Night, Hope, and Sleep: An Advent Reflection

Sometimes it takes the poet to remind us that metaphors and similitudes employed in the scriptures and in the Christian tradition are precisely that: parables and symbols drawn from human experience that give us rather concrete and arresting ways of speaking of spiritual realities. It is the poet who can break open again our native tendencies to harden our metaphors, to take them with a seriousness that only betrays their original purpose.

Night, along with its dominant activity, sleep, has an ambivalent status in philosophical discourse, theological reflection, and spirituality. The majority report sees night as the reverse image of the divine presence, and sleep as a metaphor for spiritual inertia, if not inherently bound up with the vice of sloth. We can easily recall Christ’s words to his disciples: “Can you not stay awake for an hour?” (Matt 26:40). God, according to the Psalmist, “neither slumbers nor sleeps,” (Ps 121:4) and this same God calls us “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). Yet, there is a minority report that asks about the inherent goodness of night, its purpose, and its positive theological meaning, which reaches a certain self-aware confidence in the great French poet Charles Péguy.

***

The creation story of Genesis can be read as precisely the opening salvo of the divine triumph over darkness, which begins when the primordial “darkness over the abyss” is overwhelmed by the sovereignty of God’s creative word, “let there be light” (Gen 1:2–3). This conquest over darkness continues throughout God’s dealings with Israel, as God calls them out of the darkness of sin and ignorance and into the light of friendship with God. The birth of Christ occurs in the dead of night, which is often interpreted not as the hospitality or suitability of night, but as God’s ultimate victory over night, of the light of Christ appearing in the darkest night of human misery and expectation. Ultimately, the Book of Revelation, calling back to the original creation of light in Genesis, looks expectantly on that time when the Lamb sits on the throne and “night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light” (Rev 22:5).

The history of Christian spirituality has continued this preference for the diurnal over the nocturnal in a number of ways, the most tangible of which is the vigil. Legend has it that Macarius of Alexandria, the fourth-century desert father, stayed awake for twenty days straight. The monastic tradition as a whole is filled with calls to triumph over the realm of sleep and darkness. The highest liturgical feasts also turn towards the vigil, as the canceling out, as it were, of the inevitability and supremacy of night.

The Western philosophical tradition as a whole has tended to view darkness as the privation of light. The night, then, is a loss or an absence of what is of fundamental importance, which is the light that gives to the eye the capacity for vision, a vision that moves from the merely sensible to the ideal. As is well known, Plato, in Book Six of the Republic, compares the Good to the sun, which he says the Good begot to be precisely its analogue, its symbol in the world: “What the good itself is in the intelligible realm, in relation to understanding and intelligible things, the sun is in the visible realm, in relation to sight and visible things.”[1] It seems that philosophy and theology, fides et ratio, join hands at this point in naming the state of eternal bliss one of visio beatifica.

There is good psychological reason that we fear the darkness and long for the light. At night we surrender ourselves to a hostile world. Those who come in the night are often enough “thieves” (1 Thess 5:2), and upon awakening we greet the rising sun and are reminded that “the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78–79). Sleep is an indication of our fragility, our frailty, our inability to stay awake like the angels, who, in Aramaic, are called the “ones who keep vigil.”[2] Night, and our penchant for sleep, is then a reminder of the nothingness from which we were created, and to which our being is always intermixed. The dead are precisely those who, according to Daniel, “sleep in the dust of the earth” (Dan 12:2), and thus sleep seems very much bound up with the curse of death as the result of that primordial sin.

With the sun as the image of God, and darkness as an image of the nothing, we can see the alternation of day into night as a daily rehearsal of our chimerical status. Our daily oscillation between day and night, between the Infinite and Nothing (Blaise Pascal), can perhaps explain why humans, it seems uniquely so, are so bad at sleep. Sloth and an inability to rise from the death of night awaits on one extreme, while insomnia awaits on the other. Children must be “sleep trained,” and they in no way come into this world associating night with sleep, a lesson they must learn at a great price to themselves and their parents.

