That realization gave me a whole new appreciation for what those monks did in rising to pray at all hours of the night. If you’re used to it — if it’s your normal practice to wake when it’s dark and be awake, even if it’s for a little while — it’s more doable. We moderns who shake our heads at those crazy monks feel that way, in part, because we expect to go to bed, sleep straight through, and then wake up in the morning — unless you’re a new parent, in which case you might grumble about having to be up at all hours (I try not to) and you breathe prayers of thanks when the child does sleep through the night.
…for so He giveth His beloved sleep. (Psalm 127.2)
The monasteries structured things a little differently. For one thing, they went to bed quite a bit earlier than is common for most of us — 9 pm or so was lights out for most monastics. They didn’t have 10,000 channels of satellite TV and the Internet to distract them and rob them of sleep. (Lucky dogs.) And they set aside more time for worship and prayer than we commonly do. After I became a father, I appreciated in a much more immediate way why insistence on celibacy (an unBiblical command) gained such sway. You can’t engage in formal worship services seven times a day if you have to get up two or three times during the night and you have little children running around, getting into things, needing constant guidance, attention, and help, and so on — as little children generally do. They’re delightful, but at the same time they do take up everything you’ve got some days. That’s why the Lutheran emphasis on vocation as a gift of God is so welcome. If you can’t pray with the same rigorous schedule as a monk, you shouldn’t for that reason think that you’re not serving God — not at all! Everything a Christian does is service to God, whether it’s laundry, wiping runny noses, or changing diapers. Faith makes the work good, not the work itself making the person good (as blind human reason wants to imagine.)
It’s pretty impressive what those monks were able to accomplish in terms of prayer and devotion, even if their focus or their motives were misplaced or misguided at times. (Perhaps that’s too charitable; their errors cut away at the central doctrine of the Scriptures, justification of the sinner by faith alone for the sake of Christ alone.) At the same time, it’s worth noting that such early rising to pray was not intended just for the professionals — the clergy whose ecclesiastical duty it was to pray the Daily Office. It was for regular folks, too, as historian A.G. Martimort reminds us:
None of the authors I am citing [he had just mentioned Tertullian, Cyprian, and Hippolytus, three ancient church fathers] is thinking of Christians who live withdrawn from the world: ascetics, virgins, or widows. They are thinking of the faithful who are involved in business and must, in Tertullian’s expressive phrase, snatch a moment from it in order to pray. They are thinking of married people whose partners, in some cases, do not share their faith. Thus Hippolytus, speaking of prayer at midnight, says: “If your wife is present, pray together; if she is not yet a believer, withdraw to another room, pray, and then return to your bed.” (“The Church and Time, vol.IV: The Liturgy and Time, p.167)
So ordinary Christians, lay people, were encouraged to rise in the middle of the night to pray, and not only were they encouraged, but many of them did. We have record of this in the sermons, letters, and treatises of the fathers. Why would they do this?
Psalm 119 says that “seven times a day I praise Your name”, and that “at midnight I rise to give You thanks.” This was taken as a worthy pattern not only for professionals, but for regular Christians too. Part of the reason, too, is that it’s so quiet and still in those nighttime or early morning hours. One can concentrate and focus in a way that’s unique to the hours when the world is asleep. “I sleep, but my heart waketh,” the beloved says in Song of Songs 5:2, and that’s true of all Christians. Whether we are asleep or awake, we are the Lord’s — and if we’re awake, we might as well talk to Him. If you’re rocking a baby at those hours and wishing you were asleep and not wide awake, use that time to pray for the child. Pray for yourself. Give thanks to Him for all He has given you and seen you through. If you’re an older person who can’t get back to sleep once you wake up, you might as well pray. Pray for the younger people you know who need guidance and wisdom. Pray for the spread of the gospel. Pray that the faith you love and have grown up in will be passed on safely to future generations. Pray that those who are persecuted for the faith might remain strong. Even if you don’t intentionally rise in the middle of the night to pray, you can still use those hours if you find yourself awake. As you do, you might glimpse the wisdom of those who went before in the household of faith and see why they did what they did. Sometimes the older you get, the smarter your forefathers become…and the wiser we become if we imitate their way of life and believe the truth they taught.
Upon this I awaked, and beheld; and my sleep was sweet unto me. (Jeremiah 31:26)