Magazine article The Christian Century

Late-Night Solidarity: An Insomniac's Prayer Practice

Magazine article The Christian Century

Late-Night Solidarity: An Insomniac's Prayer Practice

Article excerpt

INSOMNIA. IS bothering a lot of us now. It isn't easy to let go of the day's news reports, worries, and fears. Emily Dickinson writes of the "larger--Darknesses--/ Those Evenings of the Brain" when we're unable to sleep, our thoughts running wild. "The Bravest," she says, "grope a little," until "they learn to see" and

   Either the Darkness alters--
   Or something in the sight
   Adjusts itself to Midnight--
   And Life steps almost straight.

But what allows this glimpse of light in the darkest hour of the night? What do we do as we struggle at 2 a.m. to fall asleep again?

Thirty years ago, I bought a set of Muslim prayer beads from a man in the Old City of Jerusalem. It has 99 beads for the 99 names of God. There are nights now when I find myself thumbing my way through those beads as I lie in bed. I use a number of different mantras, following Richard Rohr's counsel to pray "in all the holy names of God."

It seems right in this time of insomnia to join those who address God with different names than I use, praying their own prayers along with them. I see it as an effort to reach across old boundaries, boundaries now eclipsed by the starker separation of social distancing. What we've never been able to confess together in creed, we're now able to pray together in need.

Muslims put special emphasis on the first two of the 99 names of God, praying "in the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful" (Bismillah irRahman ir-Raheem). I begin with that phrase, saying it over and over to myself, honoring the most important things that can be said about God in the Islamic tradition. Then I move on to the holy Shema used by Jews as they pray each day: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One" (Sh'ma, Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad). I then move to a prayer from my own Christian tradition, the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me" (Kyrie Iesou Christe, eleison me).

An uncanny calm comes over me as I repeat these three phrases in the dark. Tears often come to my eyes as I put myself in the place of others, feeling the intensity of their prayers. I'm aware of my own frailty as I struggle to pronounce (so very poorly) the words of other languages. But over time they become familiar, even natural--as I share in the cries that are pouring from so many hearts. I

I visited southern Spain just before the coronavirus hit. I was intentional about reciting these three prayers in every mosque, cathedral, and synagogue I entered. …

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