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Talk: Praying the Psalms - Canon Dr Andrew Bishop

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Thursday 3rd March 2016
Lent Series 2016
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Praying the Psalms

My introduction to the Office of Compline was being in Scotland with my grandfather not long after my grandmother had died. I must have been about 14 years old. We had gone to visit Iona, and each night we went into Oban cathedral for Compline. I was captivated by phrases from the psalms, such as ‘keep me as the apple of an eye’, I will lie down in peace’, Come, you servants of the Lord’. This was all swept up in the phrase of Jesus in Gethsemane, ‘Into your hands O Lord, I commend my spirit’ (Luke 23.46).

As will be stated, I suspect, at each of these lectures, the psalms demonstrably illuminate the whole range and breadth of the human condition. My claim tonight is that as we pray the psalms we also reference and take seriously the one third of our life that we usually give next to no attention to: when we are asleep, or, at least, trying to be asleep.

As many of you will be aware my principal academic and theological interest has been in the place that sleep has in Christian imagination and practice. It’s what I spent three months reading and thinking and writing about during my sabbatical last year.

Sleep is particularly pertinent to the theme this evening as we consider praying the psalms. That is in two ways.

First that the psalms speak to the subjects of meditating on God during the night; of peacefulness; of vigilance and insomnia; of sleep and mortality; of God’s protection; of God’s watchfulness; of anguish; and of praise at night.

Secondly, we will complete this evening, in the way that we have concluded each of these Lent talks, with the ‘completing office’ of Compline, Night Prayer. As Katherine reminded us last week, the meat of all Offices, and true also of Compline, is the psalmody. Traditionally as a minor Office the candles are not lit on the altar for Compline and you can perhaps picture the psalms being sung and prayed in a dark chapel. That may be one reason why unlike matins and evensong and the daytime offices, in normal circumstances the same three psalms are used each night: psalm 4, 91 and 133. They were easily committed to memory, rather important if you could not see your book because of the darkness.

Sleep in the Disciplines

My interest in sleep was awakened (excuse the pun!) by participating in a multi-disciplinary seminar in May 2013 at the University of Surrey where, as many of you will know, I am the Anglican Chaplain. As a non-scientist in a heavily science based institution I am frequently outside my academic comfort zone. One of the delights of my role is to be able to be amazed by the breadth of research and the insights generated in such a place. Universities have within them a range of academic disciplines and one of the challenges for them is to give opportunities for the disciplines to come into contact with one another. This is so that their dialogue creates a learning community that goes beyond the narrow confines of a particular area of study or research and results in a mutual pursuit of wisdom and learning. So a multi-disciplinary panel, and other forms of multi-disciplinary working, is an excellent means by which that can happen.

At the symposium researchers from different disciplines spoke about their perspectives on sleep. Despite my naïveté I could see how biologists would have something to say on the subject, and they did not disappoint: describing features of the sleep of animals; the patterns, rhythms and hormones that shape our sleep; and speculating on the evolutionary reasons for sleep. I could see how psychology might fit in, although I imagined, wrongly, an unreconstructed and crude Freudian approach to sleep around the interpretation of dreams and fear of death, nuanced a little by Jung. Psychologists described the mental health benefits of good ‘sleep hygiene’ in other words, good sleep is good for our wellbeing and mental health. I could see rather less for what sociology might have to say about sleep, but came to see how wrong that was. How societies sleep and wake matter to human lives. The impact upon sleep in a globalized, 24/7 society is heavy. This is because we are always acutely aware that other parts of the world, with their markets and trading, are awake when we are asleep. In addition sociologists reflect on sleep and social convention and control so they reflect on sleep in relation to social policy for example. So sleep is politicized. English Literature also unveils aspects and insights into sleep. Sleep features in such notable authors as Shakespeare and Milton, Thackeray and Dickens amongst others.  We might think of Hamlet’s angst about sleep and death, or the monarchs who find sleep a burden when bearing the burden of kingship.

So why is sleep theologically of interest?

