As a boy and young man, it was normal for me to sleep though the night. Now that I am older, I can no longer do so. Readers of a certain age will know the reason why. Sometimes, upon getting back into bed, I do not go back to sleep for some time. For some reason I have “missed the sleep train” and find myself stranded at Insomnia Station.
There are a number of possible responses to this situation. One can simply toss and turn. Or one can allow a particular train of thought to take hold of one’s mind, often along the lines of a review of some of the stupid things one has done in one’s life. Or one can reach for that contemporary escape, the cell phone, and, risking the sleep disturbing blue light, mindlessly surf the net. Or one can switch on the bedside light and read a book. Or one can get up, put on a dressing gown and slippers, go to “prayer-place,” and pray. I know an older sister in Christ who, when she cannot sleep, often does this.
The tradition of “keeping vigil” is older than Christianity, and currently it may be undergoing a little revival. In the Psalms there are many references to people praying at night. For example, “One my bed I remember you, on you I muse through the night” (Ps 63:6. Cf. also Ps 119:55, 62, & 148). Praying through the night was also a sign of repentance (cf. 1 Sam 15:11, 2 Sam 12:16, Lam 2:19, Joel 1:13). And it was during the night that Jacob “wrestled with God” (Gen 32:28).
Jesus kept vigil. In Mark’s Gospel we are told that, after healing Simon’s mother-in-law and many other people, “in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed” (Mk 1:35). I do not think that this incident was a “one-off,” but records something that was a common occurrence in the life of Jesus. His ministry was often so busy that, if he were to pray at all, it sometimes had to be while everyone else was asleep (cf. Mt 14:23, Lk 6:12, and possibly Jn 6:15).
We also have one recorded instance when Paul and Silas were still up at midnight, praying (cf. Acts 16:15). This tradition has continued in monastic life. Even today, Carthusians, Cistercians, Benedictines, and others meet to pray Matins (the Office of Readings) in “the wee small hours of the morning”.
It has been normal for holy men and women to keep vigil. St. Dominic is famous for his vigils, during which his constant intercession was, “My God, what will happen to sinners?” Yet is this something for “ordinary Christians”? Paul himself seems to indicate that it is. Not only does he write that he prays “earnestly, night and day” (1 Thess 3:10), but he also writes of widows who “continue in supplications and prayers night and day”.
Also, passages like Ephesians 6:18, “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,” may indicate praying during the night, since the Greek for “keep alert” is, literally, “watching”. Also, a verse like 1 Thess 5:6, “So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober,” may indicate staying awake to pray.
How can we keep vigil? Besides praying or reading a spiritual book when we cannot sleep, I wish to present two opportunities to keep vigil; in the parish and on retreat. In the archdiocese of Sydney where I live, there are a growing number of parishes that have a perpetual adoration chapel. I had the blessing to live in such a parish in Melbourne some years ago. The adoration chapel could be entered by key card. Once a week my wife and I would meet a few friends there to adore the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament for an hour in the early hours of the morning.
I have also been on retreats where a night has been set aside for retreatants to roster themselves on for such adoration. A word of warning here; make sure that you set your alarm correctly. Once, my wife and I did not, and another couple, who fortunately were friends, spent two hours with the Lord instead of one. We jokingly explained it as helping them to grow in holiness. They are still friends.
Why should we keep vigil? First, because Jesus asks us to. Not only did he ask the Eleven to stay awake and pray with him in the garden of Gethsemane, but as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, he is our great High Priest who always lives to make intercession for us (cf. Heb 7:25.) He is always praying for sinners, and we can join him in that prayer. Second, because it is an ascetical practice that can help us draw closer to God. It is a way of worshiping God that entails the sacrifice of our sleep. Third, because it is a way to follow the teaching of St. Paul that we need to “pray constantly” (1 Thess 5:17).
Certainly, it is not the only way to pray constantly. As Brother Lawrence and many other saints tell us, we can learn to constantly “practice the presence of God,” and we can offer everything we are and do as “a living sacrifice” to God (Rom 12:1). Fourth, because it is the time when our praying is least likely to be interrupted. Everyone else is asleep. Finally, as I have found, both from personal experience and anecdotally, although it can be difficult to stay awake and concentrate, God can give special blessings and graces to those who watch with him through the night, often at the end of the vigil. Perhaps one particular blessing could be to peacefully go back to sleep when finally returning to bed.
(Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the Catholic Weekly, May 2, 2021.)
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