This summer, a lady approached me and asked a surprising question: “Can I sleep well and still be a good Christian?” She went on to tell me that she often found herself worried at bedtime, either about her own tasks and shortcomings or the troubles and needs of others.
When considering this question, it is essential that charity be the rule of our lives. There will come a time when each of us will be called to forego sleep in order to do an important work of charity. It might entail changing a little newborn at 2:00 am. Or it might involve caring for an elderly parent who cannot be left alone through the night. It could even be as mundane as covering the graveyard shift in order to put food on the table for one’s family. In all these common and seemingly unheroic circumstances, we give up the good of sleep for the greater good of loving the people that God has put in our lives. By responding to the tasks God has given us with charity, we exercise a share in the same motive that has driven saints throughout the ages to make more extraordinary renunciations, such as long all-night vigils and fasts.
Charity calls some of us to go long periods sacrificing restful nights, and others among us to offer up the occasional evening. Still, if our staying up is not an expression of our love for God or neighbor, then charity demands that we sleep in peace, receiving what the Church asks for in the Office of Night Prayer: the rest that will strengthen us to render more faithful service. The fact is, without this rest, most of us would not have the strength of mind or body so as to render faithful service to God. Rather than make ourselves sleep deprived when there is no need, we would do better to take our rest when it comes with a sense of gratitude for this period of refreshment.
So yes, we can sleep well and be good Christians! As our model, let’s take a son of St. Dominic, Fr. Walter Farrell. An American priest of this past century, Fr. Farrell was nobody’s slouch. In his thirty years as a friar before his premature death at forty-nine in 1951, Fr. Farrell was a renowned preacher, writer, teacher, administrator, and military chaplain. Spending himself in the service of the Lord during the day, he could lie down at night in peace. Once, he wrote a beautiful exhortation to peaceful sleep:
It seems to me quite entrancing to be able to pile into bed realizing there is someone as big as God to do all the worrying that has to be done. Worry, you know, is a kind of reverence given to a situation because of its magnitude; how small it must be through God’s eyes…. You can’t get everything done in a day, nor can you get any part of it done as well as you’d like it; so, like the rest of us, you putter at your job with a normal amount of energy, for a reasonable length of time, and go to bed with the humiliating yet exhilarating knowledge that you are a child of God, not God Himself.
Whether we are currently blessed to share in the sacred sleep that Fr. Farrell describes, or we are sacrificing sleep to show forth the love of God by candlelight, so long as charity rules our actions, we can enjoy the most important rest of all: a tranquil soul.