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Preparing for Sleep: Sleep Hygiene and Spiritual Hygiene

March 26, 2014

For the fathers, health could be defined as a “regularity (εὐστάθεια) in the discharge of natural functions” (Saint Basil the Great, Hexameron, 9) that reflected the good stability throughout the cosmos in which night follows day and sleep follows wakefulness. And that state of health certainly included regular and restful sleep. After all, Saint Ambrose is said to have written a poem to that effect, which Saint Augustine quotes in his Confessions(Book 9, chapter 12) and happens to be rendered in verse by one 17th century translation as follows:

“O God, the world’s great Architect,
Who dost heaven’s rowling orbs direct;
Clothing the day with beauteous light,
And with sweet slumbers silent night;
When wearied limbs new vigour gain
From rest, new labours to sustain,
When hearts oppressed do meet relief,
And anxious minds forget their grief.”

Such a pristine state of natural sleep is precisely what those suffering from insomnia long to experience. Besides maintaining a sleep diary  to pinpoint one’s sleeping irregularity in the hope of acquiring more stability, there are other important factors to consider in achieving a night of quality sleep that is refreshing and revitalizing. Happily, these are within the scope of control of one suffering from insomnia.

Sleep experts note that the practices and conditions that constitute good sleep hygiene are important factors in a good night’s rest as well as in combating insomnia. First of all, it helps to do what we can with the environment to make it conducive for sleep, just as it helps to make the place where we pray conducive for prayer. There is a reason for the multitude of icons in an Orthodox Church and there is a reason for a bed in a bedroom. The mattress upon which you sleep should be in good condition. Mattresses wear out over time and should be replaced if they are in a worn condition or sag. Experts also note that the bedroom should be used exclusively for sleeping. In other words, don’t bring work or entertainment such as a television into the bedroom. The room should be dark and neither too hot nor too cold. Avoiding “too much” is an Aristotelian and patristic construct that applies quite well in this case. As Saint Gregory the Theologian puts it, “the body becomes robust and the soul secure when both engage in moderation” (Oration 12, PG 35.834). According to sleep experts, the ideal room temperature for sleep is between 59-65˚F (15-18˚C). Alfonso Marino notes that the darkness of the room is an important factor in achieving a restful sleep because “melatonin, which has a circadian rhythm, is a hormone which induces sleep. However, light inhibits this hormone.”

In terms of diet, Marino remarks, “having a meal rich in protein boosts concentrations of chemicals in the brain which can stimulate activity. Eating meals rich in carbohydrates increases concentrations of serotonin, a sleep-inducing chemical in the brain.” It appears that a fasting diet is more conducive to sleep, a fact that monks have been well aware of for centuries. Magnesium, which is present in potatoes, leafy vegetables, and citrus fruits, is also a natural sedative. It is well known that stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine may cause havoc with normal sleep patterns. Marino advises that caffeine should not be taken after 10:00 am. Of course, this advice may not apply equally to everyone. However, caffeine intake, especially later in the day, should be monitored in order to determine if it is a factor in sleep disturbance. In terms of activities during the day, it is good to have 20 minutes of exercise 3-5 times/week six hours before sleep, to avoid naps during the day, and keep a regular time for getting in bed and getting out of bed every day.

There are other psychosocial and spiritual factors that affect sleep hygiene in ways that are just as determinative as the room’s environment. For instance, harboring anger or resentment, feeling anxious or guilty, prior to sleep will assuredly make it difficult to fall asleep or maintain a restful night’s sleep. This is why prayers of confession, prayers of repentance, and prayers of thanksgiving, to clear the mind and direct it towards God, are so important before sleep. From the time of the giving of the law on Sinai, faithful Jews were taught to say in their lying down, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-7). Likewise in the first centuries of the early church, Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria would advise, “Before partaking of sleep, it is a sacred duty to give thanks to God, having enjoyed His grace and love, and so go straight to sleep” (The Instructor, Book 2, Chapter 4). Saint Augustine would likewise suggest saying the Creed before sleep (Sermon on the Creed). And of course, evening prayers or the service of Compline are considered ideal preparations for sleep. In fact, Elder Ambrose of Optina describes Compline as an umbrella of protection. “Try to say Compline every night with your children. And one of you should only always read, while the others accompany, and all will be involved in the end somehow. Or, if this is not possible, then let the whole family be together and let one person read.”

