If You Can’t Sleep, Pray the Gradual Psalms
It's tough to stay awake while praying at night—even for monks!
Insomnia. Truly no fun at all: the mind runs while the body lies paralyzed worrying about the bills, the kids, the new catalytic converter for the car, and the sad state of human affairs—the whole lot of human misery. And the “cures” for insomnia are sometimes worse than the disease: Ambien can cause stomach upset and sleepwalking; benzodiazipines can be habit-forming; acetaminophen “P.M.” is tough on the liver; Benadryl may bring on tachycardia or even high-blood pressure.
However, you are not alone: throughout the world monks, nuns and religious—Trappists, Carthusians, Carmelites, Brigittines, Cistercians, Norbertines — are getting up around the world to say Matins, also known as Vigils or the Office of Readings, the longest part of the Liturgy of the Hours. Their middle-of-the-night prayer will take them at least an hour or more.
Now in an ideal world all insomniac Catholics would get up out of bed, grab a copy of the Roman Breviary and pray Matins. Indeed, since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) all Catholics, including the laity, are encouraged to pray the Divine Office—though they do NOT have to do so in the middle of the night, thankfully.
But there is another set of prayers, though, that may—and according to tradition—should be said in the middle of the night and, if you can’t sleep, you can do so without having to learn the intricate and sometimes very difficult and inscrutable rubrics of the Liturgy of the Hours. The prayers are simply the recitation of the Gradual Psalms (Psalms 120-134).
Unlike the Liturgical “Hour” of Matins or Vigils, the private recitation of the Gradual Psalms is a model of simplicity. All you need is a Bible—though I recommend a psalter, as it’s less bulky and easier to handle, literally and figuratively.
The first rule of dealing with insomnia—whether you can’t fall asleep or can’t stay asleep—is to get out of bed if you are awake for twenty minutes or more. So lesson one: don’t stay in bed!
Once up, grab that Bible or Psalter, and after the Sign of the Cross immediately begin with Psalm 120. While traditionally the Glory Be is said after every psalm, such is not the case with the private recitation of the Gradual Psalms. Next proceed to the four following Psalms, 121, 122, 123 and 124. After 124, recite the following:
“Eternal Rest, Grant Unto Them O Lord. And Let Perpetual Light Shine Upon Them.”
Then immediately: “Our Father…”
Finishing with “From the gate of Hell / Deliver Their Souls, O Lord: May they rest in peace. Amen.”
Next: “O Lord hear my prayer / And Let my cry come unto Thee.
Finally, say this Prayer:
“Deliver, Lord, from all the bonds of sin the souls of Your servants and handmaids and of all the faithful departed. In the resurrection, sharing Your glory, may they live again with Your Elect and Your Saints. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.”
I can already hear the objection: “Since when should prayer be used as a sleep aid?” Well, that’s not exactly what we’re trying to do here. What we hope to accomplish is the best use of time that would otherwise be wasted lying awake in bed staring at the ceiling.
But praying in the middle of the night DOES tend to make one sleepy, and that great father of Western Monasticism, Saint Benedict, foresaw this when he wrote his Rule for monks in the 5th century. He appointed “wakers” or monks who would walk, lantern in hand, amongst their brethren in their choir stalls during Matins (Vigils) and, if a monk was found to be asleep, the “waker” would wake that monk up, then hand over the lantern, like a hot potato, and that once-asleep monk would then have to make the rounds.
Point being: it is tough to stay awake while praying at night—even for monks!
If you are still awake after the first round of the Gradual Psalms, not to worry! There’s five more for you to delve right into after the Signum Crucis:
Psalms 125, 126, 127, 128 (a personal favourite, all about the blessings of family life) and 129.
If you still can’t sleep at this point, kneel and say the Kyrie Eleison, followed immediately by the Pater Noster and these short prayers:
Remember your congregation / Which you have possessed from the beginning.
O Lord, hear my prayer, and Let my cry come to You.
Let Us Pray:
To You Alone, O Lord, is it proper always to have mercy and to forgive. Receive our petition. The chains of sin bind us, as they bind all your servants. May your merciful kindness set us all free. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
Well in bad news, you still can’t sleep. In good news, you are in for a couple of the most famous psalms ever, especially the “De Profundis” (Psalm 130, which contains a partial indulgence), the “Domine non est exaltatum” (131, all about humility and brotherly love) and the final three gradual psalms 132, 133, 134.
Immediately after psalm 134, repeat the Kyrie Eleison/Christe Eleison/Kyrie Eleison and the Our Father. The Gradual Psalms finish with:
“Save Your Servants / Who Hope in You, My God.”
“O Lord, hear my prayer / And let my cry come unto You.”
And then the final “Let Us Pray: Lord, from Your Heavenly Throne stretch out a helping hand to Your Servants and Handmaids. Then they will seek You with all their heart, and in their rightful entreaties they will gain a hearing. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.”
As to why these are called the “Gradual Psalms”: there are a lot of theories out there, among them that these were “songs of the steps” en route to the temple of Jerusalem; or they corresponded to the “fifteen steps” the Levite/priests “ascended” into the temple. Also floated is the concept that the pilgrim “ascended” to Jerusalem, and these were the psalms sung on that journey. But for our purposes may they send you to restful slumber.
Or in the words of the poet Rilke: “Shorter are the prayers in bed — but more heart-felt.”