Sanctified Sleep (Can’t Forgive? Sleep on It!)

So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.

–Matthew 18:35–

            I firmly believe that the eight most difficult words in the Our Father are: “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  For most of us, especially if we have an acute sense of justice, forgiving others’ offenses does not come easily.  Gradually, however, I am beginning to believe that forgiveness is not something we ourselves do.  Forgiveness, I think, is primarily the work of God.  Note, for example, these words from a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to his friend Malcolm:

            I really must digress to tell you a bit of Good news.  Last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered – or felt as if I did – that I had really forgiven someone I have been trying to forgive for over thirty years.  Trying and praying that I might.  When the thing actually happened – sudden as the longed-for cessation of one’s neighbor’s radio – my feeling was, “But it’s so easy.  Why didn’t you do it ages ago?”  So many things are done easily the moment you can do them at all.  But till then, simply impossible, like learning to swim.  There are months during which no efforts will keep you up; then comes the day and hour and minute after which, and ever after, it becomes impossible to sink….  The important thing is that a discord has been resolved, and it is certainly the great Resolver who has done it.  Finally, and perhaps best of all, I believed anew what is taught us in the parable of the Unjust Judge.[1]  No evil habit is so ingrained nor so long prayed against (as it seemed) in vain, that it cannot, even in dry old age, be whisked away.[2]

            There you have it!  Forgiveness is chiefly the work of God.  If that is so, what can I do to step aside and allow God to have His way with me?  Consider this:

           Have you ever had the experience of falling asleep when you meant to be praying?  Perhaps you are saying your rosary and you nod off.  Or maybe you doze while seated before the Blessed Sacrament.  Alas!  Such has often been the case with yours truly.  At first I used to feel guilty about my naps.  I’d imagine Jesus reprimanding me, just as He did Peter in the garden: “Could you not, then, watch one hour with me?”[3]

           Then one day, upon awaking from one of my slumbers before the Sacrament, I found myself saying: “Well, Lord, I hope you made good use of the time I was asleep.  I hope you performed the heart surgery I needed that would have been too painful for me had I been awake.”  Had I uttered an irreverence—or even blasphemy?

           Perhaps not.  I once heard Catholic author and speaker Ralph Martin declare:  “Parents love their children even when, and perhaps especially when, asleep.  Why wouldn’t God look lovingly on us when we sleep?”  Then there is Psalm 127:2: “In vain is your earlier rising, your going later to rest, you who toil for the bread you eat: when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber.”

           Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered my thoughts echoed in the writings of a theological giant!  In his book Prayer for Beginners, Peter Kreeft declares:

           In some ways the Spirit can move us even more effectively in sleep than in waking, as surgery can be more effective when the patient is anesthetized.  When we are awake, we keep hopping about on God’s operating table, telling him how to doctor us.  Only death quiets us enough for the radical heart surgery we need.  Sleep is an image of that.

           Since the Spirit blows also in our sea of sleep, we must prepare to catch this gale by evening prayers.  Since sleep is like death, we should prepare for sleep as we prepare for death, by giving God eager permission to enter the sleeping sea-depths of our souls.  In sleep, as in death, it becomes clear that “everything is grace.”[4]

           Bolstered by so great a theologian, I have gotten into the habit of telling people to imagine that their pillow is a spiritual consent form.  “Before going to sleep,” I say, “do as I do.  Trace your signature on your pillow with your finger.  Tell God that He has your permission to perform the heart surgery you require, surgery you would find unendurable while awake.  If you are married, you can ‘sign the consent form’ for your spouse; if you have kids, you can do it for your children, but do it surreptitiously, and only after you have done it for yourself.”

           So before going to sleep tonight, and every night thereafter, don’t forget to “sign your pillow.”  Who knows what good God will accomplish while you slumber?  You may wake up with a more forgiving heart.  Pleasant dreams!

[1] Luke 18:1-8.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Letter XX.

[3] Matthew 26:40.

[4] Prayer for Beginners, Chapter 17.