Dr Neil Stanley Independent Sleep Expert
BACK Ekirch writes “At first glance, it is tempting to view this pattern of broken sleep as a cultural relic rooted in early Christian experience. Ever since St. Benedict in the sixth century required that monks rise after midnight for the recital of verses and psalms” However the history of midnight prayer can actually be traced back to the very beginnings of the Christian church. Horneck states that the practice of midnight devotions can be traced back to the 1st Century  “The Heathen, especially in the first and second Centuries after Christ, took so much notice of these midnight devotions of the Christians, that they ordinarily call'd them Owls, and men that shunn'd day-light, and though it's true, they accused them of promiscuous Copulations, eating of Children, and such Crimes, partly because they could not tell, what they did in those night Assemblies, and therefore suspected it must be some ill thing they did, because they made use of the night”  here page 400-401 The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome approx. 215AD advises “Around midnight rise and wash your hands with water and pray”. In the 4th Century St Jerome in his letter to Eustochium instructs that “We should rise two or three times in the night, and go over the parts of Scripture which we know by heart” (Letter 22  Letters of St Jerome Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) and St. Chrysostom (347-407) in his Horm on Psalm VI. states    “The night was not made to be spent entirely in sleep” (St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople: His Life, Eloquence, and ... By William Joseph Walter 1842 page 227). Ruffinus (340-410 AD) writes about seven men (the ‘Fathers of the Desert’) “who divided the night, and allotted four hours for sleeping, four for praising of God, and prayer, and four for working, and likewise the day, and appointed six for working, three for reading, and praying, three for eating, and walking.” In 1832 Palmer in Origines Liturgicæ here  (Vol. I: Antiq. of the English Rit. Ch. I, Pt.I, Sect. I-X.) writes “The nocturns or vigils were derived from the earliest periods of Christianity. We learn from Pliny, as well as from Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and various writers of the three first centuries, that the Christians in those times of persecution held their assemblies in the night, in order to avoid detection. On these occasions they celebrated the memory of Christ’s death in the holy mysteries. When persecution had intermitted and finally ceased, although the Christians were able to celebrate all their rites, and did administer the sacrament in the day-time, yet a custom which had commenced from necessity was retained from devotion and choice; and nocturnal assemblies for the worship of God in psalmody and reading still continued. The monastic orders, who in the fourth century arose under Pachomius, Anthony, Basil, and others, in Egypt, Pontus, and Syria, tended to preserve this custom of nocturnal vigils: and in the following centuries we find from the testimony of Cassian, Augustine, Sidonius, Apollinaris, Sozomen, &c. that the same custom remained in most parts of the East and West. In the sixth century Benedict, the great founder of monastic societies in the West, prescribed the same in his Rule; and doubtless the nocturnal assemblies were common about that time, especially in monasteries.” Night vigils," declared the twelfth-century scholar Alan of Lille, "were not instituted without reason, for by them it is signified that we must rise in the middle of the night to sing the night office, so that the night may not pass without divine praise." Alan of Lille, The Art of Preaching, Gillian R. Evans, trans. (Kalamazoo, Mich., 1981), 136; ‘Blessed is that servant whom the Lord, when he comes, shall find watchful. Again:’If the head of that household had known at what hour the thief would come he would have watched. Again: ‘Watch therefore, for you know not at what hour your Lord will come. Again: ‘Watch and pray, so that you may not enter into temptation’. Solomon says: ‘They who are watchful in the morning shall find me’. Christ invites us to watchfulness by example, in spending the night in prayer, and in watching out for our instruction. Bodily vigils are to be performed to exercise the body, and to drive away torpor, to escape the phantoms of the night, to avoid the slippery passions of the flesh, so as to make a place for prayer and to deny the enemy entry. The faithful soul should, like a man of great strength, ‘Guard the bed of Solomon’, and grasp his sword poised [in readiness] across his knees in the face of the terrors of the night. Not only in material vigils, but also in spiritual, the faithful soul should be watchful on behalf of the Church of God, the bed of Solomon -that is, of Christ-on which he rested, for it was a delight to him to be among the sons of men. He should also grasp his drawn sword, that is , he should wield the sword of discretion, to restrain the stirrings of the flesh and the attacks of the devil which are the most to be feared and avoided in the darkness of this world. We must undertake spiritual vigils, rather than bodily ones, so that the mind of each person may be watchful over his flock, that is the stirrings of the spirit lest the wolf-that is, the devil-lying in wait, should force any stirring out of its proper place. We should be watchful lest the thief -that is ,  the devil-enter into the cloister of our heart through dissipation, or into the chamber of the mind through idleness, and steal the tapestries of the soul, that is, the adornment of the virtues. This thief is sometimes and invisible robber, when he does violence through the tyranny of princes; sometimes the thief makes his entry through heresy; now he comes like a bird, flying high in pride, now like a snake, when he deceives through dissipation, now like a lion, when he carries on by open vilolance, now like a serpent, through hidden temptation. There are four parts of the sin of the night-hours. The first is called midnight, when a person delights in evil- thinking; the second, the late evening, when men-that is, reasonable urges-lie as prisoners to a misled will; the third, cock crow, when the will clamours into action; the fourth, predawn, when the deed is openly performed. Night vigils were not instituted without reason, for by them it is signified that we must