The widely circulated discovery that our ancestors slept in two stretches during the night separated by a period of wakefulness has shed light on something that has puzzled many of us who retire between ten and eleven o’clock and expect to be up again between six and seven, namely, the hallowed practice of rising at midnight to pray, as reflected in a number of ancient texts, including the Bible:
Your ancestors slept in a way that modern sleepers would find bizarre – they slept twice. . . . The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.
His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.
References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.
Here are a few telling references from Scripture:
But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron (Judges 16:3).
At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! (Ruth 3:8)
At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules (Psalm 119:62).
Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning (Mark 13:35).
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).
What did people do with these wakeful hours in the middle of the night? According to Stephanie Hegarty, writing for the BBC,
During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.
Nowadays we have difficulty imagining why anyone would willingly consent to be roused from a supposedly deep slumber by the summons to prayer at such an (if you’ll pardon the expression) ungodly hour. Yet, if Ekirch is right, they may already have been awake. Both Roman and Orthodox monasteries prescribed a midnight office, with certain psalms assigned to be prayed at that hour. According to chapter VIII of the Rule of St. Benedict:
Making due allowance for circumstances, the brethren will rise during the winter season, that is, from the calends of November till Easter, at the eighth hour of the night [between 12 and 1 am]; so that, having rested till a little after midnight, they may rise refreshed.
Our contemporary schedules do not easily accommodate a regular practice of praying at midnight. Yet some of us who have suffered from insomnia in the past have already discovered the benefits of prayer during these periods of wakefulness. Perhaps it is time to change our attitude towards these times. Rather than see them as occasions for suffering, at least where obvious illness is not a factor, perhaps we might view them as opportunities to bring our praises, petitions and thanksgivings before a gracious and loving God, who, as the psalmist assures us, neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4) and for whom night is as bright as day (Psalm 139:12).