First Thessalonians is a locus classicus for the majority report: “But you, brothers, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness. Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober” (1 Thess 5:4–6). Ephrem the Syrian will take this further by speaking of the darkness of night as a prophet of Satan, and the alteration from night to day as an image of the humiliation of the reign of Satan: “The dark proclaimed about the Darkness, and the brightness instructed about our Light.”[3] While an ontological Manichaeism is ever rejected, a symbolic one is often taken as at least of heuristic utility.

***

It is in Advent that we should think anew about the privation of light and the necessity of sleep as positively willed goods, rather than as created analogies for the nothingness of sin. This more robustly anti-Manichaean evaluation of night and sleep has its own scriptural warrants, from seeking shelter in the shadow of God’s wings (Ps 17:8), to night not being the lingering reminder of the primordial chaos, but instead being positively created and even named by God (Gen 1:5), to the fact that rest is not an indication of finitude, as we are told that the first one to rest is in fact God himself (Genesis 2:2). In addition to those texts that speak of the eschatological state as the banishment of night, there are those that speak of heaven as entering into the rest of God (e.g., Ps 95:11; Matt 11:28; Heb 4:10).

Most children, it seems, prefer to be born in the night, and Christ himself is no exception to this. It was, we are told in Luke’s Gospel, while the shepherds were “keeping the night watch” that the angel appeared to them, announcing to them the Good News (Luke 2:8), and Christians have long associated Christmas with the length of winter nights, thus the placement of this feast proximate to the winter solstice and the variety of popular hymns that speak of a silent night, a holy night, and of a child sleeping in heavenly peace.  

We are invited to contemplate the goodness of night during Advent because the days are getting progressively shorter, or stated without the diurnal prejudice, the nights are growing progressively longer. Many of our mammalian friends have begun hibernation, and although humans do not technically hibernate, winter does invite one to sleep more, as Benedict himself notes in the Rule. In winter, specifically on the first of November, he says, monks are to have “a moderately increased length of rest after midnight . . . that all may rise fully rested.”[4]

The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has focused recently on the ways we resonate, or fail to resonate, with the world around us, and the ways in which modernity leads us to view the external world, even our own bodies, in a state of dissonance. As Rosa writes,

Sleep, especially falling asleep, requires that the subject be ready and willing to temporarily give up her “stance” and “standing” in the world, entrusting herself to the world in a defenseless horizontal position. . . . In sleep, successfully immersed in that state in which “the world breathes through our body in and out” our posture seems to give expression to the most basic form of our relationship to the world.[5]

One resonates with the world in restful sleep, and, in some ways, the world takes over the self during sleep, such that one no longer takes personal responsibility for survival, but instead allows the world to breathe through the self. Conversely, the world becomes dissonant, becomes an alien and hostile place, in innumerable ways in how we sleep, or rather fail to sleep: insomnia, jet lag, restlessness, and hyper-vigilance when sleeping in a new place. These all indicate, and give one to experience profoundly, a dissonance with the world, a sense of alienation with the demands of night and sleep. It is thus right to reflect on sleep and night during Advent above all, when darkness envelops us, when the length of night confronts us as not merely a brief respite from the light of day, but as a structural feature of human experience, one with which we need to find ways of resonating.

Péguy is not, of course, the first to evince a nocturnal preference. We can note the apophatic tradition that speaks less of God as the font of intelligibility and as immediately perspicuous and instead as an infinite abyss that is ever beyond rational description. According to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, then, God is found “in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence” and we are to be like Moses, who “plunges into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing.”[6] Marrying this apophatic emphasis on divine transcendence and epistemological limitation, that cloud of unknowing, with the spiritual experience of privation and emptiness, John of the Cross could be called the theologian of the night, and his noche oscura has rightly become a pillar in the panoply of Catholic spiritualities.

