Thoughts on meditative prayer and insomnia


It can be distressing to be unable to sleep. I have not been afflicted with this as badly, as regularly or for as long as, many people who have spoken about it to me over the years, but during the past year, thanks to illness, I have had some small experience of seeming to be wide awake for hours or for the whole night.

From that experience, I offer a suggestion which may be of help to some people. It sprang from the practice of trying to say the rosary when unable to sleep. The rosary is possible because we have ten fingers and can remember the words of the prayers and the fifteen mysteries. I found that if I did doze for a bit, I could usually remember which mystery I had reached, and would start that again. On a better night, with more dozing, the rosary could punctuate the time.

When things are worse, though, some other prayers are helpful in addition. I have found the Stations of the Cross, the Seven Words of Christ on the Cross, and the text of the Ordinary of the Mass particularly useful.

With the Stations, one can use the basic structure of St Alphonsus in which he has a brief "composition of place" or imaginative reconstruction of what happened, followed by the application of that episode to my own complicity in the sufferings of Christ by my sins. The mind can then turn over the reflection, uncovering those faults that most need eradicating. It can even be possible to use a type of productivity "lifehack" - itself hacked for the spiritual life - by identifying "Three things that I need to do today."

Those three things that I need to do, might for a priest be to concentrate more carefully at the consecration of the Mass, or to stop myself being grumpy with an irritating parishioner, or to put myself out in some way by spending a little more time with someone. You all know what needs doing in your own case to live the life of grace a little more faithfully today.

As with all prayer, we need to make sure that we do actually address Almighty God, either by short and exclamations from the heart, or by that practice recommended by St Teresa, of conversation with Christ. I think that this nocturnal meditation can have some particular advantages in helping to train the mind during a time of half sleep or in between sleeping. Just to be clear, though, I do not in any way propose such prayer as a substitute for our regular prayers or time of meditation during the day.

The problem of distraction is naturally more evident, though the obvious mitigating circumstance of actually being ready to sleep if God wills it can help us to put distractions in their proper place. When we are aware of them, we simply come back to where we left off and start again without anxiety.

My recent post on The value of learning by heart is relevant to this practice of making use of insomnia. Knowing the prayers of the Mass by heart is a great asset. Pondering these prayers slowly and repeatedly through the night brings great benefits when celebrating Mass or assisting at Mass. I found, for example, a new richness in the words of the Lavabo Psalm 25:6-12, thinking of how we hear the voice of praise chanted by the choir, and tell of the mirabilia Dei, the wonderful works of God through the adoration and praise offered in the Mass. Even more then, can we love the beauty of the house of God and the place of His tabernacle.

I fully accept that this may all be completely useless for some who suffer from insomnia and simply cannot follow any of the suggestions I have made. You do have my sympathy, for what it's worth. I just hope that some at least may benefit from my thoughts on insomniac meditation.


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