Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Midnight Prayer

(I'm revisiting old posts - and sometimes updating them. This post was originally published in January, 2007.)

When I was in college, my mom introduced me to the writing of Frederica Mathewes-Greene. I quickly devoured her books Facing East and At the Corner of East and Now, chronicles of her conversion to Christianity and thence to Eastern Orthodoxy, and of life as priest's wife in a new mission church.

I enjoyed her lucid prose, her word-portraits of her parishioners, and the explanation of the parts of Eastern Orthodoxy I had hitherto found utterly mysterious. As a former Protestant, she went about explaining the exact oddities I had puzzled over in exactly the way this still-Protestant wanted explained. But there was one habit of hers she wrote about that I couldn't make heads or tails of.

In fact, none of the icon-writing, confession-making, or fast-undertaking puzzled the teenage me so much as her assertion that she spent a half hour every night out of her bed, awake, and praying. She woke up at the same time every night, hauled herself out of her bed, and said the Jesus prayer. Over and over and over.

As I said, I was in college, and the idea of purposefully giving up one minute of precious sleep was horrifying.

Okay, that's not quite true. I stayed up late with the best of them. But waking up early after I had finally gotten to bed, waking up for the express purpose of going to sleep again after I'd finished my prayers, waking up without planning on getting dressed and going somewhere? It just didn't make sense. It didn't sound like anything anyone outside of a monastery would do. It sounded like torture. It gave me the same feeling that reading Foxe's Book of Martyrs gave me. "Dear Lord," I would think, grudgingly, "I suppose I can believe that some people are called to serve you like this." Followed by, softly and to myself: "But oh am I glad it's not me." Followed then by a whisper I barely dared let myself hear: "please, please, please, I know you could call me to that too, but oh please don't." I thought I'd rather go without food for a month of Fridays than ever have to take up such a hard habit.

You know where this is going, right? ... But then I had kids. Then I had kids and found myself up at nights nursing them, sometimes four or five times a night when they were in the midst of teething or illness, going month-in and month-out without a full night of sleep.

It was with Bess, my first child, that the thought occurred to me that Mathewes-Green's habit of watching (as I learned this sort of fasting from sleep is called) might have started when she herself had had her children. But somehow, it wasn't until I was nursing Gamgee, my second, that I thought of using those nighttime nursings for prayer. All I can say is that the sleep-deprived new-mom mind moves a little slower than old molasses.

And now I find myself looking forward to the middle of the night. Not always, of course, but more than I used to. Because three in the morning is quieter than any other time of the day, and the darkness takes away the distractions I've grown used to. In the daylight, I can always find a book to read, a magazine headline to scan or a blog article to look through. In the middle of the night I can't read. In the middle of the night, with my boy at my breast, there's no one to talk to except God.

And so I do. 

I find that I'm often anxious in the middle of the night. My imagination conjures up attackers hiding in dark corners and then jumps ahead to my plans for the day and points out all the ways that they might go awry. 

But there's no one to talk to about those worries but God. And so I do. I talk to him about my plans, which makes me start to think about whether or not they fit in with his plans, and then I talk to him about that to. It's a time for me to settle down, to present the thoughts whirling 'round my head for his inspection, and to listen to what he has to say to me about them. Or about anything else. And slowly I grow calm, and slowly my son stops nursing, and then I say goodnight to him and to the Lord, and everyone in the house goes back to sleep.

Other nights, especially on those four-or-five-wakings nights, I can't think straight enough to even worry to the Lord about my day. So I say the Jesus prayer, just like I learned from Mathewes-Green., over and over: "Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner." Other nights I'll sing Tallis' canon, All Praise to Thee My God This Night, over and over in my head. It's a song that resolves all nighttime fears, even the fear of death:

"Teach me to die that so I may
Rise glorious at the awful day."

So thank you, Frederica Mathewes-Green, for putting the idea of night-prayer in my head, even though it was years before I knew how to use it. Somehow, I think I might still be saying the Jesus Prayer in the middle of the night years from now. My kids'll outgrow their need to nurse at three in the morning, but I don't think I'll outgrow my need for quiet, undistracted time with my Lord.

Peace of Christ to you,
Jessica Snell

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1 comment:

jen said...

Rachel Held Evans wrote about this a few months ago and when I shared it on Facebook, a former nun commented that she always thought young moms kept Night Watch better than any nun or monk!