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Watches of the Night

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. — Psalm 63:5-7

From listening for baby’s croup, waiting for son or daughter to come home by curfew, fretting about the layoff, chronic back pain, or a friend or relative’s bad news, worrying about tomorrow’s CAT-scan report; most people are well acquainted with “watches of the night.” Who of us doesn’t know what it is to toss and turn, pound the pillow, and try to force sleep that does not come.

A bedtime prayer I learned recently from The Book of Common Prayer now gives new meaning to my nighttime tossings and turnings. The prayer goes like this:

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

“…that awake we may watch with Christ.” I like that! I thank God for peaceful sleep but now I also ask Him to guide so that I might “watch with Christ.”

We see in Psalm 63 (above) that the psalmist, David, was no stranger to wakeful nights and watching for God. While hold up from his pursuers in the Wilderness of Judah, David says that his “soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,” as he thinks upon the Lord “in the watches of the night.” David’s darkness and fear are transformed into a feast at midnight as he meditates upon the Shepherd.

Roger Ekirich, in his book, “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past,” recounts that in the pre-industrial world, people would sleep in two shifts, bridged by an hour or more of wakefulness. Ekirich says that in medieval England and Europe they called these two periods of sleep, “first sleep,” (also called “beauty sleep”) and “second sleep.”

Between the two sleep periods, instead of tossing and turning, they would use the time to pray, reflect, study, talk, or interpret dreams which were more vivid at that hour than in the morning. The night watches were also a favorite time for poets and scholars to meditate and write uninterrupted. The pre-modern world highly valued the watches of the night as a time for quiet and relaxation.

Thomas Jefferson planned his time well and would read a section of philosophy before going to bed “whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep.” In other words, Jefferson purposed to meditate upon what he had read during the interval of the “first sleep” and the “second sleep.” I like to read a psalm or short passage of scripture before I go to bed and have it to reflect upon when I lie awake. The night watches have become precious.

Tonight, before you go to bed, you might read a verse or two of a psalm, or gospel. And if you can’t sleep, I pray the Spirit to help you “watch with Christ.” Then pray for your nation, your church, your neighbor. You might even join your voice with the seraphim who call night and day: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

Grace and Peace, Tim Smith

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