“Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake.
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Such a dark, dark lullaby. Such a dark, dark good night prayer to rock the baby to sleep. For three hundred years parents have used this prayer to tuck their little ones into bed. Night, night little children. You might wake up dead. “Now I lay me down to sleep” is the opening verse of The New England Primer of 1711: Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes. Boston Babes – sinners from their mothers’ wombs. 18th century life on the Massachusetts Bay could be cold and brief. Sadly even infant souls were depraved and needed to be saved.
“Now I lay me down to sleep” is nearly as familiar as the Our Father. But the words, I believe, would better keep a baby awake than put the baby to sleep. Chanted like a nursery rhyme, the dark verse was often the first prayer a child might learn. A night time prayer. A nightmare prayer that we dare not teach our children anymore.
There should be nothing more peaceful than rocking a baby to sleep. Nighttime rituals are some of childhood’s most cherished memories. With my own three children — I remember singing lullabies off key, fetching glasses of water, and checking under beds for monsters. We read and reread and read again “Goodnight Moon!” and “In the Night Kitchen” and “Where the Wild Things Are” (where Max gets sent off to bed without his supper.) We’d say the Lord’s Prayer, check the closet one last time for anything that might go bump in the night, banish the darkness and then turn off the light.
While the night still lurked outside their door. While the dark still kissed the windowpanes.
There is no taking the darkness out of bedtime. It just cannot be done. Disney tried to do it with Sleeping Beauty – a great disappointment to the Brothers Grimm. And even as grownups — as we lay ourselves down to sleep – and pray the Lord our souls to keep – it just cannot be done.
Everyone has their share of dark nights of the soul. This is where Compline gets complicated. And in my case — bipolar complicated.
“The Lord Almighty grant me a peaceful night and a perfect end.”
Off to bed. Over and over I turn over. And I turn over in my head all of the things done and left undone. All the things I should have said, could have said. All the things I could have done, should have done. My fault, my fault, my fault. My most grievous fault.
“O God make speed to save me, O God make haste to help me.”
And then just out of earshot I hear — Elvis the King — a lullaby sing:
Yesterday is dead and gone,
And tomorrow’s out of sight,
And it’s sad to be alone.
Help me make it through the night.
Lord God Almighty, help me make it through the night.
Turn on the light. Turn off the light. Turn on the light. Read, read, read. The same chapter. The same paragraph. The same sentence. Silently and aloud. Silently and aloud.
“Be my light in the darkness, Lord. Illumine the night with celestial brightness.” Please.
Bump. Thump. Bump. Thump. Dear God, what’s that noise?
“Let me lie down in peace, Lord, please. Let me fall asleep, for only you Lord make me dwell in safety.”
Waking dreams. Scattered scenes. Faces I don’t quite recognize. Voices I can’t quite understand. I think “the devil does prowl like a roaring lion.”
“Visit this place O Lord, deliver me from the snares of my enemy.” Deliver me. Please.
Rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye myself to sleep, rattling beads and counting sheep. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Glory be.
“From my labors Lord, give me rest.” Please, Lord, please.
Knock, knock, knockin’ on the heavenly door. Knock, knock, knock. You said you’d answer. Knock, knock, knock. No one answers.
“Answer me when I call, O God. defender of my cause.” Please, God, PLEASE.
Sleepless walking. Up and down stairs. In and out of rooms. Sleepless talking. Talking to someone not there. Talking to the air.
“Incline your ear to me. Make haste to deliver me.” NOW.
Turn on the TV. Turn off the TV. Write, write, write. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Pull out the prayer book and recite:
“Keep me O Lord as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings.” PLEASE. PLEASE. PLEASE.
In my head I hear BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ. The music plays and the Roches sing: “Break forth O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning.”
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Exhausted I climb under the covers one last time.
God gave me no “peaceful night” and no “perfect end” but I am finally, finally asleep. Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.
I sleep ’til half past eleven, roll out bed, jump in the shower and am at work by noon.
This is how the bipolar clock ticks and tocks. — on my one of many – manic dark nights of the soul. Mine may be different in kind — but I believe — it is the same species of dark night — known by all the souls known to God. As the night falls fast, restless and weary we all fall to our knees and pray.
And on such a night there is no better prayer – than this prayer from Compline, from the Book of Common Prayer.
“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night; and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary; bless the dying; soothe the suffering; pity the afflicted; shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.”
“Guide us waking, O Lord, and guide us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”
Amen. Amen. Amen.
Special Note: I want you to know I stayed up all night writing this!