Ever Wake Up in the Middle of the Night for No Good Reason?

We can treat waking up in the middle of the night as a call to remember that there’s nothing to fear.

Burmese youth sound the ‘oma’
Burmese youth sound the ‘oma’ (photo: Photo by Angelo Stagnaro)

Do you ever wake up at 3 a.m. for unknown reasons? Plenty of people do. Sometimes one wakes with a start and is filled with apprehension or an inexplicable heightened state of awareness.

It’s a common enough occurrence that becomes even more common the older one becomes. When I led a rock star’s lifestyle in my youth or that of a graduate student in my more mature years, I recall partying or studying well into wee hours of the night. Upon becoming too exhausted to stand without assistance, I would collapse into my bed and sleep the sleep of the obliviously innocent―or somewhat innocent.

That’s no longer the case.

Scientists have suggested, as they do, countless reasons for this phenomenon. Some propose that the cause is a blood-pressure adjustment. One study pointed to a peak in melatonin levels at 3 a.m. that might cause one to wake up then.

Others have pointed out that the idea of a straight eight hours of sleep is a myth foisted upon us by know-nothings pretending to be health experts. She suggested that people just naturally rouse from sleep throughout the night. She referenced the tradition of Catholic monks and nuns who pray twice in the middle of the night.

Professor Roger Ekirch at Virginia Tech, having studied historical documents―including diaries, medical manuscripts, court documents and literature―relating to sleep, came to the conclusion that humans naturally had always divided their sleep into two periods, often waking up in the middle for a couple of hours. Historically, they even referred to these sleep periods as “first sleep” and “second sleep.” In between these two sleeping periods, people might read, write, pray, have a walk-about (or in Canada, a walk-aboot) or perhaps engage in canoodling with their proper-and-lawful spouse. In fact, a 16th-century French physician’s manual recommended couples eager to conceive had the best chance of doing so between the two “sleeps.” 

The "second sleep" lasted until sunrise. Sleep researchers have found that when people live solely by natural light, they will naturally revert back to this ancient “segmented sleep” pattern. Homer specifically mentions it in his Odyssey. Even Scriptures attests to this natural break in sleep: 

  • Come, praise the Lord, all His servants, all who serve in His Temple at night. (Psalm 134:1)
  • In the middle of the night I wake up to praise You for Your righteous judgments. (Psalm 119:62)
  • All night long I lie awake, to meditate on Your instructions. (Psalm 119:148)
  • Seven times each day I thank You for Your righteous judgments. (Psalm 119:164)

St. Paul also refers to it in the Acts of the Apostles when he converts his Philippian jailer:

  • About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25)

Even Jesus is given to praying late at night:

  • Very early the next morning, long before daylight, Jesus got up and left the house. He went out of town to a lonely place, where He prayed. (Mark 1:35)
  • At that time Jesus went up a hill to pray and spent the whole night there praying to God. (Luke 6:12)

By the early part of the 20th century, this natural pattern amongst Westerners had been disrupted by the advent of street lighting, late night street noise, the popularity of coffee houses and smoking.

This natural waking explains how it is that monks and cloistered nuns could rouse from their otherwise “deep sleep” at what the rest of us Christians would call an “ungodly hour” and pray to God.

Traditionally, monks and nuns go to bed at 7:30 p.m. and wake at 11:30 p.m. for a brief period of private prayer. At 12:15 a.m., they’ll come together to pray the offices of Matins and Lauds for about 2-3 hours, and then off to bed until sunrise at approximately 6:30 a.m.

When one considers the Mediterranean custom of a leisurely lunch followed by a siesta, one wonders exactly what kind of cushy asceticism monks and nuns are actually practicing.

But the whys and wherefores as to interrupted sleeping aside, perhaps you’re merely adjusting your position in bed and that causes you to stir from your sleep. Or perhaps you’re watching television much too late at night and its disturbed your natural sleep cycles. Register writer Kevin Di Camillo, wrote an excellent article proposing reading a set of Psalms if overcome by insomnia. He recommended it over self-medication. Insomniacs are well-advised to use the time given them for positive, prayerful purposes. 

The wonderful thing about science is, it’s never finished and is constantly challenging itself. Thus, one shouldn’t put too much emphasis on one recent study or another as the facts and their interpretation still need to be worked out for many years before the debate is over. Perhaps what researchers come up with will be proven correct. Perhaps what is proven absolutely correct will ultimately turn out to be completely false. 

