I've always been attracted to praying in the middle of the night. Though I've read about this practice in books, it isn't anything I got from a book, it's something that seems to have been always with me. I have this deep longing for night prayer. Sometimes it's stronger and sometimes it's much quieter, but it's with me pretty constantly - just a drawing, a longing. It certainly isn't anything I can do much about, given the circumstances of this particular life - or so it seems.
Some years ago I got a chance to live out this longing as a life-style, not just something that I thought would be an interesting thing to do some time or other. I had a period of sabbatical and I went to live for half a year or so with the Sisters of the Love of God, who are an enclosed contemplative Order of nuns in England. I traveled to England regularly in those days and had gotten to know the community and admired them greatly, and in those days, they were able to welcome members of other communities into their convents. When it became possible to take a sustained period off it seemed like an offer I couldn't refuse.
I lived in one of their smaller houses in a village called Hemel Hempstead, near St Alban's - north of London. The convent was called St Mary and the Angels and it housed a community of 5 or 6 nuns. It was an ordinary largish house in an ordinary suburban neighborhood, and it had a large yard ("garden" the English would say) that gave us some space to wander in. They were willing to have me, so off I went to England and settled in to a life that was purpose-designed for inner exploration.
One of the features of the life of that community was that the Office of Vigils each day was said at 2:00 a.m., and it was largely for that reason that I went to be with them. It seemed like one of the nicest things I could imagine - to have that night prayer be a part of my regular schedule.
I know - many of you think this is weird - or maybe just plain unimaginable. But I liked it - I loved it, actually. It seemed completely natural and I adjusted to the rhythm very quickly - each member of the community did the Night Office for 3 days in a row and went back to bed for a while. Every 4th night you had a night off to sleep through the whole night. We were all at Night Office on Sundays and on big feasts.
There is a special quality of silence and depth at that hour. It seems to me to be a time that is built for prayer. And, curiously enough, the world and its needs have always seemed closer to me then than at any other time. Prayer is not just a personal project at 2 a.m. Intercession flows naturally then. And it's all wrapped in a silence that seems alive. There's a Presence (with a capital P) to the silence in the middle of the night.
I never gave a lot of thought to what the neighbors thought about all this. England is a very secular country and the Church of England doesn't offer much attraction in the lives of most of the population. I assumed that most of those around us simply ignored us and considered us irrelevant to their lives. Certainly there were few, if any, of them who showed much interest that I could see.
Then came a week when all of us had the flu. We had suffered the sore throats, joint pains, fevers and sniffles for a couple of days when Sister Rachel Mary, the sister in charge, said: "Ok - we're going to take five or six days off from the Night Office and get enough rest to get well. Then we'll go back to it." So we did - and I will have to admit that a whole night of sleep, every night, was quite delicious. It takes a lot of energy to do the Night Office on a regular basis.
So we had our time off and had been doing it for a couple of days, when the phone began to ring. It was the neighbors, and a lot of them, not just a few. "What's wrong?" they wanted to know. "Why aren't the sisters in the chapel at night? We're concerned." It had never occurred to me that the people around us even noticed what we did at night, much less that it was an important touch-stone in their lives. I didn't imagine that a practice as exotic as praying at 2 in the morning was part of the fabric of a normal suburban neighborhood of commuters. The fact that they depended on our night prayer at some level of their lives was something I was unprepared for. It was then that I realized that my sense of the importance of praying in the middle of the night was not something as exotic as I had assumed. It seemed to be shared by lots of people. At some level, these folks depended on us being in church while they slept, and it seemed important - even necessary - to them. I've never forgotten that.
Now fast forward to this week. I've been having one of my periodic spells of insomnia and this week has been one of those times. The form it takes in me is simple inability to go to sleep. No matter how sleep-deprived I am, and how difficult it is to drag myself through the days, at bedtime I am wide awake and my body has absolutely no interest in sleep. So there I am. It's usually several hours before I manage to drift off.
So what to do? I've tried a variety of things - reading, walking, praying, meditating, looking out the window at the river in the dark. Sometimes I go to my computer and play some mindless games, which will soothe me enough so that eventually my body will consider sleeping.
There I was, 2 nights ago, in the midst of the night, huddled at my computer, poking away half-heartedly at this stupid game, not thinking about it much - not thinking about anything much, when all of a sudden, completely unexpectedly this thing happened, and it's hard to find words for the experience, but as close as I can come is to say that prayer fell on me. I did feel like something big and heavy came down and covered me. Something. What? Or Who? It certainly wasn't anything I started. Should I say 'God'? The word seems too small. I understand why the Buddha wouldn't use it. It seems irrelevant to the experience. I think I can't do any better than Moses could - 'I Am' seems to get a little closer. There in the middle of the night all of my years and years of longing for night prayer opened up. The Presence from the center of everything seemed to be right there with me - inside me.
Does my insomnia come for this reason? Is it just calling me to be there with that which I have always wanted? Am I so unresponsive and doltish that it finally had to kick me in the head to get me to listen? Or do I have to figure out a reason? Maybe it just happened because it happened. But do I need to be more serious about something I have always wanted? Perhaps I'm just being told to have what I have always wanted. If that's it, I have to figure out how to do it. Not simple with my life the way it is now.
In any case, I invite your own reflections on this curious experience. Prayer isn't basically something that we do - it's something that happens in us and the initiative rests largely with God. Prayer, at its base, isn't about my longing for God, it's about God longing for me. If I'm lucky I get to tune in on that periodically. And I think that most people know this at some level. You don't have to be a mystic to experience this, you only have to be human. God reaches out from the center of each one of us, and finds the time and place when we're able to hear this reaching out. Do you know about prayer reaching out for you? Maybe in just a tiny way? I bet it's there, if you look for it. And I'll bet it's telling you something about how you need to pray. And probably also about how you want to pray!