Do you remember the first time you fell asleep while praying?
For me, it happened when I was about 16 years old. My job at the time required me to wake up at 4 a.m. (not an easy task for a teenager) and spend my entire day working outside mowing lawns, weeding garden beds, trimming bushes, and spreading mulch. It was intense and difficult work, and by the end of the day I was exhausted.
One blistering summer day, I didn’t finish working until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. When I got back to the shop to put away my equipment, all I could think about was going home and going to bed. But I’d made a habit of visiting our local parish every day after work. The church was just around the corner from our shop, and I’d been helping to transform one of the sacristies into a Perpetual Adoration chapel.
Reluctantly, I decided to go and spend 15 minutes in prayer before heading home. Since the adoration chapel wasn’t yet finished, I sat in a pew toward the front of the main body of the church. I was so tired I had no words for the Lord, so I rested my head on the pew in front of me and listened for His voice.
When I awoke sometime later, there was a line of drool dripping from my mouth to the church floor.
Thank God no one else was in the church! Despite the emptiness, I still felt embarrassed at my lack of decorum. And I felt guilty for falling asleep during prayer. I hastily ended my prayer time and headed home.
It wasn’t until later that year that I discovered the teachings of the saints on falling asleep during prayer. One saint in particular resonated with me.
What St. Therese Taught Me
Later that same summer, a one-woman dramatization of the life of St. Therese of Lisieux came to my parish. I sat across the aisle from the same pew in which I’d fallen asleep just weeks before.
I was enthralled by the play, captivated by the story of this “little” saint who was so real and honest about her struggles and victories in the spiritual life. And as hard as it would be for a 16-year old boy to admit, I was in tears by the end of it — both times I saw it!
One thing in particular jumped out at me: St. Therese’s insights about falling asleep during prayer.
The Little Flower openly admitted she struggled to stay awake during the Liturgy of the Hours, her personal prayer time, and her thanksgiving after receiving Holy Communion. But her tendency to doze off didn’t bother her:
I should be distressed that I drop off to sleep during my prayers and during my thanksgiving after Holy Communion. But I don’t feel at all distressed. I know that children are just as dear to their parents whether they are asleep or awake…. I just think that God “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:14)
When I first heard these words, I thought wryly, “Sometimes children are dearer to their parents when they’re asleep than when they’re awake.” It wasn’t until I became a father myself that I experienced the truth in my observation.
Children In the Father’s Arms
I have a 5-year-old daughter. She’s my little princess and the joy of my life. She has diamond blue eyes, wispy blond curly hair, baby cheeks and a sweet little voice. She’s loving and affectionate. She’s also quite rambunctious and willful. When she’s excited, she gets very loud, which means she’s almost always loud. If she doesn’t want to hear something, she just walks away. She showers me with hugs and kisses one minute, then gets angry and shouts, “Don’t touch me!” the next.
I’ll admit I often breathe a sigh of relief when she finally drifts off to sleep.
Because the house gets quiet, for one thing. But when she’s asleep, she’s completely docile and trusting. I can pick her up and put her in bed without her fighting me. In fact, she wraps her arms around me and trustingly allows me to carry her. When I lay her down on her bed, she pulls me close, wraps herself in my arms and snuggles next to my heart, knowing that she’s in a completely safe and loving environment.
This is the kind of loving and trusting relationship we ought to have with God — even when we’re asleep!
When Pope Francis visited the U.S. in 2015, he made headlines for dozing off during his first Mass on U.S. soil. Was he mortified for publicly snoozing during this historic Mass?
Not at all!
Instead, he reminded us that we are all children in the arms of our heavenly Father: “This is one of the many ways in which the name of God becomes sanctified, feeling like a child in His arms,” he said. “I am before God like a child in the arms of his father.”
We ought to strive to have such a close and intimate relationship with our Father that we feel perfectly comfortable falling asleep “in His arms” during prayer.
Now, none of this is meant to say that it’s okay to fall asleep every time we pray. We must strive to dedicate time in the morning and throughout the day to pray. But what if the next time we lay down at night with the anxieties of our day swirling in our heads, or wake up in the middle of the night and stare at the ceiling…what if instead of turning to secular sleep apps or sleeping pills, we turn instead to God: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.’ (Mt. 11:28)
The folks over at the Hallow app have built an amazing tool that can help us to build a nighttime routine that is both peaceful and spiritual with audio guided Catholic prayers and meditations. We can close our days with Night Prayer (Compline) from the Liturgy of the Hours, an Examen, or Sleep Stories from Scripture. Download the app here and let God lead you to sleep “like a child in the arms of his father.”