Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace. (BCP, 134 – 135)
The above is the Antiphon, or short prayer, found towards the end of night prayers, or Compline, in the Daily Office of the prayer book. It’s also the prayer I recite when tucking Henry (our 7-year old) into bed each night. For me, the theology found in this short prayer is deep and wide. Alternatively, the popular, “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer many of us prayed as children seems shallow and dreary in comparison.
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
For centuries, humanity has been fascinated with sleep and what dreams may come. In every culture there are stories and fairy tales that help make sense of what happens to us when we sleep. Practically speaking, sleep is associated with rest and relief, but within the realm of storytelling, sleep serves greater purposes. When a character from a novel, play, or movie sleeps this often signifies their innocence, while waking up is leaving behind one’s innocence (i.e. Sleeping Beauty). Sometimes when a character sleeps, this signifies an internal struggle – something that must be conquered in their waking life (i.e. Macbeth or Hamlet). Sleeping and awaking also signifies enlightenment (i.e. Buddha), dying and rising (i.e. Elijah under the tree), as well as our place within the passages of time (i.e. Rip van Winkle). Our dreams become montages of the subconscious and whether we pay attention to these flashes of insight hinders or helps the gods of providence.
It’s been said that the stories from the Bible as well as the ancient liturgies of the Church are the dreams of God. Somehow and someway we are invited to participate in these dreams. We read and read into these dreams weekly as a community, and daily as individuals or families. When we wake up from sleep, sometimes we ask our partner or our children, “What did you dream last night?” Sometimes dreams can be remembered; but oftentimes, not. I believe the best ways to remember a dream is to, upon waking, immediately write the dream down, or name it out loud. I had a professor in seminary who said her first words upon waking from sleep were always, “Lord open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” These are the opening lines to Morning Prayer as well as the 15th lyric in Psalm 51. On my good days, I try to follow this practice of hers for in my mind when I recite those lines, I’m not waking up from the dream of God, but continuing in it with more awareness. I am continuing where I left off before sleeping: “Guide us waking, O Lord…” (and now that I’m awake) “may watch with Christ.”
Not all dreams are good. Young parents learn about night terrors from their toddlers. Soldiers often complain of nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD within their waking and sleeping lives. Sometimes we are suddenly awakened in the middle of the night with a deep intuition that something is wrong. In the morning, we learn the truth of this suspension with shock and confusion. If the overarching dream-like theme of the Bible is love, and the overarching theme of Christian liturgy is love incarnate, then our world around us filled with pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth are the villains found in the nightmares of these dreams. These characters assault love; and yet, we must pay attention to them. Somehow and someway we are invited to participate in these dreams whether they comfort or scare us. How do we do this? How do we combat the nightmares and terrors of our lives?
The first step is to remember the true dream. The true dream is God’s love for us and God’s invitation to participate in His Love. This is not merely an ideal. It is ultimate truth. Love is the way, the truth, and the life. Love grounds the very fabric of the universe. There is nothing as deep and wide as love.
Once we know the dream, we are to participate in it. Like Elijah we are to “Get up and eat.” We take our fill from the Bread of Life whom gives us strength for the journey up to Mount Horeb or Calvary – whichever comes first. Participation in the dream of God is anything but easy. The dragons of sin and the beasts of burden, despair, and apathy are all along the hero’s path wanting to destroy the Dreamer that is bigger than the hero; and yet, the hero must act on behalf of the Dreamer.
The third step is to realize that everything belongs to the Dreamer. Everything belongs to God. Give God your hopes, but also give God your nightmares. God is big enough to take them. As Christians we liturgically practice giving our hopes and nightmares to God when we prayer the Prayers of the People collectively, and call on God in intercessory prayer individually. We practice forgiveness because we have been absolved. We practice peace because it has been given to us by Christ. We do these virtuous acts of worship and prayer in order to practice love and remember the truth found in the dream of God.
Denying the dream of God – saying it isn’t real; or worse, actively and intentionally going against the dream and Dreamer – turns heroes into villains and saints into sinners needing redemption. Hell, it seems, is made real, and one is tempted to wonder if Satan wins out in the end. When we find ourselves in these moments of existential unclarity what we must do is to remember the dream. Remember love. What we are to do is pray that God will guide us waking and guard us sleeping. Like a sentinel of Advent, we are to watch with Christ so that in the end, and whether it is sleep or death, we are to rest in peace.
The more I communally participate in the liturgies and practices of the Church – Daily Prayer, weekly Eucharist, monthly confession, and yearly feasts and fasts – not to forget the occasional baptism, and Christian weddings and funerals – the more I am convinced that these ancient practices work. They are not quick fixes, that’s for certain. They are not glamorous or sexy. They do not fit in with any business model or have an entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, they remind me of the dream of God and how I am invited to play a part in it.
As someone who loves the Church and her practices, it saddens me that many in my own generation and younger no longer find its practices and liturgies beneficial. Church is boring; It doesn’t feed me or my soul; I cherish my Sundays – are just some of the responses I get from friends or acquaintances who graciously and candidly share these things with me. Gandhi once famously said that he loved our Christ, but disliked our Christians. “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ,” he quipped. There is some truth to this saying of Gandhi’s as well as the opinions from my own generation; and yet I find hope because the dream of God is still alive. Jesus once invited others to come to him, those who were weak, tired, and weary, and he would give them rest. So many times, people who have been away from the practices of the Church come back out of this sense of tiredness. Like prodigals they return, but I often wonder about the ones who never even had a chance. The ones whom our grandparents would call “lost”. What about them? This isn’t just a problem of our time. It was a struggle for the Church from its very inception. The original Church was made up of Jews (read here insiders) who wondered if the dream of God extended to the Gentiles (read here outsiders). Thank God, the early Church through the theology of St. Paul decided that all were invited to participate in God’s dream through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The early Christians gave their lives for this dream – often bypassing Mt. Horeb to get to the cross of Calvary.
My invitation to you is simple. It’s to ask another person what they dreamed last night? If they can’t remember their dream, get curious about their hopes and dreams for themselves or their families. The point is to get them to talk and for you to listen. It’s to pray for them, but also to keep an ear out for the dream of God in their subjective dreams. If you are so bold, point out where you see God moving in their hopes and dreams. If you are even bolder, share the Church’s dream of God with them. Invite them into full participation into the love, life, and light of God’s dream. If, on the other hand, someone shares with you a nightmare wonder with them if they believe God to be with them in their despair? Wonder with them if they believe God to be suffering alongside them? If the Church is to survive (and I believe She will) it is to not only practice her prayers and liturgies, remembering her dreams and the Dreamer, but it’s also inviting those who don’t yet know her dreams and ultimately her Dreamer into the life of the Church. Introduce someone to the Dreamer this week by asking, “What did you dream last night?”