As Sleep Cultures demonstrates sleep is unarguably open to multi-disciplinary approaches: biological, sociological, psychological, and in the field of literature. What then of my discipline, that of Christian theology?
I am Anglican chaplain at the University of Surrey and on a whim I attended the roundtable on ‘Sleep, Embodiment, Cognition: an interdisciplinary conversation’. This was the first time I had given any thought to the phenomenon of sleep.
Since then I have had a voracious appetite for thinking about sleep theologically. The theological and spiritual traditions have much to say about sleep as part of human experience and also about the nature of God, and therefore is legitimately part of the theological pursuit.
Sleep is profoundly theological because it describes characteristics and perceptions of God, albeit in conflicting ways. On the one hand, ‘He [God] who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep’ (Psalm 121.4); on the other ‘Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?’ (Psalm 44.23).
Jesus himself sleeps on the boat in the storm, thereby embodying the deep peace of his divine-human nature, and yet ‘the Son of Man [Jesus] has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 8.20). When the disciples sleep in the Garden of Gethsemane before Jesus’ betrayal they are chastised: ‘So, [Peter] could you not stay awake with me one hour?’ (Matthew 26.40)
The Bible and Christian spiritual tradition have no systematic treatment of sleep but are full of sleep imagery often with contradictory images. For example it is a metaphor of inattentiveness: ‘if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’ (Matthew 24.43, 44). It also focuses the believer on being attentive; hence St Paul’s rousing call, ‘now is the moment to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than we when we became believers’. (Romans 13.11)
Theological anthropology sees sleep as a time of loss of control. So when the individual is ‘taken over by sleep’ it is a time when God may said to be most fully in control. God no longer has to battle with an assertive ego. But that opens the possibility that evil can take the upper hand, so sleep becomes a time of fearfulness. Sleep is also integral to the relationship between mortals and God in God’s communication in dreams and nocturnal revelation.
The way that Christianity has articulated and embodied a theology of sleep is in liturgy and hymnody. Night Prayer asks God for rest, guarding and companionship during the lonely hours. Evening hymns pick up on similar themes and both ask: ‘save us Lord, while we are awake and guard us while we are asleep…’ (Antiphon to the Nunc Dimittis at Compline) And prayers and hymns express the niggling fear that sleep is like death: ‘Teach me to live, that I may dread / the grave as little as my bed’. ‘Abide with me’ was written as an evening hymn, not for funerals. So sleep also mirrors the wakeful life of the day and anticipates the final sleep of death.
Sleep is never neutral in scripture. The great aspiration for the Christian is hallowed sleep that is derived from and centred in God and that can be taken into the waking hours of the new dawn.