Why might Christian theology be at all interested in sleep? And what’s it got to do with the psalms? As is often pointed out a third of our lives is spent sleeping and so that might make it of at least passing interest. Sleep is good for us, biologically, neurologically, socially and spiritually. More significantly, in the churches, an awful lot of energy is expended on thinking about discipleship in relation to our two thirds, waking life, and scant regard paid to what God might be doing with his creatures in that other, sleeping, third. Sleep is good for us as embodied persons and the biblical conviction – in the psalms - is that it is a gift of God: ‘God gives his beloved sleep’ (Psalm 127.3). Moreover sleep takes from us the sense that we can control every aspect of our lives because, when we are not aware and conscious of ourselves, God is. As Psalm 121 reminds us: ‘Behold he who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep’ (Psalm 121.4). In that way sleep is an antidote to the notion that sharing in the life of God can only be done by a conscious, active, wakeful effort on our part; in short a good theology of sleep can short circuit one of the early heresies, that of Pelagianism which denies original sin and asserts that people can begin to achieve salvation by their own efforts, choosing the good by virtue of their created natures.[1]

Nevertheless there is an area in which the theologian should feel profoundly at home which apparently falls outside other disciplines, and that is the doxological, in other words in worship. That said, for those who seek to look, all disciplines are doxological in its widest sense. The theologian’s task is point this out, both to the practitioners of that discipline and also to the church. For example, the insights of the discipline of biology into brain function during sleep can be celebrated as examples of the intricacy and complexity of life, as expressed in Psalm 139: ‘I will give thanks unto thee, [O Lord] for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works, and that my soul knoweth right well’ (Psalm 139.13).


One of the underlying assumptions I will work with tonight is what I term ‘theosomnia’. By this I mean hallowed sleep, that is, sleep intentionally open to God. It is an attempt to capture the beautiful and mystical verse from Song of Songs, ‘I sleep, yet my heart wakes’ (Song of Songs 5.2). This is the sleep of the disciple, the sleep seen in Jesus as he slept in the boat on the Sea of Galilee during the storm. This is sleep of radical openness to the Father, since it is a Christ-like posture. Theosomnia acknowledges that sleep is a time when God can work deep within the self, when the ego is not pushing God around: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3.30). Theosomnia is a result of theosomniac practices – prayers before bed, the Office of Compline, the practice of the Examen of Consciousness, evening hymns – and takes seriously biblical and theological insights.

Praying the Psalms at Night

So let us now turn to the psalms more intentionally and open up the themes that they give us around sleep, the night and the darkness, before we draw the stands together as we think about the psalms of compline.

Meditating in the night

Our awareness of God, according to the psalms is not restricted to our waking hours and to the daylight. The whole of our life, ‘both waking and sleeping’ is under the loving gaze of God and we can respond in trust to that love. So when ‘I lie down to sleep’, a phrase from psalm 4, I am still offering myself as God’s servant.

The psalms give us a sense of Paul’s phrase in 1 Thessalonians, ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5.17). As the very first psalm puts it, ‘Their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night. (1.2)’. And Psalm 77 ‘I commune with my heart in the night;

I meditate and search my spirit:’ 77.6.

The darkness and the night, especially when sleep is absent is an acute time of being awake. And we know that trauma and anxiety can disrupt our sleep, psalm 77 captures this saying,  In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; In the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; My soul refuses to be comforted. I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. (77.2-3) The theme of insomnia also echoes the theme of vigilance, which we will come back to a little later.

There is an old debate about praying and falling asleep. This is an interesting connection. Can we actually meditate in the night? So often if we are lying down in bed and praying, we find that sleep has overtaken us all too quickly. We might tend to say, well that is what god clearly wanted of me, but is that something of a cop out? Does it mean we put ourselves in the posture for sleep and attempted to pray? When to pray needs the posture and outlook of prayer. The posture for sleep is not the same as the posture for prayer: would I kneel down to help myself sleep, or stand with my arms outstretched?! Both sleep and prayer fall upon us, when we are in the right posture. Keep on walking, and, unless you have a sleep disorder, you will not fall asleep.

Nevertheless the psalms continue to insist that, I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; In the night he also my heart instructs me. 16.7, and then in psalm 63, the writer, who is on his bed says, When I think of you on my bed, And meditate on you in the watches of the night; For you have been my help, And in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. 63.6,7. Is that prayer for just before sleeps descends?

There is another possibility. It seems that the pattern in the pre-modern world, especially pre-electric lighting, was one where people would wake in the night. Roger Ekirsh describes this in his book A Brief History of the Night, how people would get up, especially on moonlit nights, visit neighbours, talk, and get up to all sorts of things. The psalmist calls us back to the possibility that in these times prayer is the priority, from psalm 119: I remember your name in the night, O LORD, and keep your law. 119.55 and My eyes are awake before each watch of the night, That I may meditate on your promise. 119.148

In this it is hard to unravel sleep and the night, but the notion of theosomnia, that intentionally hallowed sleep, embodied in Compline draws it together.

