20220204_155640

We have all experienced sleeplessness. These periods of insomnia can be passing or, sometimes, recurring. The reasons for our inability to drift off into a restful sleep are many. Sometimes anticipation of a happy event has us so excited  we can’t relax.  Unfortunately this is not often the case. Usually we are wakeful because we are stewing about something, or anxious, or worried. We spin our wheels. All the cares of the day loom large in the dark night. And then we worry because we can’t sleep. We toss and turn and the minutes crawl by. It is miserable. St. John Henry Newman was no stranger to sleepless nights. He had periods throughout his life when sleep eluded him. His poem “Sleeplessness” teaches us through the saint’s own experience how we should consider this very human affliction. 

Newman wrote this poem while on his Mediterranean journey with his friend, Richard H. Froude, who was trying to recover from tuberculosis. They were both troubled by the spiritual and doctrinal matters in the Anglican Church.

The first stanza begins with an arresting image highlighting the theme of the poem – that of God who is unwearied. For God there is no day or night, sleep or rest. 

Sleeplessness

UNWEARIED God, before whose face

    The night is clear as day,

Whilst we, poor worms, o’er life’s scant race

    Now creep, and now delay,

We with death’s foretaste alternate

Our labour’s dint and sorrow’s weight,

Save in that fever-troubled state

    When pain or care has sway.

In the fifth line of the stanza Newman uses the poetic trope of equating night’s sleep with death. Sleep breaks up the period of our days which sometimes creep by and sometimes race by for us mortals, who, like worms, have a short life compared to eternity.  Sleep is meant to “alternate” with our days;  however, if we allow “pain or care” to rule our night, then we will experience that troubled state of sleeplessness.

The young Oriel tutor had many cares that weighed upon him. Besides the difficulties within the Anglican Church, he may have also been considering the disagreements he had with Edward Hawkins, the provost at Oriel College, over the role of tutors. Newman thought the tutor should care for the spiritual and moral life of the students assigned to him, not only the studies.

St. John Henry begins the second stanza of this short poem as he did the first, with an arresting image of God. He uses a word which to our modern ears sounds harsh. The word is not harsh in this usage. Newman addresses God as “Dread Lord.” As was his habit in poetry, he liked archaic usage of words. “Dread” here means regarded with awe or with great reverence. It is a term acknowledging God’s power. He uses this word in the same way many times in his Letters and Diaries.  One of the attributes of God’s power is His watchfulness. For Newman, however, God is not only a cold distant ruler; He is Our Maker and Savior. This watchfulness isn’t a passive state but an active one protecting and tending to His beloved creatures. It is part of His glory, but His watchfulness for the cares of mankind is His purview, not ours. The poem continues:

Dread Lord! Thy glory, watchfulness,

    Is but disease in man;

We to our cost our bounds transgress

    In Thy eternal plan:

Pride grasps the powers by Thee display’d,

Yet ne’er the rebel effort made

But fell beneath the sudden shade

    Of nature’s withering ban.

Malta. December 26, 1832.

What we can learn from this poem is that watchful, wakeful worry in the night is transgressing God’s bounds. We feel as though we must depend on ourselves, in our own abilities to make sense of whatever it is that is bothering us instead of placing our trust in God. We wish to “work out” our troubles, forgetting our Revered Lord Who is unwearied and ever watchful. Newman has called this nocturnal worry a “disease” in this hard-hitting poem. What he is suggesting is that anxious sleeplessness is a form of pride. If we consider our sleeplessness as a chance to let go and give God control over our concerns, then a night time trial can become a blessing. Let us practice turning our anxious nights over to Him, in humility, acknowledging His loving protection, our Lord who in His love knows us intimately and has numbered even the very hairs upon our head. 

 

Like this article?

The world which sees only appearances cannot comprehend the hidden reality of a heart captive to Christ. 

With this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we have the indwelling of Christ in our souls. Christ is born in us. The Holy Spirit makes us children of God, crying out Abba Father, and restores in us the likeness of Christ.

Leave a comment

Our Books

About Cardinal John Henry Newman

Purchase Book


A Guide to John Henry Newman will interest educated readers and professors alike, and serve as a text for college seminars for the purpose of studying Newman.

Review by Catherine Maybanks
(Catholic Herald, April 1, 2023)

Review by Serenheed James
(Antiphon, April 2023)

Purchase Book

 
Fr Peter Conley takes us on an exciting journey into the spirituality and inner life of Saint John Henry Newman.
 

Purchase Book


Endorsement by Neyra Blanco (Amazon)
I bought this book for my son and he loved it, he wrote this review and urged my to submitted: “I think this book has a very beautiful message, because it shows how the young Newman was so determined to achieve his dream of becoming a priest, but even after his dream he continued to work in the church with passion until the day he died, it’s so admirable that even Newman so old and so weak still had that urge to continued his work of being a priest. And the book is well written with words not too complicated with very enjoyable texts and well illustrated pictures. I highly recommend this book for a 5th grader.  

