Sleepless in Chicago

I am not getting enough sleep. Sure, it's the second week of term and things have been a bit hectic, what with meeting my new classes and having the usual sleet of committee meetings and student conferences. But it's not that I feel particularly stressed, at least not more than one might expect, nor have I been having any back-to-school anxiety dreams that I am aware of. I'm just not sleeping. Some of it, I know, is the time I am having to spend preparing for class. Even though I have set up both my undergraduate and my graduate courses to be primarily discussion, with the students preparing significant parts of the material to be presented in class, in order to be ready to respond to their presentations and questions, I need to be up on the texts, too. This kind of preparation takes time, even when (as with most of the texts we're discussing) I've read the texts often many times before. And yet, it really shouldn't be taking so much out of me.

I'm wondering whether my relative sleeplessness is somehow a by-product of my centering prayer. I've been doing it now, twice-daily, for a little over two months. I wish I could describe how wonderful it feels. Even when, as is often the case, I find my mind racing while I am sitting in prayer, still I can sense (if sense is the word) something that is not myself, not my intellect, not my imagination. The closest that I have been able to come--and therefore the word that I am using as my sacred word--is love. I feel, no, perhaps more accurately, I know that I am loved and as I am sitting in prayer, I have this deep confidence that, yes, it is true, God loves me. One might expect there to be something, well, more dramatic involved other than this deep feeling of love, but there isn't really. I haven't had any visions or ecstasies or levitations or cosmic awakenings. I just know now that God really is love, God loves me, God loves all of us, God wants to take care of us and heal us, God suffers with our hurts and shares our joys. And yet, God is hardly local even to earth: sometimes I have a sense of the immensity of the universe and how amazing it is that God attends to our tiny planet; but for all that it seems that He shouldn't care about us, He does. Further, I no longer feel the need to prove this in any way or fight about it. I know that it is quite simply true.

Nor, I now realize, does it make any difference to the reality of God's love what other human religious traditions say about God or the divine. I am certain in a way that I had not been before that, yes, God loves us so much that He became incarnate so as to suffer with us and redeem us from our failing to love Him as we should in return. But neither is there really any point in fighting over it: what somebody else believes or does not believe about God's love for us makes no difference to His love. It is there, it is real, and it is everlasting, whether we are paying any attention to it or not. Which is pretty remarkable if you think about it: how could we not notice this great force of love pouring through the universe all the time? Perhaps in much the same way that we seem capable of missing when other people love us; we are so wrapped up in our own anxieties and passions, we miss the smile, the pat on the back, the hug, the email note that says, "I care about you. I'm thinking about you." Think how God must feel with us ignoring Him all the time. As if your spouse or child were trying to get your attention and all you could do was go on about something that was bothering you at work. Or worse: like your spouse or child or parent trying desperately to get in touch with you and you never phoned back. Wouldn't you get a little upset from time to time? And yet, God is always ready to welcome us back into His love.

I have no other way to explain how this prayer is affecting me. I can't sleep in in the mornings because I am so eager to go sit with God. In the afternoons, even when I have had a fairly stressful day, sitting with God for twenty minutes revives me in a way no nap ever could. And no, I am not falling asleep. Nor is this like any meditation I have ever done. Some of the techniques are superficially the same: just sit, don't judge your thoughts but simply let them go by, use the sacred word to help nudge them on their way. It is the intention--to be present for God--that makes it a prayer. And, quite bluntly, gives it its power. It is one thing to sit, observing the breath and trying to stay calm. It is wholly another to sit, surrendering utterly to God, waiting for nothing, expecting nothing, willing only to be present for God. I am always disappointed when the music on my meditation timer returns, signaling that the time for prayer has finished. I want to stay there with God forever, not return to this creaturely world. And yet, in between times for prayer, I find myself calmer, less caught up in many of the things that typically obsess me.

The one thing that I have not yet received is any clear guidance about what I should be doing next. Perhaps, given that this prayer came to me this summer at the very time I was feeling most unhappy with my work, the prayer itself is the answer for now. Other answers will come. In the meantime, I suppose it's like being in love: no wonder I can't sleep. It's only five more hours before I will be with my Love again.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful post, F.B.! I always find that hearing/reading/seeing another person's experience of God's love is another way for me to experience it anew myself. I also know the feeling to be waiting for that lightning bolt moment, only to find later that what I wanted had always been there in the backgrond; all I had to do was see it. I think maybe I should give this centering prayer a try as well. Keep up the good work!


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