Dark and Quiet

Last night I was afraid. I was afraid because I could not sleep, and I could tell that it was one of those nights. The nights of not three, not two, but zero hours of sleep–the nights that create an altered state of consciousness for me and fill the next day with a frail and nauseated feeling.

I am less afraid of those nights than I used to be, but last night I wasn’t very aware of my progress. Anxiety and emotion both ran high, and I was resisting the urge to self-medicate with food. Staying upstairs, away from the kitchen, feels safer on a night like this–but my bedmate has a cold and was not sleeping as deeply as usual, so I went downstairs.

Many who have experienced depression know this time of night intimately. About 3:30 am, for me, is the hour when I give up on getting any sleep and become present with the quiet and the chill. Between that hour and daylight my insomniac peers and I exist in a separate world, our minds drifting sluggishly and our bodies stupid with fatigue.

I have read writings describing the worth of these dark watches when used for quiet contemplation, and I agree with them in theory…but in practice, it feels as if my mind has no juice to power any deep thoughts. The mental wandering may be a type of witnessing meditation, I suppose, but any benefits are subtle at best.

Usually, I just keep the anxiety at bay with distraction. This predawn I watched Gia, the story of a famous sister addict from the 70s. Her story is so different in its details from mine, and she died so young that we’ll never know what she might have become in recovery–yet, of course, I identify with her. Sad as the story is, watching a younger Angelina Jolie portray her made me feel less alone.

After the movie, I lay quietly on the couch and waited for the sun to come up. As the room brightened, I felt sicker and sicker physically but a bit more serene. I prayed for strength to get safely through the day and for the grace to be free of self-pity.

It reminded me of the cycle of prayer in certain monasteries. There is something called the Divine Office in certain sects of Christianity, consisting of a set of prayers done at specific times of each day and night. Six or seven times in every twenty-four hours, they pray, rising from sleep if necessary. Each time-slot has different prayers, the intent being to acknowledge the precise flavor of God’s goodness associated with the time of day. Lauds, at dawn, praising and evoking resurrection. Compline, at bedtime, preparing the soul for its journey. Matins, done in the watches of the night, contemplative and solemn.

My quiet predawn watch falls between matins and lauds, and when I think about this ritual of prayer it makes those hours feel more like a part of a process and less like a floating, disconnected island of time. If I were a Christian, I might learn some matins and lauds and try using them during this time. Maybe I’ll do it anyway, given my love of Latin and my belief in trying different things. God, even a God of a religion not mine, is hopefully kind enough to lend them to a soul in need of peace. Or perhaps I could improve my Latin and make up my own.

Today, I feel the gift that can come from a sleepless night. The gift that comes if I don’t fight, drug or eat the experience away. What is the gift? It’s quietness. It’s a pliant, unresisting walk through the day, one task at a time, thinking about little except the navigation of my limbs to do it safely. The yammering in my head is gently moved aside, guided onto a couch and covered with a blanket. Sleep, my love. Sleep until the body can follow.

2 responses to “Dark and Quiet

  1. Beautiful. Too sick to think of anything else to say.

  2. When I was 30, I attended a week-long contemplative retreat at San Damiano in Danville (sandamiano.org). We prayed the Daily Offices, and remained quiet throughout the week, save for spoken or sung prayer, meals, and our daily class on Mystic Saints. The Franciscans open their arms and their retreat center to those of all faiths. You’d love it there.

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