This reflection is based on Luke 12:35-40.
I’ve been obsessed with sleep lately.
It all started when I flunked my sleep test two years ago and was diagnosed with a common sleeping disorder called apnea, for which I needed a sleep apnea mouth guard soon after. Apparently, like a lot of people, my breathing would stop for a few seconds during my sleep–except that in my case, it happened too often. No wonder I always woke up fatigued–a strange phenomenon for a morning person like me who’s most productive in the morning and usually brain-dead by 8 pm.
With all the recent science warning how sleep deprivation can be fatal, I’ve made a vow to make up for all my years of lost sleep–even if, I’m told, you actually can’t do that. Just the same, since then, not only have I been using a breathing device called CPAP–or “Continuous Positive Airway Pressure”–machine that is as tedious to use as saying its name, but I’ve also been obsessively using an app that monitors my sleep. For me, there’s nothing like waking up in the morning to a graph that plots every hour of the night and informs me exactly when I’ve experienced light sleep or enjoyed deep, blissful sleep.
Which is why, I am embarrassed to confess, today’s Gospel reading leaves me somewhat uncomfortable. Our Lord tells us the parable of the master and servants in order to remind us to be vigilant and prepared at all times for his unpredictable return. I’m fine with unpredictable; my problem lies elsewhere.
You see, in the parable our Lord warns that the master might return home “in the second or third watch (of the night).” While this phrase never caught my attention before, reading it today and given my recently acquired attachment to sleep, I wondered what time they actually referred to. As it turns out, it’s pretty late in the night–at least according to my standards.
The Romans divided the night into four watches: 6 pm, 9 pm, 12 midnight, and 3 am. This means that by the second watch of the night, I’d already be in bed, my breathing mask strapped securely to my face, and except for a few occasions, by the third watch, I’d already be submerged deep into my REM.
And now the Lord tells me that should he suddenly return late at night, he would very much like to find me wide awake and waiting for him.
It reminds me of my long retreat last year, when one evening, my spiritual director invited me to make a midnight meditation. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola recommends that we spend one period of prayer in the middle of the night, around midnight, because he believed that we are more receptive to God when it’s dark and the rest of the world is asleep.
Needless to say, I did not like that suggestion. As some kind of compromise, I made the decision to pray at 3:30 am: It would still be dark, and most of the world would still be asleep. Prayer at 3:30 am would still qualify as a midnight meditation, wouldn’t it?
But I remembered what my director had said right before I left the room. As if he could read my mind, my wise director, a war vet who had flown helicopters in Vietnam, smiled at me and said gently: “Be generous.”
The embarrassing truth was: I didn’t want to give up my sleep to pray. I know it’s petty, but it’s precisely the petty things that often get in the way. It’s these little “harmless” attachments that hinder us from growing spiritually and becoming closer to the Lord. They’re just so easy to rationalize: Sleep is good. Certainly, the health that sleep provides is good. So, the Lord won’t mind at all!
And of course he won’t! But could I–maybe just this once–make a little sacrifice for no other reason than the desire to be closer to the Lord? If I can’t make this little sacrifice, how can I make bigger ones?
So, that night, as I put on my CPAP mask at 9 pm, I set my alarm at 11:45 pm, knowing fully well that it would disrupt my sleep and that it would take away the very thing that I had mistakenly been holding too sacred. But I also knew that it was a rude awakening that I needed.
How about you? What kind of rude awakening do you need?