Towards the end of compline, a prayer composed by the monk Antiochus makes it clear that it is proper to pray for a calm, untroubled, and blessed sleep. Here is the text of this prayer: “And grant us, O Master, when we go to sleep, repose of body and soul; and keep us from the murky slumbering of sin and every dark voluptuousness of night. Calm the violence of the passions, quench the fiery darts of the evil one, which are treacherously hurled against us. Subdue the rebellions of our flesh, and quell our every earthly and material thought. And grant unto us, O God, a watchful mind, a chaste thought, a sober heart, and sleep light and free from all satanic phantasies. And raise us up at the hour of prayer, established in Thy commandments and holding the remembrance of Thy judgments unshakable within us. Grant us to hymn Thy glory all the night long, that we may praise and bless and glorify Thine all-honoured and majestical Name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” Just as one can prepare for sleep by actions during the day, so one can prepare for the day by spiritual prayers said before sleep at night. One can ask for repose (ἀνάπαυσις) of soul and body, meaning a Sabbath rest, a rest from the labors of the day, a state of refreshment that is related to being at peace with God, an image of eternal rest and eternal reward that is tranquil and heavenly.

When Christians prepare to lay down, there are other prayers that are also helpful. For instance, one prayer at bedtime (literally entitled an on-the-bed prayer, προσευχή ἐπικοίτιος) involves a full confession of sins, so that one can rest in God’s forgiveness and goodness. The text of this anonymous prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ my God, have mercy on me a sinner and forgive me Thine unworthy servant all the sins by which I have sinned against Thee during my entire life up until this day through carelessness falling into voluntary and involuntary faults by deed, by word, in my mind, in my imagination, by being carried away, by much laziness and negligence. If I have swore by Thy holy name, or taken an oath, or blasphemed in my thoughts, or slandered another, or saddened another, or angered another, or harmed another, or fallen into fornication, or lied or eaten in secret, or despised a friend, or upset and embittered a brother, or stood at prayer while my mind wandered among unseemly things, or if I wallowed in pleasures, or laughed insensibly, or spoke frivolously, or was vain or proud, or indulged in idle talk, or was not obedient to my spiritual father, or failed in some other way that I do not remember, for I have committed all of these sins and even more, have mercy on me, O Lord, and forgive me all these faults as Thou art good and a friend of man, so that I shall rest in peace and sleep, hymning, blessing, and glorifying Thee together with Thine unoriginate Father and Thine all-holy, Good, and Vivifying Spirit. Amen.”

Finally in lying down, Christians can make the sign of the cross over their pillow saying this composite verse drawn from several psalms: “Under the protection of Thy wings I will find shelter and sleep, for Thou, O Lord, only makest me to dwell in hope.” And having laid down, they can say “Into Thy hands, O Lord, do I commit my soul and body. Do Thou Thyself bless me, have mercy on me, and grant me life eternal.” Then all that is left to do is to quietly say the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” not getting upset with the passage of time, not getting disturbed if other thoughts form a crowd around Christ obscuring Him from sight, but just continuing in patience being assured by our Lord’s words, “in your patience possess ye your souls,” (Luke 21:19) until sleep, sweet sleep does come at last.

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From → Insomnia

2 Comments
  1. Michael Schleyer permalink

    Wow! This was a truly outstanding post! Thank you so much for all this info.

    God bless you.

  2. Thank you for these prayers. I have copied them all to use at night. So beautiful.
    Blessings~

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