The aspect of discipleship that sleep accentuates is death. Indeed in his The Intellectual Life, the Dominican Antonin Sertillanges spoke of sleep as a rehearsal of a good death and a preparation for entry into eternal life. The idea of sleep as a rehearsal of death would then give new weight to the inclusion within the night office of the Church of the prayer of Simeon, known in Latin as the Nunc Dimittis (found in Luke 2:29-32)
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In the monastic life, every single day is bookended by the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. Before going to bed, the Night Office or Compline is recited before retiring for the night.
The significance of liturgy in the moments before retiring seem to ascribe a liturgical significance to all aspects of human life, even sleep.
Thus, sleep is not marked by the absence of consciousness or activity. Graham Ward wrote in his Christ and Culture that even in sleep, the body and the mind remain active – dreams are the most significant evidence for this argument. The activeness of the body in sleep, therefore, should not be lost on the believing Christian. Far from being excused from discipleship, sleep is but a continuation of discipleship. Psalm 16:7 spoke of the Lord directing one’s heart even at night.
At last all powerful Master, You give leave to your servant to go in peace, according to Your promise;
For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all the nations;
A light to enlighten the gentiles, and give glory to Israel, Your people
In saying this prayer, the person at prayer places himself in the place of Simeon who, having seen the incarnate Christ, can rejoice in the hope of a peaceful death. In so putting us in the place of Simeon, it should also decenter us, knocking us out of our obsession with the day and its accompanying troubles. In a profound act of liturgical deconstruction, the Nunc Dimittis also prompts us to ask ourselves if we too have come to see with our own eyes and in our own lives, moments where the salvific acts of God are operating. The prayer prompts us to engage the question asked by God through Isaiah: See! I am doing a new thing. Do you not see it already? (Isaiah 43:19)
The saying of Nunc Dimittis, therefore, is not only a training in personal gratitude. As a prayer of the entire Body of Christ, the Night Office also functions as a corporate training in what Jacques Derrida calls “recontextualisation”, repositioning of the community so that the same phenomena can be read anew. In calling us to take us out of the context of the City of Man – marked by domination, conflict and self-aggrandisement – and place ourselves in the context of the City of God – founded on the economy of God’s salvation – we slowly train ourselves to see as God sees. In so doing, we take that one small step in forming a communion with God, which in turn prepares us for what the final blessing at Compline hopes for – a quiet night and a perfect death.