My attention was recently drawn to a book by Matthew Walker: "Why we Sleep- The new Science of Sleep and Dreams". Published in 2017, it advocates a social re-engagement with sleep, its purpose, its irreplaceable contribution to our well-being, and restorative character. However, whilst calling for a renewed understanding of sleep itself, the author does not overlook the dangers to which sleep may expose us: vulnerability, defenceless, the inability to gather food, and the inability to protect those whom we love. He observes:
"On any one of these grounds - never mind all of them in combination - there ought to have been a strong evolutionary pressure to prevent the emergence of sleep or anything remotely like it..."
Experience tells us, however, that sleep and rest are not synonymous. Sleep can be fitful, interrupted, agitated and, according to some, shallow. In contrast, one is either 'at rest' or not; whether awake or otherwise. Upon this basis, it might be thought that the beneficial properties of sleep can only be secured where it is the means through which rest finds expression. Whereas 'rest' may be considered the product of planning or decision, and requires preparation, sleep in and of itself can be untimely, involuntary and overtake our best efforts.
The Gospels provide a number of examples of different kinds of sleep. There is, of course, the sleep of death confronted by Jesus in the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mk 5:21); in which Jesus counsels against fear. There is the sleep of utter trust detailed within the narrative of Jesus, asleep in the boat, amidst the ranging storm [Matt 8:27]. There is, in addition, the account of the sleep of human frailty and lack of resolve [Matt. 26.40] in Gethsemane.
In each of these narratives, Jesus places beyond doubt that true rest is inseparable from spiritual vigilance and preparation. Similar sentiments are expressed in psalm 127:
"Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain;
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain;
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives his beloved sleep"
A cursory reading of these passages points to certain realities. These include the fact that - as with other gifts entrusted to us- the gift of sleep must be utilised through conscious submission to the will of God and trust in Him. Without this, sleep is deprived of the character of rest and is robbed of its restorative properties. In the sleep which comes as a gift from God, we are not susceptible to harm, but rather, receptive to Him. It is in this same surrender the we are most likely to discern when - like the disciples- we are called to awaken. It is only through wisdom founded upon faith and prayerful discernment that we are able to differentiate between the authenticity of God given peace and the stupor of human ignorance. To paraphrase St Augustine of Hippo, "our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in thee."
Jesus was asleep upon the boat- his head upon a pillow- as the storm raged about them. His disciples perceived this to be evidence of disregard. With the approaching of the Amazon Synod, a number of voices within the Church have joined in the call to re-define the nature of the sacerdotal priesthood, remove celibacy and extend eligibility for ordination to women within the Church; as though the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist were to be understood simply as 'house rules' of a human kind. It has been reported that in one instance, the declaration of support for women priests by a former nuncio generated applause. Those wishing to maintain the Tradition of the Church instituted and mandated by Christ himself, will immediately recognise that no matter how carefully choreographed, agendas such as these are and remain agendas of personal ambition. They are not infrequently articulated and promoted as authentic and corrective in equal measure. As with all gifts bestowed by God upon His children, sooner or later, humankind produces its own form of counterfeit. Claims which flatly contradict scripture are afforded precedence on account that scripture is said to be incomplete, anachronistic, or that our prior understanding was defective. Similarly, the Church's teaching upon the equality and dignity of humanity is cited as the basis for demands of inclusivity on all matters of a sacramental kind. Whilst attention is presently focused upon ordination to the priesthood, the same arguments will undoubtedly be relied upon to undermine (or re-design) the other sacraments also.
For many seeking to serve in priestly ministry, the boat in the storm might appear somewhat more tranquil than the climate in their own particular church. It is equally apparent that whatever the climate in which they find themselves, the exhortation of Jesus to 'Be not afraid' remains as valid now as it did then. Countering fear requires that we come to our senses and recognise not only those forces which have the capacity to imperil us, but also the location and source of our strength, conviction, wisdom and endurance. It is in this respect that we are called to re-acquaint ourselves with the personal invitation issued by Christ himself: 'Stay awake" and 'keep watch' with Him. He is no less with us now than when he lived in earthly form. He is, of course, the same yesterday, today and forever. As the psalmist reminds us, without the Lord, all is vanity. This is 'why we are awake': to be in solidarity with Him and His plan for us. We would do well to advocate a re-engagement with the demands of being awake, before we can come to any meaningful appreciation of what is required of us if our sleep is to provide us with rest.
Our Lady Seat of Wisdom - pray for us.