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Breaking Sleep


Church, and particularly monastic and “religious” life, often continues ordinary life at the time into a future that no longer lives that way. Habits that monks and nuns wear are often the ordinary clothes of a past era. The scapular is an apron, a garment protecting clothing whilst doing manual work. It now is often seen as signifying the “yoke of Christ”. A cassock or soutane is simply the long coat gentlemen wore until the shorter jacket grew in fashion. Church, being conservative, simply retained the longer coat. And so on.

Carthusians are monks and nuns who break their sleep – getting up in the middle of the night to pray and then going back to sleep again. It does not surprise me that this breaking of one’s sleep into two used to be part of our human experience until the development of regular evening artificial light meant that humans did not simply go to sleep with the sun. Often, we do not record things that we simply take for granted. When a person says they went from San Francisco to New York for the weekend, they simply assume we understand they flew. Centuries later, that understanding may be lost. There isn’t much written about the breaking of our sleep into two segments – people simply assumed that everyone understood this is what we do.

It seems that humans used to go to sleep as darkness set in. They didn’t sleep for 12-14 hours, but would awake in the middle of the night to pray, have sex, and even visit. Occasionally, they left hints of these practices, prayers for this night vigil, even texts that this is the best time to conceive. “At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous ordinances.” (Psalm 119:62)

Occasionally, I fall over a study that mentions this previous way humans lived, still continued in some monasteries. Here is a very good recent article on this.

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