“Watch ye, for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning: lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping!”
These words are one of the opening sentences for Evening Prayer from the Prayer Book during the season of Advent, but they are appropriate for every season, every day, and every minute of our lives.
I love to use these as the opening words for the abbreviated Evening Prayer we have in my household. I like to start out loudly with “Watch ye!” and then pause to make sure that the kids (and adults!) have awoken from their numerous slumbers. “For ye know not when the master of the house cometh . . . at even (I turn quickly to Calvin and say “Calvin!”) . . . or at midnight (Renee) . . . or at the cock-crowing (Charlie) . . . or in the morning (pausing longer this time and looking at Jackie, because William will now expect it’s his turn) . . . William! . . . Lest coming suddenly, (I make a quick turn in the direction of one of the kids or Jackie) he find you sleeping.”
We are all spiritual narcoleptics. We don’t have to be particularly exhausted spiritually to fall asleep: it’s our natural state. In fact, I find that if we are not constantly at spiritual attention, then we will fall asleep. I also find that it doesn’t work very well to actually stand at spiritual attention by simply prying my eyes open and peering into the darkness of existence. Instead, I find it necessary to be about spiritual business in order to stay awake.
For this reason, God, through the Church, which is imbued with the wisdom and mind of Christ, and through Creation, has seen fit to help us keep time. He placed the Greater Light in the sky to help us have annual reminders of His presence and of the spiritual realities in which we live. He placed the Lesser Light in the sky to help us mark out months so that we do not get lost in the vast space of annual time. As we proceed throughout the year, the Church has signed the year with the signs and marks of Jesus Christ, and so we remind ourselves to “Watch” and “Stay awake!” by remembering the Incarnation of Jesus Christ during Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; the Atonement during Lent; the Resurrection during Easter and Ascension; and the Holy Trinity during Pentecost and Trinity.
In the beginning, God marked out a special day of each week, and so we continue to have a Lord’s Day, in which we assemble together as God’s sacred congregation to worship Him as His Body and receive renewed life from Him.
How could anyone fall asleep with so many reminders built into our schedule? There are two chief ways. The first one is symbolized by the guy next to you in the pew (or have stackable chairs replaced all these?), sleeping as the Word of God is proclaimed to Him. Even when we have specifically set out to pay attention and stay awake, we often fall asleep. Sometimes, with the disciples, we are ashamed because the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Too often, however, the spirit isn’t even willing or hasn’t even made the effort.
Even at the point of worship, we find ourselves sleeping. I’ve been conducting spiritual experiments with my kids at evening prayer, and I’ve noticed something startling. I don’t think this startling thing is unique to the Erlandson kids, or else I wouldn’t even mention it. What I’ve discovered is how little of the time, even in the middle of worship, even in the middle of prayer, we are actually paying attention. Yes, they’re only kids, but the problem is more pervasive than you might imagine. Now that I’ve discovered their little secret, I randomly remind them to “Pay attention” before the beginning of the next prayer. I take random polls, “O.K., who was paying attention to the Lord’s Prayer this time, and which part were you thinking about?”It’s almost comical how they can be reminded to pay attention before one prayer, fail to pay attention, be gently rebuked, and then fail to pay attention to the very next prayer! But my sneaking suspicion is that this is par for the course for Christians in general.
It’s not just during prayer. What about the last sermon you heard? What was it about, and what spiritual use did you make of it?
Ironically, prayer is prescribed for us as one of the primary means by which we stay awake: it’s how we stand at attention in the spiritual life. We should avail ourselves of every means of prayer, upon every occasion. Public, corporate, liturgical prayer when we’re assembled together. Private prayers in our private devotions. Meditative prayer after and during our reading of Scripture. Ejaculatory prayer in spontaneous response to God’s acting in our lives. And the prayer which is praying without ceasing.
But what if you fall asleep during prayer, the very means by which we are to stay awake? This only proves my contention that prayer is truly the battleground of our souls.
But there’s a second way in which we fall asleep, beyond falling asleep in worship. What of all the interstices of our life between the conscious efforts to worship? Our life is perhaps like an atom (at least in the old models), in which we have a few solid particles of our existence in which we pay attention to God, separated by vast distances of nothingness. The truth is that we simply devote too little time to trying to pay attention to God. With all of the technology at our disposal and entertainment choices going unused, who has time for silence, meditation, and God other than at a few public occasions?
Often, we’re not very creative or assertive on the spiritual life. We take on vast, kingly endeavors in our careers and pastimes, but in the spiritual life we are like slaves or robots, only doing what we’re told to do, and lazy slaves and robots at that, often choosing to do the mere minimum.
But what if we transformed the spiritual life into the grand adventure that it is? What if we treated the cosmos and life as one giant sacrament of the presence of God in our lives? What if we saw God in His Creation once again, and actually thanked Him for every rain and every sunny day and whenever we heard the birds singing or the children playing without fighting?
What if we undertook this grand adventure, which makes Narnia and Middle Earth look like seventh-grade earth science by comparison, together? We all try to be Lindberghs, having to punch ourselves in the face to stay awake, eating only a few bites from a spiritual sandwich on the way, or, more often, not even caring enough to do this. We are all Spirits of St. Louis that plunge into the Atlantic because we couldn’t stay awake on the sacred and glorious mission which God has entrusted to us.
But what if we found creative and constant ways to remind one another to stay awake? What if we truly believed we were the Body of Christ on earth, put here to be His presence to ourselves?
Maybe, just maybe, the Master would find us all awake, whenever He returns, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning.
Prayer: Awake, awake, my soul, O Lord. Put Your strength upon me, and clothe me with the beautiful garments of Jerusalem, which are Jesus Christ Himself. Shake me from the dust, raise me from the sleep of death, and loose me from my captivity that I may pray and watch and remember once again. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
- In what ways have you fallen asleep? What has God been telling you about how to remedy this?
- How can you help rouse someone today by reminding him of God and His work?
Resolution: I resolve to spend extra time today in prayer, that I might better stay awake.
© 2016 Fr. Charles Erlandson