rise in the middle of the night  to sing the night office, so that the night may not pass without divine praise and so that bodily vigil may awaken spiritual. Let it shame a man if the sun rise before his own vigils, and if the cock crow at night, while he himself is absent from divine praise. O man, beware the watch-man’s stick, lest he find you sleeping; beware of the robber, lest he suffocate you ;loitering. The watchful rod, or the rod of vengeance , is the rod by which, once it has been brought into the house, the thief test to see whether the head of the household is asleep or the household drowsy. If the head of the household sleeps, he steals everything he finds. If he is awake, he flees. In a spiritual sense, the rod of vengeance is Christ, whom Jeremiah says: ‘I see the rod of vengeance’. He it is who tests by his own judgement whether the head of the household is asleep, that is, whether a man’s own conscience is sluggish. If he find  him sleeping, he condemns him,;if watchful he finds no reason for injury. Likewise, the devil, who is the spiritual thief, if he find a man watchful, flees; if he is sleeping, he snatches away everything. Because Ishbaal slept in the middle of the day, he was slain by the robbers. Samson, napping, was captured by his enemies. Siseta, asleep was slain by a woman,. Gideon slew his sleeping enemies. Christ just before his passion reproached his sleeping disciples.  Ekirch writes that “Best known for advocating this regimen was the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross” however I can find nothing to support this assertion in his 3 major works; The Dark Night of the Soul here, Ascent of Mount Carmel here, A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ here  Ekirch asserts that “in England voices within both the Catholic and Anglican churches still prescribed late night vigils in the eighteenth century” however any such ‘voices’ would appear to be contrary to the prevailing Protestant orthodoxy, for instance Palmer 1832 says “In later times, when the discipline of the clergy and of monastic societies relaxed, the custom of rising in the night for the purpose of celebrating public worship became obsolete in most places; so that the nocturnal service was joined in practice to the matin lauds, and both were repeated at the same time early in the morning”. here  This relaxing of monastic observance is described by Pilkington Bishop of Durham in 1561 here who wrote that  “In Paul’s and abbeys at their midnight prayers were none commonly, but a few bawling priests, young quiristers and novices, which understood not what they said; the elder sort kept their beds, or were worse occupied. A prayer not understand in the heart, but spoken with the lips, is rather to be counted prating and bawling, than praying with good devotion. The elder sort, both in cathedral churches and abbeys, almost never came at their midnight prayer: it was thought enough to knoll the bells, and make men believe that they rose to pray: therefore they have not so much to crack of this their doing”. The reason for this change is described by Palmer in 1832 here  “The church of England, at the revision of our offices in the reign of Edward the Sixth” (i.e. the introduction of the Archbishop Cranmers’ Book of Common Prayer 1549,) “only prescribed public worship in the morning and the evening; and in making this regulation she was perfectly justified: for though it is the duty of Christians to pray continually, yet the precise times and seasons of prayer, termed canonical hours, do not rest on any divine command; nor have they [205] ever been pronounced binding on all churches by any general council: neither has there been any uniformity in the practice of the Christian church in this respect”. Given that the Book of Common Prayer represented the official doctrine of the Church of England there was thus no ‘official’ church instruction to the laity as to the need to perform late night vigils (for more information see  here) It is perhaps for this reason that a hundred or so years later the Protestant clergyman and scholar Anthony Horneck (1681) here writes that  “This Zeal” to perform midnight prayers “in these latter ages is grown cold” and describes the “lukewarmness of the present times” to these nightly devotions, which he says that are now “much out of fashion”. (page 402) Abbot Gasquet in English Monastic Life  here writes that “At seven o’clock in the winter, and eight in the summer, the tolling of the bell called the community to Compline.” Thus “Before half-past seven, then, in winter, and an hour later than this in summer, all would have been in bed, and the busy round of duties, which so completely filled the working day of every mediæval monastery, would have come to an end.” Concerning  Matins Gasquet states that “The night Office in most monasteries began at midnight, although in some places the time varied according to the seasons of the year, from that hour till half-past two or three o’clock.” Once Matins is over “immediately the bells began to ring for Lauds” which “In ancient days the Office of Lauds was called _Matutinæ Laudes_--“the morning praises”-- because they were supposed to be always celebrated at dawn of day. In mediæval monasteries, however, this canonical Hour was generally said or sung, with only a short interval between it and Matins.”  Once Lauds had finished “the community retired once more to the dormitory and to bed. It would have been probably some time about half-past one or two in the morning before the monks found themselves once more in bed for their second period of repose”. Gasquet writes that “It is somewhat difficult to say exactly at what time the Hour of Prime was generally said in a mediæval monastery. It is possible, however, to assume that it was not earlier than six or later than seven o’clock in the morning”. Thus  “At seven o’clock, then, or thereabouts, after the monks had been allowed five hours for the term of their second repose--making with the rest they had had previous to the midnight Office, about eight hours in all”. C. H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (London, 1984) this reference is merely a description of the Rule of Benedict here  John M. Staudenmaier, "What Ever Happened to the Holy Dark in the West? The Enlightenment Ideal and the European Mystical Tradition"  I can find nothing relevant on page 184 referenced by Ekirch here  BACK
© Dr. Neil Stanley 2013-2018