I have sometimes jokingly told my friends in Opus Dei—the apostolate whose principal characteristic is the sanctification of work—that were I to found a religious movement, I would make its principal characteristic the sanctification of sleep. A poor joke, perhaps, but there is a serious element to it. Theology, being the highest form of knowledge, must surely have an answer to why humans spend on average twenty-five years of their lives sleeping.
The first reference to rest, which is not the same as sleep, is Genesis 2:2, stating that God rested on the seventh day. God did not rest because he was tired, for that is impossible for God the Father. He rested for two reasons: because he was done bringing non-existence into existence, and because he was satisfied with what he had created. As humans we cannot create something out of nothing. But we can create, and be pleased with what we create. After a day’s work, we may be pleased with what we have managed to achieve. And so we may rest. For us, rest is associated with sleep, which allows us to resume our work later on, and create more satisfying achievements.
St. Philip Neri warned that we should not spend too much time sleeping, since Heaven is not for sluggards. This is possibly a reference to Proverbs 6:9: “How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?” In heaven, the angels and saints do not sleep, but glorify and serve God without pause. Neither does God sleep, as we have seen. Why then should we spend so much time sleeping? Sloth, it should be remembered, is a sin.
Sleeping is an act of faith. Every time we go to bed, we entrust to God that we will wake up the next day. Every night is an anticipation of the day when we will never wake up again. A prayer for protection during the night includes the passage, “Bless, O Lord, the repose I am going to take in order to renew my strength, that I may be better able to serve thee. O all ye Saints and Angels! But chiefly thou, O Mother of God! Intercede for me this night and during the rest of my life, but particularly at the hour of my death.” Here we meet the request for the intercession of Our Blessed Mother, echoing the petition from the Hail Mary, for the Virgin to pray for us “now, and at the our of our death.” We ask her to pray for us when we no longer can, as Roger Scruton has pointed out.
When we go to bed, therefore, it is a Christian custom to make an examination of conscience. We ask Almighty God to help us see what we have done well, what we have done badly, and what we could have done better. We ask the forgiveness of our sins, and may make a special resolution for the coming day, if God grants us the gift of another day.
Some spiritual writers have claimed the importance of waking up on time in the morning. If we don’t get up at a certain time, our first concession will have been to the enemy. St. Josemaría Escrivá called waking up the “heroic minute,” in which a sacrifice is made to God. When the alarm calls on us to begin our day of service, we have a great opportunity for sanctification.
There is a somewhat humoristic syllogism stating: He who drinks, sleeps > He who sleeps, does not sin > He who does not sin is holy > Therefore, he who drinks is holy. Drinking in order to fall asleep would constitute a sin. There is, however, a grain of truth to this. St. Augustine deals with the issue in Book X, Chapter 30 of his Confessions, speaking of tempting images:
During sleep where is my reason which, when I am awake, resists such suggestions and remains firm and undismayed even in the face of the realities themselves? Is it sealed off when I close my eyes? Does it fall asleep with the senses of the body? And why is it that even in sleep I often resist the attraction of these images, for I remember my chaste resolutions and abide by them and give no consent to temptations of this sort? Yet the difference between waking and sleeping is so great that even when, during sleep, it happens otherwise, I return to a clear conscience when I wake and realize that, because of this difference, I was not responsible for the act, although I am sorry that by some means or other it happened to me.
What, then, can we say of the theology of sleep? Sleep well and not too much, and see it as a preparation for a good day’s work and an anticipation of death. And as a quote attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas states, “Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine.” All in moderation, of course.
Karl Gustel Wärnberg sits on the editorial board of The European Conservative, and studies the Master’s Programme in the Humanities, with specialisation in the History of Science and Ideas, at Uppsala University in Sweden.