“Sleep,” the Saints show, “is like food; some require more than others”
By Fr. Aloysius Roche
“We must be sure that even the most mortified among the saints were as glad to get to bed as we are. “When a man really loves God,” St. Philip Neri said, “he comes to such a state in the end that he is obliged to say, ‘Lord, let me get some sleep.’ ”
One of the Psalms has this verse: “The saints shall be joyful on their beds”; and if this refers to Paradise, then, in one of the others, David says, “I have remembered Thee upon my bed.”
St. Thérèse, in her Histoire d’une ame, confides all her weaknesses to us and among them that she used to doze during the morning meditation. “But I reflect that little children awake or asleep are equally dear to their parents.” The Gospel can find some excuse even for the three Apostles who slept in the Garden of Gethsemane, leaving our Lord to watch alone. “Their eyes were heavy,” it says; and our Lord Himself, although He mildly rebuked them, did not wake them up. “Sleep on now, and take your rest.”
St. Clement the Pope, a disciple of St. Peter, tells us that the apostle was fond of recalling details of our Lord’s goodness to His disciples, and among them, that when He was traveling with them through Judea, He would often visit them during the night to make sure that they were warm and well covered.
The early ascetics certainly made heroic efforts to confine sleep within the narrowest possible limits; but needless to say, they were never able to dispense with this necessity. It is related of St. Christine, St. Colette, St. Catherine of Ricci, St. Elphide, St. Flore, Bl. Agatha of the Cross, and others that they lived for long periods without the blessing of sleep. This, however, was a miraculous privilege akin to that of those who lived without any other nourishment than the Holy Eucharist.
St. Macarius is said to have gone without sleep for twenty days at a time; St. Dorotheus kept himself awake at night by making mats, and St. Jerome tells us how, when sleep crept over him in spite of his efforts, he dashed himself upon the ground. St. Catherine of Siena took a short sleep only every two nights, and this she called “Paying the debt of sleep to the body.” St. Martin of Tours usually slept on the ground, and St. Paula never slept in bed, even during illness. For fifteen years, St. Pachomius took his repose sitting upon a stone. St. Charles Borromeo usually slept in a chair or on the top of the bed in his clothes. When at last he was induced to get right into bed, he insisted on having a mattress of straw. He is responsible for one of the chilliest pieces of advice ever given by a saint: “The best way not to find the bed too cold is to go to bed colder than the bed is.”
But, of course, such extremes must be judged not by our ideas of comfort and convenience, but by theirs. These saints lived in very robust times and in much warmer climates than ours; and, after all, the bed matters but little, provided there is sound and refreshing sleep. Probably they slept far more soundly than do we. And others besides saints have managed very well with a small amount of sleep.
Sleep is like food; some require more than others, and the quantity of each is very largely a matter of custom. We find no difficulty in persuading ourselves that we require a good deal of both; and the saints, with like facility, persuaded themselves that they required very little. Nature is very adaptable. It is astonishing what we can quite conveniently do without when it comes to the point, and it is perhaps safe to say that the system accustoms itself with greater ease to privations than to excesses. Gradual and systematic practice made their mortifications a second nature to the saints. — Catholic Exchange
“This article was adapted from a chapter in Fr. Aloysius’ A Bedside Book of Saints, available from Sophia Institute Press.”
— Dr. Ralph Martin: The Incarnation continues in us.