To me, Winter is a time of rest and quiet reflection. The weather is cold (usually!) and we stay indoors. I joke that I am part bear. In January, I hibernate; I refuse to leave the house if I don’t have to.
A sleep prayer is good for anytime of the year, but it seems all the more appropriate when the nights come early and last long.
Evening Song of St. Patrick from “Selections of Irish Poetry” translated by Kuno Meyer
May Thy holy angels, O Christ, son of living God,
Guard our sleep, our rest, our shining bed.
Let them reveal true visions to us in our sleep,
O high-prince of the universe, O great king of the mysteries!
May no demons, no ill, no calamity or terrifying dreams
Disturb our rest, our willing, prompt repose.
May our watch be holy, our work, our task,
Our sleep, our rest without let, without break.
This poem is from Kuno Meyer’s Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry
, and the title he gives is “An Even Song” with the note: “Patrick sang this.” Just Patrick; Patrick is famous enough in all of Ireland to need no honorific. Translater and editor Meyer notes that St. Patrick himself couldn’t have written this, not exactly, since this text dates from the 8th Century. Literature has a long tradition of ascribing texts to more famous figures.
The first stanza begins by requesting the protection of the angels. The Celtic world was so mindful of the angels! Their poems and prayers are full of them. And if my childhood home didn’t petition the angels per se, we still had a popular art print of a guardian angel guiding children beneath a shadowy, ominous, branchy tree. I’m reminded of an Orthodox prayer we say at various times, including night: “Encompass us with thy holy Angels, that guided and guarded by them, we may attain to the unity of the faith . . .”
As for the second stanza, I’ve a mind to never request true visions; certain gifts from God may be humbly accepted, but not importuned. Still, I have a special fondness for Psalm 16:7: “I will bless the LORD who has counseled me; Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.” Perhaps God comes to us at night because it is then when the noise of the day has ceased and we are finally able to truly listen.
And if the Celtic worldview was mindful of angels; it was likewise mindful of demons. Like “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, a lorica prayer of protection which asks for shielding from many ills, including spells of wizards–one translation I have terms them ‘druids’!–this poem-prayer recognizes that demons also may visit our sleep. I’ll tell you one thing: my bad dreams and nightmares decreased substantially–were practically eliminated–when I started saying prayers before bed, and even now when I awake from a bad dream, I think back to check if I had forgotten to pray before falling asleep.
“May our watch be holy.” I think of the watchmen in Return of the King as popularized in the Peter Jackson movie. They watch, they wait. They light the signal fire to send a message, to request help, to warn of danger.
This Lord of the Rings segment in turn always reminds me of Bach’s Christmas cantata, 140, “Zion Hears the Watchmen Calling”
[Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme].
Which is itself from the Matthew 25, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Indeed, the Midnight Office in the Orthodox Church includes hymns based on this gospel reading. We want to be wise and watchful, wide awake. Why? Because our watch and our work is holy.
I’m a bit prone to “the winter blues”–Seasonal Affective Disorder. As sleep refreshes us to continue our holy, watchful tasks, may the natural contemplation of the winter months rejuvenate us to continue our work when the sun returns to warm the earth. Meanwhile, keep taking your Vitamin D.
“The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” by Alexander Master, ~1430, from the National Library of Netherlands. Public Domain