The stress of 2020 through the present has caused many, including myself, to lose sleep. I cannot count the number of nights I have laid awake for more than an hour, and I often don’t fall back asleep until minutes before my alarm is set to go off. One sleepless night, I remembered a spiritual practice that had offered profound efficacy to me in the past.
Night Vigil is a spiritual exercise from Early Christian Mysticism, whereby one enters into contemplative prayer in the middle of the night. The Holy Spirit might either awaken us to pray, or our concerns become the cause for interrupted sleep and therefore a reason to pray. Because our defenses and distractions are minimal in the middle of the night, we can devote ourselves more fully to the voice of God.
Granted, when we cannot fall asleep, one of the last things we may want to do is pray. We generally seek that which might bring immediate comfort, such as TV, podcasts, music, and food.
But only the Spirit can bring lasting comfort. And amid our worries, especially during this pandemic, we must be vigilant when the Spirit prompts us.
Why would God want to “interrupt” our precious sleep?
- We have too much going on during the day, and are not disposed to hearing God’s voice.
- The Divine Physician wishes to offer us healing, and the nighttime might be when our souls are most disposed to receive this healing.
Alternatively, God might not be the one “interrupting” our sleep. Rather, our own anxieties might be invading our resting stage. But even in these instances, we ought to turn to prayer, for only God can free us from these anxieties.
Night Vigil is a prayer of silence. We simply rest with the Holy Trinity, and in that stillness we can experience the love and gentle promptings the Trinity is offering to us. One of the ways we can enter into this silence is by paying attention to our breath. The consciousness of breathing in and out can allow us to be present, centered, and mindful. Some also find it helpful to use a Christian mantra such as the Jesus Prayer to become still and attuned to the Divine Trinity.
Following Night Vigil, I experience so much lightness and peace, and I more than often fall back asleep with great ease. I am more rested following Night Vigil than if I had an uninterrupted night of sleep. I believe the reason for this is the encounter with the healing presence of the Holy Trinity during Night Vigil, Who offers renewal and strength.
For those with families or who live with other people, Night Vigil might be the only means available for personal contemplative prayer. Many people are working from home, and their children are attending Zoom classes. Our responsibilities and preoccupations have grown, while our opportunities for self-care and time with God have diminished.
Yet it is during these heightened stressful times that we need God the most. Night Vigil, while ostensibly inconvenient, offers a way to offer the Trinity our complete and undivided attention. We can be with the Lord without spending time away from our spouse, children, work and daily duties. During Night Vigil, we can be with God completely.
I discovered this ancient spiritual practice during an unlikely time and from an unlikely source.
While I was on a 30-Day Silent Retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I often found myself awake in the middle of the night. Concurrently during the retreat, I had been reading Fr. George Maloney, SJ’s Inward Stillness, from which is where I first learned about Night Vigil. Interestingly, a Jesuit’s book introduced me to this early Christian heyschastic form of prayer during an Ignatian retreat. This is unique since Ignatian spirituality is kataphatic and image-oriented, whereas Night Vigil is apophatic and contemplative. But the hallmark of Ignatian spirituality is an openness to how God chooses to work in a soul (SpEx 15). And given my Eastern Catholic background with roots to the Early Christians, the Spirit was definitely appealing to my individuality.
Fr. Maloney also has a unique background. He entered the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus, and was ordained in Rome as a priest of the Russian Byzantine Rite in 1957. While in Rome, Maloney earned a doctorate at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in 1962.
Following his time in Rome, Maloney founded the John XXIII Institute for Eastern Christian Studies at Fordham University. In 1965, he initiated an ecumenical journal, Diakonia, to promote dialogue between Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics. Additionally, Fr. Maloney was the editor of all the Eastern articles for the New Catholic Encyclopedia. During his lifetime, he wrote more than 80 books, journals and articles on Eastern Christian spirituality. Maloney spent the latter part of his life giving retreats as the international director of Contemplative Ministries, based in Southern California, and later moved his ministry base to Asheville, North Carolina. Towards the end of this life, he served as a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Fr. Maloney passed away in 2005, but his rich spirituality lives on both in his writings and those who benefit from them. I am grateful that the Spirit introduced me to Night Vigil through Maloney’s writings, a practice that allows me to draw near to the Lord and experience the Trinity in the stillness of the night, dispelling anxiety and filling me with God’s peace.
Matt Kappadakunnel is a finance professional who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children. He is from the Syro-Malabar Eastern Catholic Rite and has ancestral ties to the Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church. Previously, Matt spent a few years studying to be a Catholic priest, culminating in graduate studies at Fordham University. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charter holder.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.