Saints who Gave Up Sleep
How many hours of sleep do you get a night?
In the United States, the average person gets 6.8 hours of sleep per night. Given that the recommended amount by some government agencies is 7 hours per night, that sounds pretty good. However, that actually means that 35% of Americans do not get enough sleep. And furthermore that sleep-deprivation apparently costs $411 billion.
Well, what does that have to do with the saints?
The answer is that I would like to talk about the saints and sleep.
As you might already know, there are some saints who are well known for their sleep habits. Or shall I say there lack of sleep habits.
Let's countdown the hours of sleep for some saints.
Two Hundred Years of Sleep
In the year 250, the emperor Decius issued an edict that throughout the Roman Empire, everyone, except Jews, was required to burn incense to the Roman gods and for the health of the emperor. The sacrifice was to be made in the presence of a Roman official and a certificate was to be issued upon successful completion or the mandated sacrifice.
Although considered more of an act of loyalty than an attempt to persecute Christians, it put the young Church on notice that laws would be passed that would be in direct contradiction to the Faith.
Seven soldiers from Ephesus had converted to Christianity, and they refused to follow through with the order. There names are Maximian, Marcus, Martinianus, Dionysius, John, Serapion, and Constantine. As a punishment, the they were put in a cave outside the city. The cave was then sealed in order for them to die by starvation.
After their act of loyalty to the Lord, the seven fell into a deep sleep in the cave. As the legend goes, in fact, they fell into a miraculous sleep that lasted around 200 years.
The story continues around the year 447, when the cave was reopened by a man who wanted to use it for his cattle. The seven awoke and found the cave opened.
Thinking that they were somehow freed after only a night's rest, they went into the city and were amazed at the changes they saw including the acceptance of Christianity. The people of the time wondered at these strange men who were trying to use old coins to buy bread.
At the time, there were controversies regarding false teachings about the resurrection of the body and life after death. The bishop of Ephesus met with the seven who told their story and gave testimony to the true teaching of the Faith on these matters. After that they died, and they were given a proper burial in the cave.
The story spread throughout the middle ages and the site became a place of pilgrimage, and numerous people were buried in the cave.
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Five Hours of Sleep
Moving from the legendary to the practical, there is the gentle St. Francis de Sales (1567 - 1622), as a matter of course, he only slept five hours per night. He was a disciplined person, and kept this practice for various reasons including keeping up with his vast correspondence as Bishop of Geneva and a spiritual adviser to many.
Apparently, instead of thinking that he would catch up on his sleep over the weekend, he once noted that, "We shall have all eternity in which to rest."
Four or Five Hours of Sleep
The very jovial St. Philip Neri (1515 - 1595) was known to only take about four or five hours of sleep per night. He was a man of modest living. The furniture in his room consisted of a bed, a table, a few chairs, and a clothesline he used to hang up his clothes. And apparently, he often decided to sleep on the floor rather than the bed.
That discipline being considered, he was not reluctant to go to sleep and mentioned that, "When a man really loves God, he comes to such a state in the end that he is obliged to say, 'Lord, let me get some sleep!'"
Three Hours of Sleep
St. John Vianney (1786 - 1859) was a poor student, and he struggled with the necessary course work required for the priesthood. Trusting in the Lord's calling him to become a priest, he persevered and was ordained.
After barely passing the necessary qualifications for the priesthood, St. John Vianney was assigned to the backwater town of Ars, France where it was reasoned that he could not do too much harm and perhaps, he could do some good. After all, although not much of a town, Ars had a reputation as a place of immorality and low adherence to the Faith.
Through prayer, penance, suffering, and administration of the sacraments, he turned the town upside down. The town which used to be known mainly for its bars and cabarets, became a place of pilgrimage for repentant sinners.
Word spread about this holy priest who administered God's mercy in the confessional and was able to read souls to help guide them back to the Lord. In France, at the time, priests were given a list of recommended penances for penitents. The list was quite comprehensive and cumulative. St. John thought that it was too harsh. Many times instead of prescribing the full list of penances which were recommended, he gave the penitent a lighter penance and took on the rest of the recommended penance himself.
As a result, St. John Vianney worked around the clock celebrating mass, hearing confessions, administering the other sacraments, and making penance for sinners. In addition, he was a champion for the poor through his efforts to insure that they did not have to work on Sunday, donating funds to help them, and starting an orphanage for girls. During the last 10 years of his life, he would spend as many as 16 to 18 hours a day in the confessional.
What did this cost him? Well, quite a bit, including sleep. He typically only slept three hours a night. And many times that sleep was disturbed because he experienced demonic attacks at night.
No Sleep for Twenty Days
Like many of the Desert Fathers, St. Macarius (c.300 - 390) was given to some extreme forms of asceticism. It was said that when he learned that another monk of the desert was practicing some type of mortification, he would attempt to replicate it and maybe even go one better. If someone was living on a pound of bread a day, he would try to live on less than that.
Thus, it was reported that at one point in time, after he learned of others going without sleep, he went twenty days without sleep. These types of practices did not seem to cause too much harm to him as he lived to around 90 years of age.
For Those Who Doze
Certainly, these might seem rather extreme to us, but they should all be judged not by our perspective but by the time in which these saints lived. It could easily be said that many of them lived in times that required much more robust living than we need today. And therefore, they were better suited for living with less sleep.
Also, it should be noted, that there are plenty of other historical figures, who are not saints, that lived on much less sleep than we expect today.
Finally, for those of us who struggle with sleep and may even doze off at inopportune times, we have the help of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She freely admitted that she would fall asleep during the morning meditation. In response, she wrote, "But I reflect that little children awake or asleep are equally dear to their parents." Therefore, she felt confident that to her Heavenly Father she was still a dear child although she slept when she was supposed to be praying.
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Want to Learn More About the Habits of the Saints?
In A Bedside Book of Saints, Fr. Aloysius Roche shares the full humanity of the saints through precious ancedotes of their lives. Through the short quotes and recounting of stories, we see how God created each of His saints, and indeed each of us, as unique creatures with different dispositions, likes, and gifts.
Consider this nugget that is from the book and shows the humility and playfulness of St. John Vianney. For many years, there were a great number of people including fellow priests who wanted to see St. John removed as the parish priest of Ars because they considered him a hapless priest. A petition was started in order to request his removal. Accordingly, St. John signed the petition himself and remarked that with his signature added, the efforts for his removal must surely succeed. Nonetheless, despite his agreement with their sentiments that he was wholly inadequate as a priest, he remained the priest of Ars until he passed away.
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