“Sometimes When I Pray I Fall Asleep,” Says Pope

In a world that is increasingly frenetic, a Christian understanding of the importance of rest and sleep can be prophetic.

Pilgrims pray and sleep overnight on Copacabana Beach during World Day on July 27, 2013.
Pilgrims pray and sleep overnight on Copacabana Beach during World Day on July 27, 2013. (photo: Estefania Aguirre/CNA)

I am sure that many of us will often confess when we don’t pay attention in prayer. Often it can be a source of guilt that we don’t give enough of ourselves to God in this way. I found some reassurance recently from Pope Francis. In an interview with the Italian Catholic TV Channel Tv2000, The Holy Father made the rather candid admission that he sometimes falls asleep when praying.

“Sometimes when I pray I fall asleep” he said. He then referred to St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus who said that God the Father liked it when someone fell asleep in prayer. Pope Francis reflected that falling asleep during prayer can become a way of entrusting oneself to God.

At the age of 80 it is not surprising that Pope Francis occasionally falls asleep. Rising at 4 a.m. marks the beginning of a gruelling day of appointments and commitments. Such a busy and hectic schedule is interspersed with lengthy periods of private prayer. You can understand why he falls asleep, and many younger people would find his life exhausting

This reminded me of a retreat that I went on many years ago in a convent where at Evening Prayer most of the sisters around me had nodded off and some were snoring. At the time it did not occur to me that they were being neglectful but there remained a sense of contented prayerfulness.

Once I confessed to my own spiritual director that I sometimes have nodded off when I had intended set the time aside for God. He said that “sometimes sleeping is the most spiritual thing that we are capable of at a particular time.” It brings into new focus the rest which Jesus promises, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Sometimes we need rest in God before we can move into active servanthood and discipleship. Sleep is such a big issue in our world today, with many people suffering from sleep deprivation linked to anxiety and mental health issues. We need sleep in the same way that we need food and oxygen. Sleep was God’s idea. He created it. Therefore we should view sleep as a gift rather than something to be guilty about.

Our need for sleep (even a nap during prayer) is a witness to our fragility as human beings. Ultimately sleep is a form of surrender and admission of this truth. We try to fight it and cram our ever cyclic days with more and more activity, but eventually we have to surrender to the call of our heavy eyelids. In this way our need for sleep echoes the Christian vocation, which calls us to submit our whole will to the will of God. Sleeping forces us to accept that the world will be fine without us for a little while, even though the temptations of social media and the fear of missing out may keep us up late into the night.

The Psalmist speaks of the power and submissive nature of sleep, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 3) Here sleep is enjoyed because of a sense of God’s protection and providence which is not based on our own efforts or achievements.

In Mark Chapter 3, when Jesus and his disciples are in the boat in a storm, Jesus is sleeping much to the frustration of everyone else present. Jesus slept because he knew that his father would protect him. His sleeping became an expression of intense and pure faith.

So Pope Francis’s interview has raised something really important. In a world that is increasingly frenetic, a Christian understanding of the importance of rest and sleep can actually be prophetic. We should also not beat ourselves up when our weariness gets the better of us.