Holy Insomnia

“Everybody Sleeps,” was a video lesson shown for years on the children’s television show “Sesame Street.” With quiet music playing, images of birds, animals, and people flowed across the screen in beautiful synchronicity. I remember with pleasure the times I watched this sweet sequence with my children when they were very young. I wanted them to know how important it was for everyone to rest, even adults like Mommy and Daddy, who were often in the throes of parental sleep deprivation.

Medical experts warn us that adults consistently need at least eight hours of sleep every night to remain healthy. However, bouts of insomnia commonly afflict as we face stress and aging, depriving many of reaching that magic number. Not surprisingly, sleeplessness has risen dramatically and become a common malady especially since the pandemic. Rather than acceptance of the inevitable, many are frightened and anxious, increasing the probability of more sleepless nights and addiction to pills and alcohol as the antidote.

In truth, some are simply more prone to insomnia than others. Unfortunately, I fall in that category. I used to be ashamed to admit it, conditioned to believe I couldn’t sleep because of a “guilty conscience.” Gratefully, my consciousness has been raised. Yet, I am still perplexed when I wake up in the middle of the night (usually around 3:00 a.m.) and cannot easily go back to sleep. Rather than reverting to sleep aids, I learned spiritual techniques to help me face these dark intervals. Like a monk who gets up for”None,” the ninth hour prayer, insomnia calls me to do an unconventional Liturgy of the Hours without switching on a light or using a breviary. I simply prop the pillows around me, pull myself into a semi-sitting position, breathe deeply, repeat my sacred word, and then slowly visualize all who have asked me to pray for them. Most of the time, I fall back asleep, carrying someone on the “royal road” of my dream world.

Recently, while re-reading some of the spiritual classics on my newly ordered bookshelves, I came across the this quote from Thomas Merton, one of my spiritual mentors: “Insomnia can become a form of contemplation. You just lie there, inert, helpless, alone, in the dark, and let yourself be crushed by the inscrutable tyranny of time. The plank bed becomes an altar and you lie there without trying to understand any longer in what sense you can be called a sacrifice.” (Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas)

Apparently, even monks are insomniacs. What strikes me so profoundly is calling his bed an altar and surrendering to the mystery of sacrifice. In the surrounding passages of the book, Merton suggests that rather than fight the process, we can offer our sleeplessness for the good of others. One of Merton’s persistant themes, the connectivity of all living things, comes into sharper focus here. Perhaps because of our unity, he conjectures, laying prone on the altar of insomnia with love and compassion may help an unknown someone in the world to experience blessed sleep.

What an uplifting thought! If Merton is right, then maybe a great night’s sleep is merely the grace flowing from the insomnia of a stranger. In either case, every moment, even the frustrating ones, are holy.

4 thoughts on “Holy Insomnia”

  1. Love this Donna! I’ve definitely had insomnia most of my life and I appreciate the suggestion of using the time in the dark to pray for others and for contemplation. Ahhh, Thomas Merton! How his words move me!


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