The Night Stair: Contemplative Prayer and the Spirituality of Sleep

One of the many books I hope to publish one day is The Night Stair: Reflections on Contemplative Prayer.

The Night Stair at Hexham Abbey, UK

Many monasteries have two sets of stairs leading to the dorter, which is the monks’ sleeping quarters. The day stairs descend to the common room, parlor, offices, and so on, while the night stairs lead directly into the church. The purpose of the night stairs is to enable the monks to rise from sleep at 2:00 a.m. and proceed directly to the church for the office of night prayer, and then to return to bed. The night stair, I feel, is an appropriate symbol for contemplative prayer, a kind of prayer that differs from verbal, rational, daytime prayers, descending into what spiritual writers call a kind of “darkness.” Not to be confused with the darkness of evil, this darkness denotes a deep knowledge and awareness of God that is inaccessible to the intellect. 

Personally I would not voluntarily rise in the middle of the night to pray. I’m not made of that kind of stuff. But as it happens, I have some health problems (minor, yet still bothersome) which require me to be up for about an hour every night. Much as I dislike this, I cannot change it. Accordingly, I’ve decided to make the most of this time by spending it in prayer.

This is not easy. For one thing, during this enforced hour of wakefulness I’m not sitting peacefully in a chair but rather I’m busy attending to my problems. I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to pray while engaged in other activities. For another thing, I do not find the middle of the night conducive to God consciousness. On the contrary, when rudely roused after just three or four hours of sleep, I tend not to be in a spiritual frame of mind at all. Indeed it’s amazing how quickly I can forget altogether about God, and must try to remember all over again who He is and why I am a Christian. It’s like starting a cold engine in the middle of winter. 

The block heater was invented in order to keep an engine warm when a car is inert, so that it may easily be started. Do human beings have a block heater? Yes, we do: the heart. While the conscious mind shuts down at night, the heart keeps beating all the time. After much experimentation, I have found that by far the best way to pray in the middle of the night is not with the mind but with the heart: that is, to practise contemplative prayer, the prayer of the heart. 

Briefly, contemplative prayer entails simply pointing myself toward God like a compass needle, opening my heart, and letting His Spirit do the work. If you want a simple definition, contemplation is prayer without words, images, or ideas. Consider this sentence from a novel by Michael Faber: “He sat for a while in a state of prayer without forming any words, just allowing the membrane between himself and Heaven to become permeable.” In the middle of the night it is much easier to access God in this way than by using the mind, because the heart has a better memory than the mind. The mind is a sieve while the heart is a well. Engage your mind and the heart will not necessarily follow, but engage your heart and the mind will fall into step. 

Think about sleep. It’s such a strange thing, isn’t it? And it takes such a lot of time, and everyone has to do it. Why? I think it’s God’s way of gently requiring us to spend time with Him. Even those who do not believe in God still have to shut down the factory and take a sabbath every night. And this long series of nighttime sabbaths is practice for the Big Sleep, for that time when we’ll be called on to let go finally of all earthly words, images, and ideas. Hence I believe that anyone who struggles with sleep, as so many do, may find real relief through the practice of contemplative prayer. 

Consider the testimony of scripture on this matter: 

I have set the Lord always before me;
even at night my heart instructs me. (Psalm 16:7)

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night. (Psalm 63:6)

I slept but my heart was awake. (Song of Songs 5:2)

For years I did not sleep well. But by descending the night stair into God’s presence and deeply embracing contemplative prayer, I now have much better sleeps, and I fall asleep more quickly. As a child I used to have a big toy box made of the wooden slats of old Venetian blinds. Every night at bedtime my mother would tell me to put all my toys away in the box. And that, in a sense, is what I still do: I take all the toys of my thoughts and anxieties, problems and projects, and I toss them all into the box, pull the blinds, and point my heart toward God.

Good night, everyone. 

Next Post:  The Mirror of the Cross

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