Our urgent nighttime thoughts aren’t necessarily from the Holy Spirit

I am a life-long insomniac, and please believe me when I say I have tried everything. I do all the right things, and avoid all the wrong things, to encourage good sleep, but it just seems to be my fate that sometimes I lose the knack, and long periods go by when sleep eludes me, night after night. I just forget how to do it, and the only thing to do is wait until I get the hang of it again. Staying asleep is like trying to stay underwater while clutching a giant beach ball: You can go under for a bit, but pretty soon you’re bobbing around on the surface again, blinking and frustrated, high and dry.

But nighttime is still different from daytime. The thoughts you have when you’re awake, and shouldn’t be, are very different from the thoughts you have when it’s just regular daytime. Nighttime thoughts can take on a certain urgency, even a certain spiritual compulsion.

Not long ago, Catholics on social media were talking about liminality: of “threshold” experiences when we are passing, or trying to pass, from one state or stage to another. We feel a sensation of peculiar and unsettling ambiguity, when we are neither this nor that, here nor there, but maybe we paradoxically feel a sharpened awareness of our in-betweenness.

There are some places on the planet that tend to make people feel this way – mountaintops, caves, very open spaces, heavy fog — and also some experiences: sitting with the dying, having sex, giving birth.

The spirituality of sleep

Sometimes insomnia puts us in this state. Eyes wide open in the darkness, body looking for all the world like it’s fully at rest when it’s actually tense and alert. The harder you try to push through from consciousness to unconsciousness, the more stuck you become in this liminal state.

Many people say that, if they can’t sleep, they pray. They say that, if they’re going to be awake anyway, they might as well be sure they’re passing the time well. Someone even told me once that God wouldn’t let her sleep until she said a whole Rosary for me (and I was very grateful when I found out, because I had been in labor, and struggling). And some people freely admit that they just keep on saying Hail Marys until they drop off to sleep. Call it boredom, call it tapping into some kind of mind/body magic, or call it faithfully letting your guardian angel finish the set, but it works for some people.

What I find, more often, is a different kind of spiritual experience: My thoughts, untethered by distractions from a body in motion, hone in on the one thing that’s really bothering me. And even if I’m not alone in bed, there’s a special kind of aloneness that comes from being the only one awake in the dark. You become abnormally vulnerable and unable to divert your attention, and unable to hide. God looks right at you, and in the dark, you cannot help looking back.

Or so it seems. There have been times when I’ve spent hours impaled on a skewer of self-accusation in the middle of the night, absolutely certain that my involuntary vigil has exposed me at last, and when the morning comes, I’ll have to live my life in a whole new way, in the light of the thing I’ve finally had to admit about myself and the way I’m living.

Why do I believe this?

Sometimes we’re just tired

Honestly, it’s because I’m half asleep. And that really is all there is to it. I was just very tired, and probably closer to asleep then I realized, and that’s why I was having weird thoughts.

Of course it’s very possible for the Holy Spirit to come and visit you in your bed. Unpleasant wakeful hours in the dark really can be illuminating, and sometimes there are truths you will only let yourself hear when all the other noise of the world has been silenced.

But sometimes you’re just very tired, and not thinking clearly, and the unnaturalness of being awake too long is distorting your thinking and magnifying things that don’t deserve to be magnified. Sometimes being very tired means your guard is down, and you can’t fight off the temptation of unrealistic guilt. The Holy Spirit can visit you at night, but so can any grimy little workaday demon who notices your defenses are low.

Sometimes when the alarm goes off in the morning, you may still be tired, but at least you’re a little more sane, and you can just shake your head, realize you were thinking crazy thoughts, and get back to work.

Just as it’s easy to fall into a trap of never letting yourself think deeply about your life and yourself, and always allowing yourself to be busy and distracted and shielded from the cold, hard, midnight clarity, it’s also easy to fall into the trap of not giving your humanity enough credit, and halfway believing that the only time we can discover vital or devastating truths is through extraordinary circumstances.

We are liminal beings

Because we are creatures of flesh and spirit, and because it’s hard to get body and soul on the same page at the same time, we tend to believe that experiences we have in special, rarified, liminal places must be especially insightful or especially true or especially special in some way.

We are, in a sense, snobs about our own humanity.

But we are already liminal, all the time, by our nature. Everything we do is already neither-this-nor-that, even when we try as hard as we can to act as mere bodies or as pure spirits. If we are seeking clarity and feel like we need to escape from the everyday to find it, there are ways of doing it without losing the advantage of our faculties.

If you think God is speaking to you in your exhaustion, then do what you can to get some rest, and listen again later. God does not mind repeating himself, and all he asks is a willing ear. If you find yourself awake, do say a prayer, or ten. But don’t assume that any ideas that come to you must be from God.

“Don’t listen to thoughts you have when you’re tired” is a good general rule; and another one is: God doesn’t accuse. He calls us to repentance, yes, and he calls us to conversion, and he calls us to self-knowledge. But he doesn’t entrap us, and he doesn’t revile us. That is not the voice of God. Maybe it’s tiredness, maybe it’s something else. But it’s not God.

This post Our urgent nighttime thoughts aren’t necessarily from the Holy Spirit appeared on Our Sunday Visitor.

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