25 Aug 2013

Rising at Midnight: Changing Sleep Patterns and Daily Prayer

Most western adults try to sleep between seven and eight hours a night, with some needing less and others more for proper functioning during the day. However, many of us suffer from insomnia, unwillingly lying awake for hours in the middle of the night. As it turns out, however, fretting about wakefulness seems to be a modern preoccupation. Our ancestors appear to have taken this as a normal state of affairs, as reported here: Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You.

Your ancestors slept in a way that modern sleepers would find bizarre – they slept twice. . . . The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.

His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.

References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.

Although unfamiliar to us today, a perusal of the Bible appears to support Ekirch's discovery. Here are a few telling references:

But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron (Judges 16:3).

At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! (Ruth 3:8)

At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules (Psalm 119:62).

Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning (Mark 13:35).

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).

What did people do with these wakeful hours in the middle of the night? According to Stephanie Hegarty, writing for the BBC,

During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

This answers a question that has puzzled many of us who have studied the ancient patterns of daily prayer practised by God's people of the old and new covenants. Nowadays we have difficulty imagining why anyone would willingly consent to be roused from a supposedly deep slumber by the summons to prayer at such an (if you'll pardon the expression) ungodly hour. Yet they may already have been awake. Both Roman and Orthodox monasteries prescribed a midnight office, with certain psalms assigned to be prayed at that hour. According to chapter VIII of the Rule of St. Benedict:

Making due allowance for circumstances, the brethren will rise during the winter season, that is, from the calends of November till Easter, at the eighth hour of the night [between 12 and 1 am]; so that, having rested till a little after midnight, they may rise refreshed.

Some of us who have suffered from insomnia in the past have already discovered the benefits of prayer during these periods of wakefulness. Perhaps it is time to change our attitude towards these times. Rather than see them as occasions for suffering, at least where obvious illness is not a factor, perhaps we might view them as opportunities to bring our praises, petitions and thanksgivings before a gracious and loving God, who, as the psalmist assures us, neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4) and for whom night is as bright as day (Psalm 139:12).

16 Aug 2013

Le psautier de Genève à Taizé

The Genevan Psalter finds a place even at Taizé. Here is Psalm 92:

7 Aug 2013

Bert Polman (1945-2013)

My former colleague, Bert Polman, died last month after suffering a number of health setbacks in recent years. He taught music at Redeemer University College between 1985 and 2004, when he went to Calvin College to teach. Polman was on the committee that produced the 1987 edition of the Christian Reformed Church's Psalter Hymnal and was highly respected in the field of hymnology. A collection of Polman's liturgical material has now been compiled and posted here: God, We Sing Your Glorious Praises: Hymns and Prayers for Devotional Use. This is from John Witvliet's introduction:

Bert had a particular concern for the faithful use of the biblical Psalms in public worship, and frequently took up the challenge of versifying many lesser-known Psalms for inclusion in volumes of congregational song. These texts reveal Bert’s passionate commitment to the Psalms and a large-scale view of God’s peaceable kingdom which comes through Jesus Christ.

Those of us who knew him personally will miss Bert, yet, as St. Paul the Apostle puts it, we grieve but not as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). May Bert rest in peace until the resurrection, and may God grant comfort to those he has left behind.

5 Aug 2013

Why sing the psalms?

Rob Slane puts forth an argument for what he calls "inclusive psalmody": Why the church needs to sing the Psalms. Here's Slane:

The Psalms, which form the biggest book in the Bible, were clearly meant to be sung, and the Bible gives many exhortations for us to sing them. This is most clearly seen in the Psalms themselves: “Sing to him, sing psalms to him; talk you of all His wondrous works” (Psalm 105:2); “Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; Let us shout joyfully to him with psalms.” (Psalm 95:2); “Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm” (Psalm 98:5). . . .

One of the most striking things about the Psalms is that perhaps more than any other book of the Bible, they establish the antithesis, with wickedness on one side and righteousness on the other. This is seen clearly in very first Psalm which divides between on the one hand, the blessed man who “walks not in the counsel of the ungodly” and on the other hand the ungodly man who is “like the chaff which the wind drives away.” The righteous man, it goes on to say, is like “a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season,” in contrast to “the way of the ungodly (which) shall perish.”