Through the intuitions of love, more than through the liveliness of the imagination, we have often constructed interiorly an arresting scene: the ominous sky, the wild winds, a little boat tossed by the seething waves of Lake Tiberias, with Jesus asleep in the stern. What a contrast between the fury of the tempest and the sweet, majestic peace of the divine slumber! The omnipotent, the Most High, He who is infinite activity because He is infinite perfection and unfailing felicity, surrendered to that sure sign of limitation and misery: sleep.
What would the sleeping Jesus be like? St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus states that children please their parents just as well asleep as awake. To souls enamored of Jesus, the Beloved is as beautiful in the silence of His sleep as in the zenith of His activity. Jesus is always beautiful, always great, always divine, “altogether desirable,” as the Song of Solomon declares.
The gentle Virgin Mary often contemplated the ineffable beauty of Jesus asleep. With the eyes of a mother, a lover, and an artist, she enjoyed the celestial delight of that marvelous divine beauty. What mildness in that incomparably comely countenance! What harmony in that motionless body! What majesty in that sweet repose! What radiations emanated from that sacred humanity quietly resting there.
Jesus was exceedingly beautiful when He spoke words of eternal life, accomplished wonders, looked with love, pardoned with mercy, and caressed with tenderness. But I would like to have seen Him while He was sleeping because I could have contemplated Him to my heart’s content, without the fascination of His gaze distracting me, without the perfection of His beauty and the glory of His splendor dazzling my eyes and enrapturing my soul. The beauty of Jesus awake is too great for my smallness. Who could support it? I feel it more suited to me veiled by sleep, as the glory of the sun is more adapted to my eyes when I look at it through a translucent lens.
Mary most holy must have watched the sleep of Jesus many times. Mary’s ecstatic eyes would never tire of looking at her divine Son. With holy liberty, she covered Him with the kisses of her virginal lips as her immaculate hands caressed Him tenderly. If we had seen Jesus asleep, small and helpless as we are, we too would have dared to caress Him without reserve and to lull His mystical sleep with our timorous but ardent kisses.
Great artists striving to express the contrasts involved in the strength of repose have succeeded in producing the impression of an immobility filled with power, a calm of restrained activity, an activity that is its own mistress. Through the magic of art, incompatibles — majestic repose and animated activity — are united.
Through a divine art, this mighty contrast is realized in an indescribable manner in Jesus asleep. With the person of Jesus, the phrase of the Song of Solomon, “I slept, but my heart was awake,” is not a figure of speech used in the language of love, but a profound reality of the divine order. His sleep was like ours, because He took on Himself our miseries. His exterior and interior senses during sleep had that mysterious ligature which wise men have not yet explained satisfactorily. Sleep was not for Him, as it is for us, a suspension of our active life mingled with an occasional flash or mysterious phantasm of light and action. Although the lower part of His most holy soul was plunged in shadows, the higher part opened fully to the light of glory and the Beatific Vision far beyond the need of bodily aid, nourished in the unfailing torrent of the divinity.
The profound understanding of Jesus was flooded with celestial splendor. Beatific love burned in His Heart, enveloping with flames of blessedness and glory that Sacred Heart ever alert for love, ever living to make to His Father the holocaust of His tenderness, ever active to pour into souls the treasures of His mercy.
In the presence of that regal immobility and the divine silence of that most comely body, could one guess the interior glory? Through the delicate, celestial veil of human sleep, could penetrating and loving eyes like those of the Virgin discover the deep secret of the interior joy of Jesus?
The Apostles, with their narrow, human judgment, because they had not yet received from the Paraclete the deep sense of the divine, did not suspect on Tiberias the mystery of that Heart which was always watching.
Frightened by the din of the storm, they awakened Jesus to command the winds and the tempest. “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” the Master asked them. They did not yet have it in the plenitude they were to receive in the Cenacle. They did not understand that even though we need to be awake to exercise our limited activity, Jesus, even as man, concealed under the mystery of His sleep the limitless power of the Beatific Vision.
Who can comprehend the sleep of Jesus? Who can conceive the strikingly beautiful contrast between the summit of that soul bathed in the light of glory and the lower part covered with the shadows of sleep, like the earth immersed in the sun’s glory in one hemisphere and submerged in the calm of night in the other?
Christ works in your soul even as He sleeps
Jesus lives mystically in souls, reproducing in them all the mysteries of His mortal life. With the keen intuition of her love, St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus understood the mystery of this mystical sleep, expressing it with her inimitable language, full of ingenuous and truest poetry: “Jesus slept in my boat, as was His wont. But how rarely will souls allow Him to sleep in peace. Wearied with making continual advances, our good Master readily avails Himself of the repose I offer Him, and in all probability will sleep on till my great and everlasting retreat; this, however, rather rejoices than grieves me.”
