Marilyn McEntyre on sleeplessness and the night vigil

I drift off happily at bedtime, but now wake between three and four in the morning. I like to wake early, but not quite that early. At that hour, I’m faced with a decision: Do I get up and begin a day that will likely end in untimely fatigue, or lie there and try to find my way back to rest, if not sleep?

Nighttime is a time-honored metaphor for seasons of darkness, loss, uncertainty, mourning. It’s not only a metaphor: nighttime is in fact when our demons tend to assail us, and unhappy memories or unnerving anxieties move to the foreground of consciousness, just before or after periods of restless sleep. It can be hard, in the dark, to maintain perspective and resilience. It can be hard, if we’re tired, to appropriate those wakeful times for fruitful prayer or meditation. A fatigued mind isn’t necessarily a relaxed one.

Wakeful nights, like periods of spiritual darkness, may be times to practice the kind of watching described in the story of Passover in Exodus 12: “It was a night of watching by the Lord.” It was doubtless also a night of anxiety, restlessness, and hope mixed with apprehension and unknowing. But the Israelites knew the Lord was abroad and something was afoot, and so they watched and waited, not only that night, but in ritual remembrance “kept . . . by all the people of Israel throughout their generations.”

Since then, the night watch has become a part of Christian ritual, remembered liturgically in the Christmas and Easter vigils, and by the custom of watching with the dead the night before burial.

Sometimes it’s good to remember how much germinates in the dark of our lives—like seeds in the darkness of the soil, or like trees fattening their leaf buds in winter. During those times we never know what’s being prepared within us, because it hasn’t yet broken into the light of consciousness. The Spirit works within us in ways we barely imagine, and can only—and only sometimes—recognize after the fact.

When we think we’re simply thrashing about, wandering aimlessly in the fog, there may be, as Hamlet reminds us, a divinity shaping our ends.

Knowing that, we may submit to that process of being shaped and tried and prepared with a little more patience in the waiting and awareness of the subtle signs that come even in the very midst of darkness. They remind us of how the slow sun rises, as Emily Dickinson so beautifully and accurately put it, “a ribbon at a time.” Those ribbons of light may be pale and thin, but each of them is a promise and a harbinger of far more to come.

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