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.
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.