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Carthusian Night Office

Sleeping like a monk

Carthusian Night Office

I only realtively recently fell over some research that the whole 8-hours-sleep-in-a-row pattern is relatively recent (see here, here, and here).

The research of Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech, (presented in his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past) indicates we used to sleep in two shorter periods with wakefulness of two to three hours between these.

What immediately sprang to my mind was how Carthusians still have nights in this manner, getting up to pray a night office together (as did the Anglican community the Sisters of the Love of God). Often the church, and monastics, continue things from times past (clothing springs to mind: the habits of sisters, just as one example, were the clothing style that ordinary women wore).

Roger Ekirch found

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.

The concept of a prayer vigil, of course, is very ancient. Cistercians and others rise before dawn to pray. Carthusians, as indicated, break their sleep.

It interests me that there have been few to have developed a discipline of staying awake late to pray.

at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet… Keep awake

I read once of a relatively newly-founded religious order that has a discipline of vigil after sunset rather than prior to sunrise. Unfortunately, I cannot recall their name. From memory I think they are founded in Italy. If any of you know – do tell us.

This (why-didn’t-we-think-of-this-before) approach to prayer vigil (late rather than early, or as is the topic of this post, in the middle) I think may resonate with many contemporary young people and their lifestyle (as in, sleep) pattern.

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10 thoughts on “Sleeping like a monk”

  1. Wonderful reflection, Bosco. I came across the same research not long ago too. Apparently this pattern of interrupted sleep continued until Western countries became saturated with industrial work patterns (and electric light).

    Knowing about this period of wakefulness helps me to make sense of advice about nocturnal prayer in various manuals of devotion (e.g. Lancelot Andrewes and Jeremy Taylor, not to mention letters of guidance by St Jerome).

    Of course, married couples often found other ways to make use of that period of wakefulness…

    My wife grew up in Newfoundland, and we sometimes fantasize about upping stakes and moving to one of the many isolated islands there whose tiny fishing villages were resettled to larger towns on the main island in the 1950s. We’d just set up a shack overlooking the ocean and unplug. (Our original dream destination, Fogo Island, is no longer an option, since someone has built a super-expensive hotel there for millionaires with similar fantasies: http://www.fogoislandinn.ca/)

    But if we ever did escape to an island, I wonder if we’d recover a natural sleep pattern.

  2. Saying that our present sleep pattern is of recent derivation is a bold claim. The end of the article in your 3rd link raises my immediate question; is this based solely on Western culture, or is there evidense in non-Western cultures to back such a bold statement about humans?

  3. Thank you, Rev. Peters, for your interest in my research. In answer to the question from Bro David, I am increasingly convinced that segmented sleep was the predominant pattern in most preindustrial cultures, predating incidentally the advent of Christianity. If your public library has a copy of AT DAY’S CLOSE, you will find several anthropological studies that I cite in support of this conclusion. I currently am writing a piece that supplies historical evidence as well as additional anthropological material. Finally, the book also refers to a clinical study conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health in the early 1990s in which the subjects were deprived at night of artificial illumination. Thanks again for the interest!

  4. This has also interested me, Bosco. In my journey into contemplative practices I’ve become more aware of my own sleep patterns and have noticed that my sleep is most definitely broken into two major chunks, though I’m yet to venture into trying to utilise that time between as I’m worried I might not get back to sleep 😉

    On another note, have you see the film, Into Great Silence, which follows the pattern of the Carthusian monks in the French Alps? It’s my most treasured film – for me it is to film what the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is to painting.

    1. Yes, Francis. If you use the search box you should be able to find lots of my interest in the Carthusians, including my review of the film – and photos I have taken. I have been to La Grand Chartreuse and other Carthusian monasteries, and have a shelf of their writings. Advent Blessings.

  5. Gillian Trewinnard

    Thank you for raising this discussion, Bosco; I recently read about these pre-industrial ‘first sleep’ and ‘second sleep’ patterns and this resolved a problem I had been plagued with for years: anxiety about why I was regularly waking in the middle of the night. I would often spend an hour or more tossing and turning. Once I accepted the waking as unproblematic, I responded differently. In the winter, I got up in the dark, spent a quiet fifteen minutes or so by the fire stroking the cats (a form of contemplative prayer?) – then returned to bed and slept immediately. It is very peaceful to be up in the night and I now usually feel refreshed in the morning. In the summer, I just have a walk around and look at the stars. God bless.

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