From time to time in the life of ministry, someone comes to speak with me with a concern about trouble sleeping – with nightmares or half-wakeful anxieties – and that often means that they’re wrestling with some sense of spiritual unrest or foreboding. Being that this is right around Hallowe’en (or All Saints Eve…), it put me in mind of an old Scottish prayer for the late night:From ghoulies and ghosties And long-leggedy beasties And things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!
You see, while the night-time doesn’t hold quite the same level of fearfulness for us as it did for our forebears – partly because at least in urban areas electricity has meant that we can light up our streets in such a manner that we no longer really have much a sense of real night darkness – it does remain a time when anxieties or fears can rise to the surface. Sleep can be a wonderful comfort, but it can also be a hard time, filled with dreams and restlessness. From time to time, I’m hit with very real and vivid nightmares, which can shake me out of sleep with a sense quite close to panic. And what do I do when that happens? I pray.
Not that my prayer is very much like that old Scots prayer, though there is something wonderfully earthy in that one. No, in the middle of the night, what comes to mind are an old prayer for the evening from the Book of Common Prayer, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. Both of these I can pray without having to turn on a light or look at any book, and each in its own way brings a kind of calming; a centering in the presence of the One for whom “darkness is not darkness.” (Psalm 139:12)
So here is the “collect” or prayer I pray in those times of darkness in the middle of the night:
LIGHTEN our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’m aware that many people struggle with a sense of spiritual “darkness” or even oppressiveness in the middle of the night, which is why the Anglican prayer book tradition includes several similar collects. Actually, these are best prayed before going to sleep, which is what I always do with the “Lighten our darkness” prayer. Here are a few other quite wonderful and – in the best sense of the word – powerful prayers for the night:
VISIT, we beseech thee, O Lord, this place, and drive from it all the snares of the enemy; let thy holy angels dwell herein to preserve us in peace; and may thy blessing be upon us evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
LOOK down, O Lord, from thy heavenly throne, illuminate the darkness of this night with thy celestial brightness, and from the sons of light banish the deeds of darkness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
BE present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Those three are all drawn from the late evening service of Compline, which also includes an ancient hymn called Te lucis ante terminum, which has been given a new setting by Gord Johnson. You may have heard us sing this in worship, or you may have heard it on the CD that accompanies our book Beautiful Mercy, or on Steve Bell’s CD, Devotion, where it is given the title “Benediction”.
- To listen to Gord’s recording of the song from Beautiful Mercy, click the arrow:
I suppose this is all to say that if you do find yourself living with troubled sleep – perhaps even quite deeply unsettled by anxieties or fears in the middle of the night – these words from our deep tradition might be a part of what will bring you comfort and peace. And if you really find yourself struggling with hard issues at night, don’t be afraid to reach out to a friend in Christ to talk through – and pray through – the things that are troubling you.
There’s no shame in recognizing our weaknesses.