Fix Your Spiritual Life with This One Weird Trick

I wanted to pass on one piece of wisdom that was given to me by more than one spiritual mentor:

Go to bed on time.

I know that may seem small and obvious, but I continually talk to people (and am a person!) who don’t get enough sleep. In some cases, there’s little that can be done about it—children, work, insomnia, etc. But in many cases, we can indeed do something about it. And of course sometimes we get into a habit of not getting enough sleep because of circumstances beyond our control, then we just keep it up even when we could do differently.

The reason I was told to get more sleep by my father-confessor and others is that being well-rested helps me to prepare better for, well, pretty much everything. I can pray better. I can be kinder. I can think straighter. I am less irritable. I am more productive. I am a better husband, a better father, a better pastor.   The list goes on and on.

For a long time, when people asked me about prayer, relationships, etc., I immediately thought of techniques in the moment to help. But I’ve learned to back up a little and ask about other things, and sleep is one of them. If you’re not getting enough rest, it is likely that your spiritual life is going to be harder than it has to be.

We’re able to observe this in kids just fine—if a cranky kid is just over-tired, we understand (though of course we don’t excuse his behavior if he’s old enough to control himself). Yet somehow we don’t often realize that the same thing applies to the spiritual lives of adults. But it does. Yes, we should try to control ourselves even when we’re exhausted, but why are we doing that to ourselves? Is that really what spiritual life should be like? Always unprepared?

It’s true that one of our ascetical gifts from God is to stand vigil—a kind of holy sleeplessness. But most of us who are being sleepless aren’t standing vigil in church. We’re just staying up late and usually doing useless things.

So if you’re not being sleepless because of intense prayer, you should try to get to bed. It really does help with just about everything. Just as vigils are a gift from God, so is sleep. So let’s use it.

No, despite my click-baity title, sleep isn’t a “trick” that will fix your spiritual life if it’s broken. But getting enough of it can go a long way toward helping you put it back in order.

(And while we’re at it, are you eating okay, too? Seriously.)

9 comments:

  1. Ha! It’s 2 am and I’m up. Convicted! I have a good “excuse” but still…this article is spot on. Tomorrow will be a rough day for sure. Off to bed. Thank you Father.

  2. Thank you for the simple but so true life truth in this article. While I am not of the Orthodox faith tradition, I deeply appreciate the simplicity and deep, historical spiritual well that you bring to the body of Christ!

    I have just apologized to Abba for not properly taking better care of my body that was provided and re-purchased at a high price by the Lord Jesus, and will endeavor to get the rest that I need to be a fit vessel for His service.

  3. I have chronic sleep disturbance, and it’s caused me to miss church on occasion. With a lessening of stress in my life, the sleep problem is getting better, and on the day before a liturgy, I now only drink decaff coffee, which has also helped a lot.

  4. This may seem like good advice, and at least makes sense from a practical point of view, but I wonder if there are any saints or holy fathers who have expressed this in their writings. At first this struck me as odd, because I have read a lot about very spiritual persons who make it a point of depriving themselves of sleep, especially prolonged sleep. In monasteries, monks usually attend a late service and are back in church for morning services, sometimes within 5 or 6 hours.
    But going to bed “on time” does not necessarily mean sleeping more than you need. Going to bed on time can mean going to bed quite late indeed, if that is the hour that one sets for himself as bedtime.
    Since eating well keeps a person from being cranky, one could also argue that one might have an improved spiritual life if one keeps himself well fed. I know I always am in a better mood when I’m well fed than when I’m hungry, and I can get somewhat less than jovial when I’m very hungry. Since I am not completely dirt poor and can afford to feed myself as I please, I am never really hungry due to lack of food. But there are seasons in the year in which the Holy Church bids us to refrain from taking worldly comfort in a full belly and to fast instead. And fasting doesn’t usually put most people in the best of moods.
    I have to say, though, that I am very glad that the Church has not set aside a season for depriving oneself of sleep. I don’t think I would find that any more pleasant than I find having to deprive myself of food, for a season. But we do it because the Church teaches us not only not to over-indulge, but even to deprive ourselves. And She teaches us that this self-deprivation, although it may put us in a very unsociable mood, is actually a benefit to our spiritual lives.

    1. I address “holy” sleeplessness in the post—standing vigil in prayer, usually in church. And of course you mention depriving ourselves of food during fasts.

      Yet just as fasting without prayer is (at best) a diet and (at worst) abusing oneself, then sleep deprivation without prayer is likewise either spiritually useless or even destructive.

      Deprivation is not itself virtuous or spiritual. It has to be done with specific purpose and with prayer. But the deprivation is also not a negation of the gift from God. In the prayers of the Midnight Office (Nocturns), we thank God for giving sleep to us as rest from labor. Depriving ourselves of sleep in order to watch TV or waste time on the Internet (rather than for prayer or for other good works in ascetical discipline) is actually a rejection of a gift from God.

      No, it’s not likely that you’ll find many saints explicitly saying that we should get rest—that expression is modern in its language. But you certainly do find many urging us not to waste our time in vain pursuits, and you certainly do find them praying in thanks for the gift of sleep from God.

      There is even an interesting passage in Lactantius where he speaks of sleep being given by God so that we could have dreams through which He teaches us: “Therefore the system of dreaming has been given by God for the sake of sleeping; and, indeed, it has been given to all animals in common; but this especially to man, that when God gave this system on account of rest, He left to Himself the power of teaching man future events by means of the dream.”

      And St. Ambrose has advice on how to sleep well by praying before bed: “And again in your bed-chamber itself, I would have you join psalms in frequent interchange with the Lord’s prayer, either when you wake up, or before sleep bedews your body, so that at the very commencement of rest sleep may find you free from the care of worldly matters, meditating upon the things of God.”

      That said, here is a passage from St. Augustine which actually says almost exactly what I have said in this post, though he says more and in fewer words: “Sleep of body we all ought to have: because if sleep of body is not taken, a man fainteth, the body itself fainteth. For our frail body cannot long sustain a soul watching and on the stretch on active works; if for a long time the soul shall have been intent on active pursuits, the body being frail and earthly holdeth her not, sustaineth her not for ever in activity, and fainteth and falleth. Therefore God hath granted sleep to the body, whereby are recruited the members of the body, in order that they may be able to sustain the soul watching. But of this let us take heed, namely, that our soul herself sleep not: for evil is the sleep of the soul. Good is the sleep of the body, whereby is recruited the health of the body. But the sleep of the soul is to forget her God. Whatsoever soul shall have forgotten her God, sleepeth.”

      Finally, if I may say so, if fasting or standing vigil puts one into a bad mood, one is probably doing it wrong. We are called upon to do these things with joy.

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