A Summer in the Psalms
I started having trouble falling asleep about ten years ago. It started as a stress related symptom. An organization I was leading at the time was in a state of serious financial and missional crisis. It wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be doing and fewer and fewer folks were supporting it as it floundered. There were no easy fixes, and very little enthusiasm for the hard choices that needed to be made for it to be able to reinvent itself and map out a different kind of future from the significant past that it had enjoyed. The organization was in real trouble, and I took its unraveling rather hard. It started keeping me awake at night.
I talked with my doctor about it, and he gave me some literature about insomnia and a prescription for some sleeping pills. Then I talked with a therapist about it, who gave me the same literature that my doctor had already given me and scheduled some follow-up appointments so that we could talk more about why I wasn’t sleeping. I kept going until there wasn’t anything more to say about it. After that I just lived with it. In time I found that I could get along just fine with less sleep than I had needed before. I adjusted to the change and carried on. And I thought that was it. Then I went on Sabbatical to the monastery in New Mexico and began to pray the Psalms with them every day.
That’s what monks do. They pray the Psalms. When the bell rings at the Pecos monastery, everyone moves to the chapel where a chunk of Psalms get prayed; not a verse or two mind you, but a chunk, a full serving – five, eight, ten Psalms at a time. It happens all day long, every day; every day, all year long. It’s a relentless spiritual discipline. And to the unprepared, it can feel a little bit like trying to get a drink of water from a fire hose. The pace was furious; the Psalms just keep coming at you, one after the other, never letting up. And the sheer volume of them each day is staggering. There are communities that pray all of the Psalms every day! Some pray all of the Psalms every week. At the monastery we prayed all of the Psalms every month. But any one of these schedules is demanding. The use of the Psalter in the monastery is not like a quiet stroll in a lovely park with a favorite friend where you have time to stop a smell the flowers. No, it’s like Sherman’s march to the sea, always moving forward, never stopping. I could never catch my spiritual breath while praying the Psalms at the monastery. There was no pause button you could push to ponder a verse or a phrase when it made contact with you somewhere deep inside. There was a schedule to keep.
I hated it until one day one of the brothers in the community explained to us that you have to pray the Psalter just like you go through a cafeteria line. It’s all good, he said, but you can’t possibly eat it all in one sitting, and so you have to make some choices. Standing at a steam table with a dozen vegetables staring back at you, you’ve got to decide what you want to eat – or maybe need to eat – that day. One day it might be okra and the next day cauliflower. You’ve just got to choose from among the delicious and nutritious alternatives each day. And so that monk told us to pay attention to the words, verses and ideas that jump off the page as we were plowing through the Psalms each day and take them away from the chapel with us when the prayer time was over. And then, in a more leisurely way, work with those words, verses and ideas he told us, just like a cow chews its cud, mulling it over and over again until all of its meaning for you has been extracted. He said that this explains the rhythm of the Benedictine day – a continuous pattern of prayer and work. The fruit that you pluck from the Psalter during the times of prayer is the fruit that you digest later during the times of work. In this way the whole day spiritually coheres.
And so I started paying better attention to what stuck to the wall of my heart when the Psalms started getting thrown around each time we gathered to pray, and I was simply amazed at how powerful and personal this spiritual discipline started to become for me. Instead of dreading the hefty serving of Psalms that I knew was waiting for me every time the monastery bell rang and I stepped into the chapel, I actually began looking forward to what Word the Lord had for me next. And no sooner had I started doing this than the Lord began to address the issue of my sleeplessness.
While praying the Psalms, all of the Psalms, I started becoming aware of just how they often talked about sleeping. References to sleep began to leap off the pages of the Psalter and straight into my head and heart. In fact, a cluster of them have since become the building blocks for my ”theology of sleep.”
You’ve kept track of my every toss and turn
through the sleepless nights,
Each tear entered in your ledger,
each ache written in your book. (Psalm 56:8 – The Message)
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
…I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears. (Psalm 6:2-3; 6)
These verses sound to me like the Psalmist understood sleeplessness firsthand. He’d tossed and turned too. His familiarity with stress and anxiety was not theoretical. He’d lived it himself. His spiritual genius was in bringing it to God. More than sleeping pills or counseling sessions, he knew that what needed most God’s mercy.
It is vain for you to rise up early,
To sit up late, To eat the bread of sorrows;
For so He gives His beloved sleep. (Psalm 127:2)
These verses hit me with the force of an electric shock. The Lord gives rest to the fearful and sleep to the anxious. This makes falling asleep an act of faith. It is said that every night that good Pope John XXIII had the same bedtime ritual. About midnight he would kneel at the altar in his room and review the day. He would confess his failures and give thanks for his successes. And then he would take a deep breath and say – “Lord, I did the best I could today, but now I am tired. It’s your Church, Lord, and so I am going to bed. Good night.” Do you think he knew Psalm 127?
My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel Shall neither slumber nor sleep. (Psalm 121:2-4)
The theologian Carl F.H. Henry remembered the experience of hearing a baby’s cry in the middle of the night and going to his crib to rock the cradle and reassure his child that his daddy was near and that all was well. “Sleep, baby, sleep! Don’t worry about a thing.” It was his presence and attentiveness as a father that made those words meaningful. And we have the same promise, cosmically. Every Jewish child used Psalm 31 as his or her bedtime prayer. Jesus would have no doubt learned it from the lips and in the laps of Mary and Joseph. “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (31:5) it concludes. And these were His last words on the cross (Luke 23:46). When we trust the heart that’s at the center of the universe we can give ourselves over to Him fully and rest in Him completely.
Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God. Selah.
But thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.
I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah.
I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me. (Psalm 3:2-5)
I will both lie down in peace, and sleep;
For You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:8)
And here is the payoff – sleep! The first preacher I worked with used to tell me that it never bothered him to see his parishioners fall asleep while he preached. He showed me how “rest” is a metaphor of salvation in the book of Hebrews (3:7-4:13), and explained that when he saw people sleep during his ministry that he took it as a sign of the work of God in their lives! Now I’m not sure that’s good theology or a faithful interpretation of the text, but I get the point. I don’t have to constantly strive and struggle because the grace of God has already finished the work of salvation. I can rest in that truth, and in God’s embrace.
O God, You are my God; Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You; My flesh longs for You.
In a dry and thirsty land Where there is no water.
…When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches.
Because You have been my help, Therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice.
My soul follows close behind You; Your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63:1; 6)
Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
and sing for joy on their beds. (Psalm 149:5)
Finally, when the sleepless hours come, instead of counting sheep, I’ll visit with the shepherd. “Early” I will seek the Lord. I will “remember” His goodness while lying in my bed. I will “meditate” on Him during the night watches. And I will “sing for joy” that God is there and loves me when I am wide awake in the middle of the night. Rather than being a problem, I will turn my sleeplessness into an opportunity for grace and growth. DBS+