We must be sure that even the most mortified among the saints were as glad to get to bed as we are. “When a man really loves God,” St. Philip Neri said, “he comes to such a state in the end that he is obliged to say, ‘Lord, let me get some sleep.’ ”
One of the Psalms has this verse: “The saints shall be joyful on their beds”; and if this refers to Paradise, then, in one of the others, David says, “I have remembered Thee upon my bed.”
St. Thérèse, in her Histoire d’une ame, confides all her weaknesses to us and among them that she used to doze during the morning meditation. “But I reflect that little children awake or asleep are equally dear to their parents.” The Gospel can find some excuse even for the three Apostles who slept in the Garden of Gethsemane, leaving our Lord to watch alone. “Their eyes were heavy,” it says; and our Lord Himself, although He mildly rebuked them, did not wake them up. “Sleep on now, and take your rest.”
St. Clement the Pope, a disciple of St. Peter, tells us that the apostle was fond of recalling details of our Lord’s goodness to His disciples, and among them, that when He was traveling with them through Judea, He would often visit them during the night to make sure that they were warm and well covered.
The early ascetics certainly made heroic efforts to confine sleep within the narrowest possible limits; but needless to say, they were never able to dispense with this necessity. It is related of St. Christine, St. Colette, St. Catherine of Ricci, St. Elphide, St. Flore, Bl. Agatha of the Cross, and others that they lived for long periods without the blessing of sleep. This, however, was a miraculous privilege akin to that of those who lived without any other nourishment than the Holy Eucharist.
St. Macarius is said to have gone without sleep for twenty days at a time; St. Dorotheus kept himself awake at night by making mats, and St. Jerome tells us how, when sleep crept over him in spite of his efforts, he dashed himself upon the ground. St. Catherine of Siena took a short sleep only every two nights, and this she called “Paying the debt of sleep to the body.” St. Martin of Tours usually slept on the ground, and St. Paula never slept in bed, even during illness. For fifteen years, St. Pachomius took his repose sitting upon a stone. St. Charles Borromeo usually slept in a chair or on the top of the bed in his clothes. When at last he was induced to get right into bed, he insisted on having a mattress of straw. He is responsible for one of the chilliest pieces of advice ever given by a saint: “The best way not to find the bed too cold is to go to bed colder than the bed is.”
But, of course, such extremes must be judged not by our ideas of comfort and convenience, but by theirs. These saints lived in very robust times and in much warmer climates than ours; and, after all, the bed matters but little, provided there is sound and refreshing sleep. Probably they slept far more soundly than do we. And others besides saints have managed very well with a small amount of sleep.
Sleep is like food; some require more than others, and the quantity of each is very largely a matter of custom. We find no difficulty in persuading ourselves that we require a good deal of both; and the saints, with like facility, persuaded themselves that they required very little. Nature is very adaptable. It is astonishing what we can quite conveniently do without when it comes to the point, and it is perhaps safe to say that the system accustoms itself with greater ease to privations than to excesses. Gradual and systematic practice made their mortifications a second nature to the saints. We have already seen with what prudence St. Simeon habituated himself to his perch on the top of the pillar; and it is related of St. Peter of Alcantara that he inured himself to his vigils by degrees, taking care that they should never be prejudicial to his health.
And, besides, the saints had this enormous advantage: their minds and hearts were in a habitual state of tranquility. Nothing exhausts the springs of our vitality more readily than our disorderly passions, our inordinate ambitions, and the multiplicity of our desires. The saints were free from the guilty worries and anxieties that undermine the repose of the worldly. They had that most restful of all pillows: a good conscience. If the truth were known, perhaps St. Peter of Alcantara had in a week more hours of genuine natural sleep than many of the butterflies of society enjoy in a month.
The saints never hesitated to deprive themselves of sleep and rest in the interest of what they conceived to be duty or charity. There is nothing fanatical about that, because men and women of the world do the same for their own ends. The House of Commons thinks nothing of protracting its sittings right through the night. People will sit all night in a queue at the doors of a theater. During the trial of Marie Antoinette, as Belloc relates, “none in the staring audience that watched the slow determination of the business would suffer the approach of sleep.”
The prudent Rule of St. Benedict allowed each monk a mat, a blanket, a rug, and a pillow. They were also commanded to sleep in their habits, and from the point of view of comfort, this must have been an improvement on the common custom of sleeping without nightclothes of any description. St. Jerome’s pillow, like Jacob’s, was made of stone; but St. Francis of Assisi had a feather pillow that the Brethren compelled him to use on account of the infirmity of his eyes. When he was in the hermitage at Greccio and could not sleep, he blamed the Devil for it. “I do perceive that this Devil is passing crafty, forasmuch as not being able to do a hurt unto my soul, he is fain to hinder a necessity of my body in such sort that I cannot sleep, and by this means to hinder the cheerfulness of my heart.”
Those who find it difficult to get up in the morning — that is to say, nearly everybody — will rejoice to know that there is a saint who makes it his business to come to the rescue of this particular infirmity. He is St. Vitus, or Guy, a martyr who suffered in the fourth century and whose very appropriate symbol is a rooster.
A monastic chronicle tells us of a saintly old woman employed to ring the bell for the offices of the Church of St. Romuald in Malines. The chronicle praises the fidelity and the punctuality of this woman and relates as a thing to be remembered and extolled that she kept a rooster to serve as an alarm clock, lest she might fail in her duty. If she had been canonized, she would certainly be par excellence the patron of all sluggards.
Should this book fall into the hands of the bedridden, it will console such to know that there were saints, and many of them, who did little else here below except sanctify their sick beds. Anne Catherine Emmerich, Bl. Anna Maria Taigi, St. Veronica Guiliani, and St. Marie Frances were bedridden. Bl. Marie Bagnesi, the Dominican tertiary, was for forty-five years prostrated by illness and, according to the Bollandists, had hardly one of her members intact. St. Frica was confined to bed with paralysis for six years; and we are told that she suffered intensely from the rats that attacked her when her mother was out in the town begging for bread.
It is very doubtful if sickness will ever be banished from the world. In spite of the admirable efforts of science, there is still disease and deformity. Very few are quite as well as they would like to be, and some are more unfortunate than others. St. Teresa thought that there ought to be an invalid in every community; and perhaps God will always permit chronic infirmity to fall upon this one or that in order to give His creatures an opportunity of glorifying Him by their patience and resignation. “Sickness,” said one of the saints, “sanctifies quicker than anything else” — yes, if it is rightly understood and accepted in a supernatural spirit. Sometimes it is God’s last resource in His providential plan of saving us, and if it fails, our case is very desperate indeed.
Bad health is not a blessing, by any means. But if ill health comes, in spite of all our care, we can, at least, make a virtue of its necessity, as God’s servants did, one of whom said, “To carry the Cross is to make the Cross carry us.”
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from a chapter in Fr. Aloysius’ A Bedside Book of Saints, available from Sophia Institute Press.