Sleep and peace

This brings us on to sleep and peace in the psalms. A key text, which is admittedly not from the psalms that I have already used, is from the Song of Songs, ‘I sleep, yet my heart wakes’ (Song 5.2). Quite what that means is explored extensively in mystical and contemplative writers. It is echoed in the psalms as the writer says  I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the LORD sustains me. (3.5) Part of it is that the gift of sleep is given to the individual, and the peace that comes from that means the person is at one with God. There is no further conscious effort to find peace, other than to surrender to it in sleep. As psalm 4 captures it, I will lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone O LORD, make me lie down in safety (4.8)

Vigilance, Insomnia

This brings us back, though, to the anxiety of what happens when we cannot sleep, and how the psalms might begin to address it. The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy says that insomnia is a form of ‘radical vigilance’. That may be so, in a philosophical sense, but it lacks the pastoral touch. The psalms capture, and name, the brutality of insomnia, especially that brought on by distress, trauma, illness and anxiety

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; 6.6

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. 22.2

My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’ 42.3

O LORD, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, Let my prayer come before you; Incline your ear to my cry. 88.1-2

The point about ‘radical vigilance’ is that when lying awake at night we do look at and hear things more sharply. The clock for example, the rustle in the trees outside the window, the person shouting in the street or the shadows in the curtains that seem to be the outline of something frightening. The is a different way of perceiving as we lie awake, when eager to sleep, or even get up and make a cup of tea and stretch our legs.

This is where another psalm, 132, opens up dimension of this sense of vigilance, and the deliberate deprivation of sleep required or a lookout or watchman: I will not enter my house or get into my bed; I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the LORD

A dwelling for the mighty One of Jacob” 132.4

That echoes Jesus, who slept, of course, in the boat on the Sea of Galilee, telling his disciples in Gethsemane, ‘could you not say awake just one hour?’

There may be a distinction here between insomnia and/or watchfulness in the young and the old, which is instinctively something we might know, but the psalms don’t really reflect.

God’s Watchfulness

One way we can respond to our lack of vigilance is to rest in the assurance and conviction that God is ever watchful. The psalms certainly do reflect this. This gives us the theological support for the sense that sleep is part of the condition of being a creature, made by God, and that God is not a creature or thing of the creation, but rather the Creator. Of course that is contradicted you might say by the fact that Jesus slept on the boat in the storm on the Sea of Galilee.

Waking or sleeping we are wrapped in the loving gaze of our Maker

He will not let your foot be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. 121.4

Elsewhere I have speculated that Psalm 139 - that begins, ‘O Lord you have searched me out and known me’ - has the feel of someone reflecting on the past day and on the watchfulness of God, to the core of our being, during the coming night.

If I say, ‘surely the darkness shall cover me, And the light around me become night,’ Even the darkness is not dark to you the night is as bright as the day, for the darkness is as light to you. 139.11, 12

That psalm leads us on to the next section of reflecting on the connection of sleep and mortality, ‘If I ascend to heaven you are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there’. 139.8

Sleep and mortality

One of the interesting things about sleep is the way in which it can be used as a metaphor for death and deployed in the sort of way St Paul does. As far as our physical well-being and integrity goes sleep is benign, and signifies a time from which we will wake. This is, St Paul, argues, the same as the Resurrection of the Body, we will die, but because of the death and resurrection of Christ, death has lost its sting, it is in that sense, benign, and because Christ will call the dead from their tombs it is a something from which we will “wake”.

Belief in an afterlife is not in early Hebrew thought, although you can find hints and exceptions of that. A Christian tendency, which is perfectly legitimate, is to interpret psalms in the light of the resurrection, but also to forget that the psalmist did not share a post-resurrection take on things. So for instance, for the psalmist the phrase ‘the sleep of death’, is using sleep as a euphemism for death:

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say ‘I have prevailed’, my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. 13.3

‘The sleep of death’ in that instance is referring to annihilation. Hence the Hebrew concern for descendants, in which one’s name is kept alive, even one has died.

One of the challenges of the psalms in general is the nagging feeling for some people that they are a bit too OT and not Christian enough. There will be more said about that I suspect in the coming two weeks. This could be said of the way sleep and death is used, although there are hints of resurrection in them, for example psalm 22, so familiar as beginning, ‘My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?’. In that psalm there is the verse, that Jesus would have been perfectly well aware of, “To [God] indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him”. 22.29. But also to say, ‘I will lie down in peace’ (4) conveys for a Christian ear the sense of being ready to die, to be awakened to the new life of the Resurrection of the Body.

Waking: God and men

Psalms don’t simply deal with the night and falling asleep but also with the act of waking from sleep, when sleep that has fallen upon you falls away: ‘Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn’. 57.8. And there is a psalm of reassurance in the words of Psalm 30, in typical Hebrew couplets: ‘For his anger is but for a moment; his favour is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.’ 30.5 There is an expectant feel to waking.