***

Charles Péguy is a thinker of the whole, constantly seeking the integration of seemingly opposed principles. He united in himself, for instance, his youthful socialism with his renewed Catholicism. Similarly, his unbridled French nationalism was bound up with his insistence on universal solidarity, universal communion. His return to the Church led him not to accept the marvelously insipid antisemitism displayed in the Dreyfus affair, but instead to place himself decidedly on the side of the Jews.[7] Finally, this structurally anti-Manichean and thus anti-Donatist thinker saw no opposition whatsoever between sinner and saint, but understood both to be part of the one organism of the mystical body of Christ.[8]

Most importantly for our purposes, there is no trace of darkness and night as a symbol of nothingness, or as a demonic relic or reminder, as is implicit in so much of the Christian tradition. Against this, Péguy affirms the inherent goodness of both day and night, wakefulness and sleep, though this time with the scales tipped towards the somnolent and slumberous rather than the restless and restive. Péguy has God himself confirm the fact: “Night is my most beautiful creation.”[9]

The conclusion to Péguy’s masterful The Portal of the Mystery of Hope is a paean to night and to sleep, and it is to these realities, rather than to the light of dawn, that Péguy turns when he brings his ode to hope to its denouement. Péguy’s hope is chosen and praised for her littleness, for her seeming insignificance when compared with her older sisters, faith and charity. For Péguy, hope is often missed because she is literally in-between; she is overlooked in that she is forever flanked by her sisters:

The little hope moves forward in between her two older sisters and one scarcely notices her.

On the path to salvation, on the earthly path, on the rocky path of salvation, on the interminable road, on the road in between her two old sisters hope

Pushes on.

In between her two older sisters.

The one who’s married.

And the one who’s a mother.

And no one pays attention, the Christian people don’t pay attention, except to the two older sisters.[10]

The works of great theologians, tomes, and Summas are monuments to faith, as the hospitals and orphanages witness to the works of charity, but Péguy worries that we have overlooked little hope, just as, we should add, we often overlook night. As night is read as an intermezzo connecting the important work of one day to the next, so hope is read as a hinge between charity and faith. Likewise, just as night is read as merely a privation of light, so hope is read as simply insufficient possession of an eschatological good, a virtue that longs for its own self-erasure.

This is not so for Péguy, for whom it is little hope, the forgotten little sister, that is

assuredly the most difficult [of the theological virtues], that it is perhaps the only difficult one, and that it is undoubtedly the most pleasing to God.[11]

God, says Péguy, is not surprised by the older sisters, as faith is the expected response to a creation that speaks so eloquently of its creator, and charity is what gives human relations their warmth and unity, but hope is unexpected, even for God:

What surprises me, says God, is hope.

And I can’t get over it.

This little girl hope who seems like nothing at all.

This little girl hope.

Immortal.[12]

The little girl hope is indeed holding her older sisters’ hands, one on each side. But despite appearances, despite our expectations, it is not they who lead the little hope, but rather the reverse.

Although Christmas is spoken of only once in this long poem, the mention is of great significance:

Hope is a little girl, nothing at all.

Who came into the world on Christmas day just this past year.[13]

Winter and the cold are mentioned throughout the poem, as the context as it were for the working of hope, but for our purposes, it is the conclusion that is most important, where Péguy has God praise night with such enthusiasm that we might think that Péguy is making reparations for centuries, indeed millennia, of not only neglect but also opprobrium.

Sloth is indeed a sin, and the conjugation of prayer and work, ora et labora, is of course the great genius of the Benedictine tradition. But, for Péguy, this does not make monasticism any more diurnal than nocturnal, and he proposes his own amendment to the Benedictine motto: yes, ora et labora, but also ora et dormi:

Just sleep. Why don’t people make use of it.

I’ve given this secret to everyone, says God. I haven’t sold it.

He who sleeps well, lives well. He who sleeps, prays.

(He who works, prays too. But there’s time for everything. Both for sleep and for work.

Work and sleep are like two brothers. And they get on very well together.

And sleep leads to work just like work leads to sleep.

He who works well sleeps well, he who sleeps well works well.)[14]

Péguy, the great critic of modernity, knows that the post-industrial modern west has many faults, but a lack of work is not among its besetting sins. What we need, and what hope can teach us, is not to work harder, a goal that is deeply instilled in the modern mind, but to be able to sleep well:

They possess the virtue of work. They don’t possess the virtue of doing nothing.

Of relaxing. Of resting. Of sleeping.

Unhappy people, they don’t know what’s good.[15]

Man is, he says, a “monster of unrest,”[16] one who will not let go of his anxieties and hand them over to God’s safekeeping. And thus, Péguy can utter this condemnation:

And yet they tell me

That there are men who don’t sleep.

