A Good Night’s Sleep is a Sign of God’s Providence

“May the Lord give us a restful night and a peaceful death.”

Luc Olivier Merson, “Rest on the Flight to Egypt,” 1879
Luc Olivier Merson, “Rest on the Flight to Egypt,” 1879 (photo: Public Domain)

The Washington Post reports that Americans don’t sleep enough. The article in the paper’s main edition is replete with all the references that make a conclusion sound authoritative: professors from seven universities (U Mass-Amherst, Pittsburgh, Penn State, Northwestern, Princeton, Maryland, and Berkeley) and researchers from three main centers (the National Sleep Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics) all agree people don’t get enough rest. If you still have any doubt, the venerable Gallup Poll assures us Americans in 2013 were clocking 6.9 hours per night in bed, whereas their grandparents in 1942 averaged 7.9.

I have no doubt that these trends are true. Nor do I doubt the usual suspects held responsible—work, one’s financial situation, overgrown homework, and hours wasted in front of various screens—are. There are, of course, also those who waste their time in front of those screens. I do not want to address those who are simply lazy, willing to while away their hours staring at pixels on plasma.

The WaPo Express, the Post’s freebie morning handout, ran this same story on its front page, with an American eagle whose wing covered its yawning beak. The headline read: “One Nation under …. Yawn.” I wish they would have picked another motto: “In …. Yawn… We Trust?”

As a Catholic theologian, I don’t disparage the conclusions colleagues in particular sciences like medicine, neuroscience or psychology have reached.

But, for others, I dare to offer another reason for our society’s insomnia: a lack of trust. The more I observe contemporary society, including contemporary Catholics (at least in the United States), the more I am convinced we have a crisis of faith in Providence.

I don’t deny that God continues to provide his providential care. I do think that more and more people don’t believe it.

There is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that people are falling behind economically, their frantic efforts to escape a financial pit filling faster than they can dig themselves out are not always an illusion.

But is the quest for “more” honestly always correlated with what one needs in life? A sincere assessment of “do I really need this, or am I just trying to keep up with the Jones” could help tame the spending and earning cycle.

The same with homework. Having sent my children to various schools in various places I am even more convinced that, in the name of “creative exploration” and “teaching critical thinking” in the classroom, much of the real educational work of acquiring and mastering a basic fund of knowledge in different subject areas has been relegated to a kind of homework self-study.

We talk a lot about “work/life balance.” But do we really mean it?

Ours is a society that puts on a premium on “being in control.” Discipline and control are high virtues in our culture, regardless of the fact that, at critical moments in life the veil is torn and we see just how really not in control we are.

Sleep runs counter to all that.

Charles Péguy, the French Catholic poet who died in World War I, wrote a most moving tribute to sleep. Like most of his great poems, his reflections on sleep are written in the voice of God, reflecting on human behavior, sometimes with a touch of sarcasm, often with gentle humor, always with love.

“‘I don’t like a man who doesn’t sleep,’ says God. Sleep is the friend of man. Sleep is the friend of God.”

American culture, so influenced by the Puritanical obsession with proving we are on the elect side of predestination (even though supposedly good works avail to nothing), often forgets that sleep is God’s creation, his gift. “I too rested on the seventh day.” We feel guilty about resting, about taking a sick day, about using our vacation time. But we have also forgotten that the seventh day is an essential truth of being human; we think 24/7/365 represents “progress”—there is nothing so “advanced” as being able to buy the next thing I don’t need at 2:43 a.m. on a Sunday morning and have it delivered by breakfast just because I can.

“There are men who work well and sleep poorly. Who don’t sleep. What a lack of confidence in me.”

Do we not trust that God will “give success to the work of our hands?” He does not promise that blessing only after we have worked ourselves to exhaustion. Do we not hope?

Or do we not believe? Do we not in the end believe that God cares enough for us that we can leave our affairs in his hands?

“They can’t allow me to govern their affairs for the space of one night. To take over the management and government of their affairs. As if I wasn’t capable, I suppose, of looking after them a bit. I manage plenty of other affairs, poor people: I govern creation, surely that is more difficult. Maybe you could, without much loss, leave your affairs in my hands … for the space of one night.”

Do we believe in a Creator who governs, who sustains his creation? Remember, we are Catholics, not Deists. We do not believe in a God who, once upon a time, made a universe like a clock, wound it up, and left it to run blindly. We believe in a God who both sets off big bangs and counts my receding hairline. So do we believe in Providence?

As usual, God gives us an example. Péguy writes: “O, my beautiful night. I created you first. … Night, you remind me of that night. And I will remember it eternally. The ninth hour had sounded. … It was over.” And God reflects that the night came and “buried, the Centurion and his Romans, the Virgin and the Holy Women, … and my people Israel and sinners and with them, he who was dying, he who had died for them.”

In the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, sleep and death are correlated: “May the Lord give us a restful night and a peaceful death.” Is our fear of “Sister Death” (despite the Culture of Death we have erected) part and parcel of our fear to close our eyes and “lay … in the arms of my Providence.”

Péguy’s God notes that a child sleeps, and we are assured that no one will enter the Kingdom unless he becomes like a child.

To sleep is to have confidence in God, to have hope. When the storm rocked the boat on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus slept while the disciples bailed – and whose action was more efficacious? “He who doesn’t sleep is unfaithful to Hope. / And it is the greatest infidelity.”

Sleep well!