Interestingly though, the psalms that speak of human waking are outweighed by those that appeal to God to wake up. Remember this is the God who will neither slumber nor sleep, and yet the psalms articulate a strong sense that God has dozed off on his watch, that God has somehow failed to watch over his people and their situation. I could well imagine these words on the lips of the Christian in Aleppo tonight, the Jew in Poland in 1942, or the survivor of trauma or abuse who feels abandoned by God: perhaps it is what the disciples said to Jesus on the boat in the storm on Galilee:

Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defence, for my cause, my God and my Lord! 35.23


Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! 44.23

The Coverdale translation of that verse is powerful: ‘Up Lord, why sleepest thou: awake, and be not absent from us for ever.’

And when the Lord stirs, there is an almost comical image of the Lord awakening in psalm 78, Coverdale again, ‘So the Lord awaked as one out of sleep : and like a giant refreshed with wine’.  78.66


Those themes that I have sketched out - meditating on God in the night; sleep and peace; vigilance and insomnia, God’s watchfulness, sleep and mortality and the waking of God and men – all start to come together in the office of Compline, not least in its psalms. In addition to the ground we have already covered two more themes will become clear those of protection at night and praise at night.

Compline – Sleep as Sabbath

It’s my contention that Compline is a practice that embodies a Christian theology of sleep. It completes and concludes the day as the human person places him or herself in the posture needed for sleep, as Psalm 4 says, I will lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone O LORD, make me lie down (4.8) It is aware of our mortality “into your hands O Lord, I commend my spirit” (Luke 23.46). It prepares us for the long hours of the night. It also prepares us for the coming of the new day.

In this way sleep is something of a Sabbath a time of renewal and resetting. The Sabbath enables human beings to rest, contemplate and enjoy our labours. The irony is that of all the Ten Commandments it is probably the commandment to Sabbath that is most frequently broken. We can change the world around us for six days but on the seventh we are to depend only on God. I see this pattern in sleep. We seek to optimise everything in terms of utility, we even seek to ask what sleep is for in utilitarian terms and what it is for: what if it is for nothing, other than resting in God? This is what Compline takes us into nightly. So far as  I can see the psalms do not give an account of Sabbath, but psalm 127 gives a sense of it: It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved. (127.2) If toil and labour is the curse placed upon humanity, then sleep is a time of respite from that. The end of the day marks the completion of our labours and plugs us back in to the rhythm of the creation itself: ‘And there was evening and there was morning, the first day…’ (Genesis 1). Each day has its own time of Sabbath, rest between the light and time of activity, toil and labour. And note, the evening precedes the morning in that way of thinking.

Protection at Night

From all ill dreams defend our eyes

from nightly fears and fantasies,

tread underfoot our ghostly foe,

that no pollution we may know

That verse of the Office Hymn of Compline Te lucis ante terminum, Before the ending of the day, pleads for protection, and the psalms pick this up too:

By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,

And at night his song is with me,

A prayer to the God of my life. 42.8

And from psalm 91 one of the psalms of Compline:

You will not fear the terror of the night,

Or the arrow that flies by day. 91.5

The terrors of the night can be many and various from the night terror of a child’s dream to the fear of violence or violation at night. Part of our hallowing of sleep is to ask God watchful protection over us during the ‘silent hours of the night’.

Praise at Night - completion

I used the word ‘theosomnia’ earlier, ‘God-sleep’ you could translate it. The way that our sleep can be hallowed is in praise and completion, so Compline is a theosomniac practice. Psalm 141 speaks of the lifting up of our hands at the evening sacrifice. This is captured beautifully in the third of the three traditional compline psalms, psalm 134:

Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,

Who stand by night in the house of the LORD!

Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the LORD. 134.1

Compline enables us to remove the psalm from its context if needs be away from the Temple, or house of prayer, and into the Temple of our place of rest.


Our theme is praying the psalms, and, I suppose, what I have implicitly been encouraging is indeed a praying of the psalms by demonstrating their versatility in so many situations not least the way they can be deployed to help us think further about our waking and sleeping, the long silent hours of the night, the themes around sleep and mortality. And I have wanted to do all that in the context of Compline, the Office that holds and articulates the challenge and promise of theosomnia, sleep committed to and hallowed by God. Sleep well!

[1] Nicholas Adams, “Pelagianism: Can People be Saved by Their Own Efforts?” in Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters What Christians Believe, eds., Ben Quash and Michael Ward, (London: SPCK, 2007), 91