by Graham Edwards.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a new parent about the skills we attribute to very young children, “she is a good eater” or “he is a good sleeper”. I have often felt these are two of my gifts, but sadly they are not usually recognised in adults! I have, however, been thinking about sleep after I watched a TV interview with Matthew Walker a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. In the interview, Walker says sleep repairs “the damage of wakefulness”. I had never considered sleep in this way and never considered that being wakeful could damage me. I found the idea very compelling.
We sleep for a “rich litany” (2017, p.7) of reasons, says Matthew Walker, it offers an “abundant constellation of nighttime benefits that service both our brains and our bodies. There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (or detrimentally impaired when we do not get enough)” (p.7). Sleep repairs and restores our ability to navigate our day to day lives, without it we cannot function.
Sleep is vital to us, it is part of the life that God has created for us, but as I have been thinking about it, I wonder if it has something to say about the life of faith. The term ‘lived religion’ is used by Meredith McGuire to name the way religion is “experienced in the lives of individuals” (2008, p.3). Being religious, McGuire argues, is more than a state of mind: it is a framework by which people choose to live their life (2008, p.12), by which their practices and enacted beliefs reflect. The study of lived religion recognises that the mundane, everyday, embodied practices, actions, and activity of religious people communicates something about their faith and its impact. We all sleep, it is part of our everyday life, part of our lived experience, and so I wonder what it might reveal about the life of faith we live. Sleep repairs the damage of wakefulness because being wakeful is costly. The life of faith can sometimes be costly, life in the church can certainly be costly to us, yet we are, I think, called to be wakeful. That means attending to our calling, our part in the mission of God and the opportunities afforded to us to reflect the grace of God in this world. It means acknowledging our failures and mistakes, our limitations, and striving to find the way of God. Being wakeful is costly, and it is damaging. So, what do we do? I want to suggest we need sleep, to repair the damage of wakefulness.
Psalm 127 verse two reads “in vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves”. It seems to me that sleep is a gift, letting go of the waking world and trusting ourselves to something beyond us – to God, and in that place, we dream. Matthew Walker talks about the benefits of dreaming as part of R.E.M. sleep. Firstly, dreams can nurse our emotional and mental health, “dreaming takes the painful sting out of the difficult, even traumatic, emotional episodes you have experienced during the day, offering emotional resolution when you wake” (2017, p.207). Dreaming soothes us, providing a kind of overnight therapy preparing us to re-enter the world when we wake. Secondly, dreaming helps us make sense of our waking experiences, like “a master piano tuner, one that readjusts the brains emotional instrumentation at night to pitch-perfect precision” (2017, p.215). Dreams provide the creative processing of experience that so that when you wake you can understand those experiences in new ways. As we look for sleep in the life of faith, we perhaps need the freedom to dream, that is to consider our experiences, both good and bad, and reimagine them. Dream about how things could have gone, about what might have made things easier or better, about what other outcomes there could have been, about what I would have liked to happen. Dream about our life of faith and our church, to allow the creativity God has given us space to transform our experience and help us find God’s way again.
As I think about the life of faith, and the church communities I serve, I wonder if we need to find places that grant us sleep. Those places where, for a time, we let go of the challenge of wakefulness, trust ourselves to God, and allow ourselves to dream. It is not useless, or a waste of time, rather, I think, it repairs the damage of wakefulness, and allows us to ‘wake’ refreshed for the new day.
 See also: Nancy Ammerman (2007), David Hall (1997), Graham Harvey (2013) , and Robert Osri (2002).
Ammerman, N. T. (Ed.). (2007). Everyday Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hall, D. D. (Ed.). (1997). Lived Religion in America. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Harvey, G. (2013). Food, Sex and Strangers. Durham: Acumen Publishing.
McGuire, M. B. (2008). Lived Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Orsi, R. (2002). The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem (Third ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep. London: Allen Lane.
3 thoughts on “Sleep”
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care, The death of each day`s life, sore labour`s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature`s second course, Chief nourisher in life`s feast. – Macbeth
LikeLiked by 1 person
I have read Matthew Walker’s book with great interest, especially because it seems that sleep does much more for our health than we have previously imagined.
As a hospital chaplain I talk to many patients who complain that they have not slept well and to some others who tell me, with a sense of delight and relief, that last night for the first time during their hospital stay they had a good night’s sleep!
I think we all feel more able to face another new day if we have slept well.
I have recently heard of an Anglican university chaplain who is writing a thesis on the theology of sleep.
Thank you for bringing this important matter to our attention!
Sleep is the great leveler. It matters not how strong or rich or powerful we are, we all need sleep and in sleep we are all as powerless and vulnerable as a baby.
God can reach us in sleep, when our conscious mind is switched off, our defences lowered and our egos disarmed.
I have heard from God in dreams and sometimes in those fuzzy, half-conscious moments between sleeping and waking. I once woke suddenly at 3am knowing I had to get up and write a poem for someone. I wrote it in an hour, sent it by email and then went sound asleep again. Why? I don’t know; I just obeyed.
Jesus appeared to me in a dream and called my name twice.
God called Samuel in his sleep and Joseph’s dreams are legendary.