I don’t like the man who doesn’t sleep, says God.

Sleep is the friend of man.

Sleep is the friend of God.

Sleep may be my most beautiful creation.

And I too rested on the seventh day.[17]

The betrayal of night and sleep is so grievous to Péguy because, as he sees it, night is not the interruption of the succession of days, but rather it is day that interrupts the primacy of night.

And it’s the days that are discontinuous. It’s the days that pierce, that break the night

And not at all the nights that interrupt the day.

It’s the day that makes noise for the night.

Otherwise it would be sleeping.[18]

What is primordial and primary is the night, it is the “fabric of time,” and days are like islands that emerge from and must rest securely within the sea of night.[19] Night has the priority because it speaks more clearly of the eternal rest of the Triune God and it is a forerunner of that eternal rest of the eschatological life. Between these two nights, as it were, comes the bustle and activity of man, the anxiety of man, who is meant to be led in his activity by that little girl of the in-between, hope, who shows us that resting in God is possible even now, and that night is created precisely for the sake of hope:

O night, my finest invention, my most noble creation of all.

My most beautiful creature. Creature of the greatest Hope.

You give the most substance to Hope.

You are the instrument, you are the very substance and the dwelling-place of Hope.[20]

Péguy’s little hope is modeled after his own little daughter, and Hope, his Beatrice as it were, must for him be a child, unlike her grown and mature older sisters, faith and charity. Péguy is, if nothing else, a poet of the child. His poetry is first of all disarmingly simple in its repetitions, its turning over and trying again the same idea over and over, and in its playfulness and childlike naiveté concerning the tender concern of God for his creatures. The child, too, is for Péguy the only one who understands the goodness of night and of sleep, who knows that night is no prophet of Satan, but instead an enveloping womb where God takes charge of his sleeping children. It is only children who know how to resonate with the world in sleep, and they do so because sleep for them is a mode of hope. Thinking, undoubtedly, of his own children, Péguy, with no little parrhesia, names with confidence what is most beloved to God, and to the Virgin Mary:

I have seen the greatest Saints, God says. Yet I say to you.

I have never seen anything so funny and in consequence I know nothing so beautiful in the world

As the child who falls asleep saying his prayers

(As the little creature falls asleep confidently)

And who jumbles his Our Father with his Hail Mary.

Nothing is so beautiful and it is even a point

On which the Blessed Virgin is of my opinion

About it.[21]

The Portal of the Mystery of Hope is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the second work in a triptych, between The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc and The Mystery of the Holy Innocents. The childlikeness of Hope and of night is anticipated at the end of the work on Joan of Arc, and is picked up again and perfected in the work on the Holy Innocents. At the end of Joan of Arc, the child Joan is receiving catechism lessons from Madame Gervaise, who continues the lesson throughout the two later mysteries. Madame Gervaise warns the child Joan to beware of the work of the devil, who is framed precisely as the opposite of the as-of-yet unannounced child hope:

Old pride never goes to bed. Be careful, be careful my child, old pride never sleeps.

Old pride does not know the sleep of night. Old pride knows no resting place.[22]

The devil, as old pride, cannot sleep precisely because he is old, and cannot sleep like only the child knows how to sleep. To say that the devil “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8) is then perhaps less a claim about the dangers of the night and more of a statement of the accursed state of the one incapable of sleeping, incapable of handing himself over to the providence of God. One can only sleep if one hopes, and hope is a child.

In the Mystery of the Holy Innocents Péguy resumes the theme of night and sleep in his exposition of the child saints, the child martyrs who were mistaken for Christ, who were killed in the place of Christ, and who are thus forever bound up with the Incarnation and with the Church’s commemoration of Christmas. They are,

infant Christs who will never grow old. Who never grew up.[23]

Surrounding his discussion of these first Christian martyrs, is, we could say, Péguy playing with two teachings of Jesus: “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious about itself” (Mt 6:34) and, as one would expect: “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3). For Péguy, these verses amount to the same thing, for it is the child who does not worry about tomorrow, who knows how to abandon herself to sleep, who does not anxiously plan for tomorrow. Péguy, echoing Jean Pierre de Caussade and his famous L’abandon à la providence Divine, sees night as our daily pedagogue in the ways of abandonment to God, an abandonment that can only hope to imitate that of the child:

the man who goes to bed making plans for the morrow,

Is the one I do not like, God says . . . 