Purchase Book


What is a Classical Liberal Arts Education? Why is it so important for the development of a person?

Fr. Juan R. Vélez answers these and more questions you might have about University Education in the 21st century. This book is aimed for parents, prospective University students, and educators. It will help you discern why adding Liberal Arts electives to your education will help it form it better, and help the student learn to reason, and not just learn.

He also explains how many Universities have changed the true meaning of Liberal Arts, and the subjects, and gives advise on how to choose College Campus, Subjects, and Teachers.

A wonderful book that every parent should also read way before your children are College bound. A Liberal Arts education can start earlier in life, even from home.

Purchase Book


Endorsement by Christopher Moellering (Goodreads, September 14, 2019)
In Passion for Truth Fr. Vélez gave us an outstanding biography of Cardinal Newman. In this work, he provides a concise overview of his thought and his devotion. This is a great work for someone who, perhaps hearing of Newman for the first time because of his beatification 13 October, 2019, wants to know more about this English saint.Vélez is a wonderful writer in his own right, and the frequent quotations from Newman round out the work nicely. I especially appreciated the frequent citing of Newman’s Meditations and Devotions, which show a different side of his spirituality than his more well-known works, Development of Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Assent.

Purchase Book


Take Five: Meditations with John Henry Newman, endorsement by Illow M. Roque (Amazon, September 3, 2010)
“There is a time to put direct inquiry on hold and give ourselves to prayer and practical duties.” Sound advice from one of the earlier, thought-provoking reminders in this sparkling gem of a book: Take Five | Meditations with John Henry Newman, written by Mike Aquilina and Fr. Juan R. Vélez and published by Our Sunday Visitor. This particular paragraph, referenced above, which begins with a direct quote from soon-to-be canonized priest, cardinal and poet, John Henry Newman: “Study is good, but it gets us only so far . . .” is actually the 15th in a series of 76 concise, logically organized meditations moving from the elementary to the sublime. Each meditation–one per page–is built upon the great man’s writings and remarkably rich spirituality. Whether taken whole in one reading or in part page-by-page over a course of weeks and months, these wonderfully insightful meditations will open up, even to the busiest reader in the midst of the world, a unique pathway into prayer and contemplation. My advice to spiritual inquirers at all levels, from the novice to the spiritually adept, is to follow the authors’ recommendation to use this book as a guide for daily prayer and meditation. The structure of the book itself is ideal: first, the authors introduce us to Cardinal Newman, the man, where we are given the opportunity to get to know him through a brief sketch of his life and spirituality at the beginning of the book. This is something readers will likely find themselves referring to again and again, prompting many, I suspect, to even wider explorations of this most gifted Christian leader. Then comes the meditations, consisting of a short summary of Newman’s thoughts on subjects taken, as the authors explain, from various salient points for which Newman is justly remembered: The pursuit of objective religious truth; Teaching on the Virtues; Defense of the Catholic Church; A devout spiritual and moral life; and Generosity and loyalty in his friendships, which sets the topic and tone for each meditation to follow. Each meditation consists of an excerpt taken from Newman’s thirty-plus volumes of writings and diaries. Next comes three brief and extremely useful sections entitled: “Think About It,” which establishes a prayerfully resonant tone throughout the book; “Just Imagine,” which provides a vivid, prayerful experience of the Scriptures that tie in, and finally, “Remember,” a pithy summation which the authors suggest may be used as a daily aspiration. Each meditation is given its own page, which makes it ideal for daily reflection for readers on the go. This book is a must have for every serious Catholic who wants to take their faith to the next level, which is to respond appropriately to the universal call to holiness and seek interior union with God.
About Newman
Fr. Juan Velez

The Indwelling Spirit

With this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we have the indwelling of Christ in our souls. Christ is born in us. The Holy Spirit makes us children of God, crying out Abba Father, and restores in us the likeness of Christ.

Read More »
Sermon Blog
David Warren

The Fellowship of the Apostles

Preaching the truth means Jesus Christ is the goal in our conflicts with others – not winning the argument. This is why we can approach everyone with understanding, respect and patience, in other words, in a Christ-like way.

Read More »
About Newman
Prof. Barb H. Wyman

Many Called, Few Chosen

Though the invitation is open to all, not everyone responds to it in faith. Those who accept the call, embrace Christ, and live according to His teachings; they are the chosen ones.

Read More »
Sermon Blog
Fr. Juan Velez

The Gospel Feast

John Henry Newman calls the Holy Mass the Gospel Feast and takes us through numerous biblical passages that prefigure this great Sacrament.

Read More »