Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Years ago, I signed my name to a list of parishioners who would ensure our adoration chapel received a perpetual adoration by giving one hour a week. I was one of the last to sign up, so I might not have received the most convenient time of the lot: 3:30 a.m. on Tuesdays. It was especially hard because I went into work at 6:30 a.m., and took about an hour to get ready in the morning.
This schedule had me getting up at 2:30 a.m., getting out of adoration at 4:30-5 a.m. It wouldn’t make much sense to drive back home for just 30-60 minutes of rest before heading to work for the day. There’s no way I would be able to get any meaningful rest in that time. I enjoyed the time for adoration, prayer and contemplation, but this was a real challenge with a newborn, a degree program on the side, and a mentally demanding job.
Once or twice, I fell asleep. I didn’t mean to.
I would be on my knees with my rosary and suddenly I would pop up, wondering if anyone noticed (a time or two, there were others there, or my “shift” would overlap another). Fast forward a few months and my family welcomed another newborn, and I just couldn’t keep the schedule within reason. I asked my adoration coordinator if I could change times and she assured me it was not an issue, so I changed to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays. Things would be better, right? Easier to keep my thoughts together, and no more falling asleep, right?
Wrong. After work, I was somehow even further mentally exhausted than before. I had a lot of trouble resisting the urge to lay my head down on the chair in front of me, and tried my best to not even shut my eyes for long periods of time—a tall order for someone in prayer. Several times, I still fell asleep.
I felt so wicked. The words of Jesus on the night of his betrayal in Gethsemane rang in my head:
...remain here, and watch with me... So, could you not watch with me one hour? ... Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
How miserable I felt to not be able to keep my “watch” for one measly hour. Without a doubt, Peter and the rest tried, but were eventually overcome, and I was in that same barque. And though I told myself it was better that I was there at all, praying to and adoring the one God of the universe present in the form of a thin and fragile wafer of bread, I continued to feel shame for not being more disciplined and capable.
It’s happened here and there since. Praying before bed, I’ve fallen asleep. Praying during down time while deployed to the Middle East, I’d fall asleep. I accepted my weakness, did my best to stay awake, and continued my prayers for the sake of obligation. Feeling shame changed, though, when I read the letters and lives of the Counter-Reformers, St. Jane Frances de Chantal and St. Francis de Sales. Lo and behold, she and others were preoccupied with the same concern: sometimes I fall asleep during prayer, is it wrong?
Here’s what St. Jane Frances de Chantal once wrote:
Our success in prayer depends on [believing that God is more than we are] and not on discourse and considerations, of which if we are deprived we need not be troubled. Neither should we be troubled when we sleep at prayer, provided we resist it. Let us patiently suffer it and keep ourselves before God as a statue to receive all he sends. It gives our Lord pleasure to see us fighting sleep all the time of prayer. We must bear with it and love our abjection. . . . A soul who has this spirit of prayer does more work in one hour than another, who without it, will do in many.
She’s referring to the sage counsel of Francis de Sales when he says in his Treatise on the Love of God:
This is the best way of remaining in God’s presence—to will to be forever a source of God’s pleasure. Even in our deepest sleep, we are in God’s presence. If we love him, we even sleep for his pleasure, by his will and according to his will. God, our Maker, places us in bed as statues in their niches, that we may settle there as birds nestle in their nests. On awakening, we know we have not been absent or separated from him. We have been in the presence of his pleasure. We say like Jacob, ‘I have been in God’s presence and did not know it.’
In this Prayer of Quiet, the will seeks God’s good pleasure. The soul wants only to be in God’s sight and to please him. This Prayer of Quiet is excellent, having no mixture of self-interest. The soul’s faculties take no selfish contentment, but seek only God’s pleasure. The height of love’s ecstasy is to be content in God’s will, not our own.
Their words are highly encouraging, and highly channeling, still. We’re not completely hopeless, but we’re not totally off the hook, either. We ought to continue to resist our temptations to flee prayer in exchange for sleep, but if we sincerely are taken up in the presence of the Lord and he happens to give us rest, even as he promises (Matt. 11:28), then we have little to be worried about.
In any case, worries are not for the Christian. As St. Jane so fantastically puts it: “Hold your eyes on God and leave the doing to him. That’s all the doing you need to worry about.”
(I’ve written enthusiastically on this topic and others is my new book, Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation, available now the Catholic Answers Press.)