We often hear that Americans are not getting enough sleep. Electric lights (and now devices with screens) are usually cited as the culprits, and Thomas Edison gets blamed for saying we should all sleep less. But the Catholic saints had the same opinion. The shorter their nights were, the more time they could devote to prayer and charitable work.
I just finished reading Father Aloysius Roche’s Bedside Book of Saints, and it’s clear to me that the saints would take issue with several ideas promoted by sleep experts today, including advice for insomnia sufferers looking for a better night’s sleep.
Most Adults Need 7 to 8 Hours of Sleep a Night
I doubt the saints would agree. The story is that Saint Macarius went without sleep for 20 days at a time but lived to the ripe old age of 90. Such a steady diet of sleep deprivation would surely be the ruin of modern Americans. We hear about the nasty consequences of sleep deprivation all the time: Insulin resistance will develop and later, diabetes. Stress hormones will flood our bodies and put us at risk for heart disease. Plaques will form in our brains. Dementia will set in.
Likewise, Saint Elphide, Saint Colette, and Saint Catherine de Ricci purportedly went for long periods without sleep.
Did they suffer as a result? No, says Father Roche. Going without sleep was “a miraculous privilege akin to that of those who lived without any other nourishment than the Holy Eucharist.”
Go to Bed and Get Up at the Same Time Every Day
Saints in the contemplative orders might agree with this advice, bound as they were to rigid schedules 24/7. But not Saint Catherine of Siena. She embraced insomnia, sleeping briefly every two nights. This she called “paying the debt of sleep to the body.” As if to say, “Sleep is a bother, but at least I can dispense with it every other night.”
Make the Last Hour before Bed a “Wind-Down” Time
The need for a “wind-down” period before bed would probably have puzzled the saints. Sure, life was full of mortification and risk-taking for the boldest among them, yet they had one big advantage over most of us today, says Father Roche: their minds and hearts were in a habitual state of tranquility.
“The Saints were free from the guilty worries and anxieties which undermine the repose of the worldly,” he writes. “They had that most restful of all pillows—a good conscience.”
So there would be no need to wind down at the approach of bedtime. On the contrary, the saints often did their best to stay awake. Saint Dorotheus kept himself up making mats. Saint Jerome tried to stay awake and when he found himself nodding off, he “dashed himself upon the ground.” (Readers undergoing sleep restriction, take note!)
Make Sure Your Bed Is Comfortable
The saints would have dismissed the notion of a comfortable bed as self-indulgent. Why sleep in comfort when there were other, more righteous ways to sleep: on the ground (Saint Martin of Tours), on the straps at the bottom of a chair (Saint Dominic), or sitting upon a stone (Saint Pachomius).
Saint Charles Borromeo normally slept in a chair. He was eventually persuaded to sleep on a mattress, but it had to be made of straw. His advice for people complaining about a cold bed was rather chilly, notes Father Roche:
“The best way not to find the bed too cold is to go to bed colder than the bed is,” the saint said.
Do Not Read in Bed
The saints would definitely have disagreed with this rule of good sleep hygiene. Pious reading was exactly what one was supposed to do in bed (when not praying).
And maybe Saint Jerome’s advice will be useful for at least some insomnia sufferers looking for a better night’s sleep: “Let holy reading be always at hand,” he said. “Sleep may fall upon thee as thou lookest thereon, and the sacred page meet the drooping face.”