And while we await scientists and scientismists to fight it out among themselves and come to some agreement, perhaps we can consider what this phenomenon means to us as Christians. 

The “witching hour” is that time of night associated with dark, preternatural events. Demons and their satanic groupies, it is said, are out-and-about causing trouble in the world.

Black magic is thought to be most effective at this time by its practitioners. However, I wouldn’t put much stock in what those people say as they’re nuts. The devil has no creative powers―he merely offers illusions and lies instead. It’s amazing anyone would trust anything he tells them. 

In 2014, David Luke and Karolina Zychowicz published an article entitled, “Working the graveyard shift at the witching hour: Further exploration of dreams, psi and circadian rhythms” in the International Journal of Dream Research which addressed this very topic. To be frank, the name of the journal immediately put me off, making me think it was either claptrap or possibly hokum with generous amounts of balderdash sprinkled in just for effect. However, it’s an actual academic journal and published through Heidelberg University, so I decided to give the article a go. 

Apparently, according to the authors, apparition sightings and perceived presences of “beings” are most commonly reported between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m.

There are those who point out that the Liturgy of the Hours has a gaping hole in between Matins, which traditionally starts at 1 a.m. and Lauds which is traditionally prayed at dawn and that the absence of prayer supposedly makes evil stronger. I have no doubt the best response to evil is prayer however, it would be odd to think that the powers of darkness are scheduling their activities to fit the Church’s canonical timetable. Next, they’ll be accused of using Google Calendar, Dropbox and Evite for their nefarious plans.

Whether one’s waking is a matter of God-given and nature-approved sleep patterns or the actions of demons is irrelevant. Either way, the interruption is an opportunity to consider what God and faith in Him really mean to you. Consider it a “wake-up call”―wink-wink-nudge-nudge―to praise the Lord of All.

An interesting custom practiced by Burmese Catholics to address these feelings of existential apprehension and spiritual crisis in the darkest part of the night is the oma.

The oma is a wooden bell/gong made from a hollowed-out 6-foot teak log that’s suspended lengthwise from the rafters. Just before the dawn, one of the Faithful, often times a lay person who knows the “tune,” will enter the church grounds and sound the spiritual “all’s clear” on the oma.

They will also use the oma as a muted, clapping bell―known as the crotalus―during Good Friday and Holy Saturday liturgies.

The sounding of the oma is meant to send two related messages. 

First, to prowling demons and those humans who would visit evil upon us (Psalm 59:3), the oma serves as a reminder that they cannot win. The second message is to those in whose hearts Christ abides―“Have courage! There is no night without a dawn! The Lord will attend us and our fears will dissipate and we will no longer wonder why our souls are cast down. (Psalm 42:5) Hope in God; for we shall again praise Him. (Psalm 42:11)

I’ve heard this tune beaten out on the oma several times in the middle of the night while sojourning in Burma. It’s heartening to be reminded that it’s always darkest before the dawn and that God is most present to us when He seems the most absent. If such mystics as Sts. John of the Cross and Mother Teresa, both of whom suffered interiorly so much, had known about the custom of the oma, perhaps they would have encouraged Christians to allow the steady, wooden beat of the gong to fill their souls and be heartened by it.

Those of us with children know how inconsolable infants can be when they wake up in the middle of the night. It’s the gentle beat of father or mother’s heart that often puts them to sleep. The omahas a steady heartbeat also that acts upon our souls as well. 

The phrase “Do not fear!” appears in the Bible 365 times―one for every day of the year. Coincidence? A rabbi friend often reminds me that if you believe in God, there are no coincidences. 

We can treat waking up in the middle of the night as a call to remember that there’s nothing to fear. Like the Ten Wise Virgins, our awakening is a time to trim one’s wick and check the lamp oil. (Matthew 25:1-13)

In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf reminded Aragon, future king of the reunited kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor, to expect his return at dawn. And in the midst of the worst point of the war against the Forces of Evil, when hope was all but lost, there came the wizard leading his army over the hill to help defend humanity.

Christ is the Morning Star (Revelation 22:16). He is the indefectible Light of Hope Which will never be extinguished and upon Which we can always rely (Romans 9:6-8). He will never forsake us (Deuteronomy31:6). Merely rouse yourself from your sleep and seek Him! (Jeremiah 29:13) It is, after all, the time for the sleeper to awaken. For the moment when we will be saved is closer now than it was when we first believed (Romans13:11) When the Light arrives, all will be made clear. Wake up, sleeper, and rise from death, and Christ will shine on you." (Ephesians 5:14)