The man who is in my hand like the stick in a traveler’s hand,

That is the one who pleases me, God says.

The man who rests in my arms like a laughing baby,

And is not worried about anything.[24]

God is glorified both by work and by sleep, by day and by night, but night evinces the creature’s trust and free surrender to God, the creature’s return to a state of receptivity where he is nourished as if a child. God, speaking to his daughter Night, says

You glorify me in Sleep even more than your Brother, Day, glorifies me in Work.

Because in work man only glorifies me by his work.

Whereas in sleep it is I who glorify myself by man’s surrender.[25]

There are certainly times when we need to reflect on the call to vigilance, the call to personal mortification and asceticism, when we note how the works of the saints reflect God who is himself Actus Purus, where the life of the Church can be a light in the darkness, reflecting a God who is Light itself: “in your light we see light” (Psalm 36:9). But advent is a time of hope, of a hope for that which exceeds any capacity for human construction. The Incarnation reminds us of the disproportion between human light and Divine light, human work and divine work, and that God takes on flesh in a manner that is entirely gratuitous. It thus happens in the night, when the world sleeps, when it is given the opportunity to hope. Night, when humanity is not anxiously creating saviors or messiahs of its own, is when things can be made anew, when old habits can be undone, when what is ossified is capable of being softened.

Reflecting on his poem, Péguy later explained that hope is a “counter-habit,” and the role assigned to her by God is to undo the deadliness of hardened habits that prohibit the intervention of God:

[Hope] is charged with constantly dis-habituating. She is charged with always beginning again. She is charged with constantly dismantling the mechanism of habit. She is charged with introducing everywhere new beginnings, as habit introduces everywhere endings and deaths. She is charged with introducing everywhere organisms, as habit introduces everywhere mechanisms . . . . She is the principle, this child is the principle of re-creation, as habit is the principle of de-creation.[26]

Hope is indeed the trust that tomorrow can be different than today, that the mechanisms of today can become life-giving organisms tomorrow. The child knows this intuitively, but we forget it with age, just as we forget the value of sleep, of night, of abandoning ourselves, our work, our light, to the abyssal darkness of a God who crowns his creation by resting, and who invites us, during Advent above all, to enter into his rest. After all, the light of tomorrow, when the sun rises and receives the praise of all humanity, when it is raised up anew as God’s created herald in the world, will bring with it new anxieties. But, given how much we praise the day, the tomorrow, we should trust that tomorrow will be perfectly capable of worrying about itself.


[1] Republic, 508b–c.

[2] Cf. Jean-Yves Lacoste, Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 78.

[3] Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1989), 465.

[4] The Rule of St. Benedict, ch. 8.

[5] Hartmut Rosa, Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World (Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2019), 75–76. Citing Hansjürgen Bulkowski. Italics in original.

[6] Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology, 977B and 1000D.

[7] Balthasar nicely explores these seeming contradictions in Péguy in The Glory of the Lord III: Lay Styles (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 404–5.

[8] See Charles Péguy, “Sinners and Saints” in Basic Verities: Prose and Poetry (New York: Pantheon Books, 1943), 178–183.

[9] Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 128.

[10] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 10.

[11] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 9.

[12] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 7.

[13] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 7.

[14] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 124.

[15] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 125.

[16] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 134.

[17] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 125.

[18] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 128.

[19] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 132.

[20] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 131.

[21] The Mystery of the Holy Innocents, 141.

[22] Charles Péguy, Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne D’Arc, in Oeuvres Poétiques et Dramatiques (Gallimard, 2014), 545.

[23] Charles Péguy, The Mystery of the Holy Innocents and Other Poems (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017), 161.

[24] The Mystery of the Holy Innocents, 78.

[25] The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, 132.

[26] Charles Péguy, Notes on Bergson and Descartes: Philosophy, Christianity, and Modernity in Contestation (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2019), 101.