Who else would have thought of interpreting the dark, painful chasm of spiritual desolation with such amiable, heavenly light? Almost all souls are disconcerted by desolation. They conclude that Jesus has gone away, that the sweet visits of former times, bright and fragrant as a spring garden, were a fleeting dream, an idyl interrupted through their own infidelity and ingratitude. They fear that the love so sweet, so deep, and so sure, to which Jesus invited them, has been turned into hate, as happens to all love that meets with neglect. In their unspeakable agony, these poor souls hold the firm conviction that the Beloved has fled from them, perhaps not to return, bearing away with Him the entrancing perfumes of Heaven, the divine clarity that illuminated life’s pathway, and the holy consolations superior to all earthly joys.
These desolate souls surmise everything except that Jesus is only sleeping within them, just as He slept in the little bark on Tiberias while the wind roared and the tempest raged. Only the pure eyes of the gentle child of Lisieux, only her gaze of love could discover the secret of a lover. Jesus has not gone away, nor will He ever leave, because love, strong as death, never departs, and its divine ardor cannot be extinguished by the torrents of our ingratitude. Jesus continues to live in the soul to whom He pledged love, because His name is Faithful and True. He sleeps sweetly in that soul which belongs to Him, because it surrendered itself to Him, attracted by His irresistible fragrance.
Could that consoling idea of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus be an effort of an ingenuous and charming optimism to cover with a veil of piety the blackness of a terrible pain in order to endure it, or is there hidden under a precious symbolism a profound reality concealed from the eyes of the wise and prudent and revealed only to the little ones? The exceedingly deep love of the Carmelite virgin for truth and her remarkable sanctity, attested to by the Church, shows unmistakably that the girl saw clearly and deeply into the divine mystery. Jesus needs to sleep in souls so that they may contemplate the exquisite beauty of His slumber, so that the divine Heart which watches while He sleeps may accomplish in silence the prodigies of purity and love that Jesus ordinarily accomplishes only in the midst of tempests and in the mystery of His sleep.
Like the Apostles, souls want to awaken Jesus when the storm threatens. What will they do without Him? Passions that seem conquered rise with new vigor. A darkness like that of death covers the sky of the soul, once a bright blue. The whistling of a hurricane disturbs the soul with gloomy, desolate, despairing ideas that seem to come out of Hell. The frail little bark of the soul is about to capsize, and Jesus sleeps. “Master,” the soul cries to Him, like the Apostles on Lake Tiberias, “do You not care if we perish?” And Jesus, when He does awake — the time of trial seems so prolonged — speaks to the soul as to the disciples in the little boat: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”
Just as it was unnecessary to awaken Jesus on Tiberias, it is unnecessary that He be awake in souls to give them life. The words of the Song of Solomon may also be applied to His mystical sleep: “I sleep, but my heart watches.” Yes, Jesus watches solicitously in souls that love, even though they feel that He has abandoned them. Love does not abandon. Jesus is there in the depth of the soul. He seems to sleep because the soul does not hear His refreshing voice, because it does not enjoy His celestial consolations. But the Heart of Jesus is always watching with His inextinguishable love, with His incessant actions, with His tender care more solicitous each day.
If only one might know the fecundity of Jesus in His mystical sleep! He works in the soul with the same efficacy as when awake — perhaps with greater efficacy. Divine consolations dilate the heart, calm the passions, and quiet the soul, filling it with the mildest unction. Desolations also accomplish the work of God — a delicate, profound work of purity, strength, and love. There are certain delicate and intimate operations that Jesus does not perform in souls except when He is sleeping. His mystical sleep is not from weariness, but from love. He sleeps because He loves. He sleeps because, while He sleeps, His Heart watches, transforming souls profoundly, although this transformation is imperceptible.
St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus saw secrets of the spiritual life with remarkable clarity, and in order to explain why she was not grieved by her aridity in prayer and her naps during her thanksgivings, she observed that doctors put their patients to sleep in order to perform operations. It is likewise necessary for Jesus to place souls under a holy sedative, into complete darkness, into absolute unconsciousness, to accomplish in them divine operations. When this occurs, the soul thinks Jesus is sleeping.
How would souls be able to endure those awful sufferings which, like double-edged swords, penetrate even to the depths of their being, if Jesus were awake, if that sweetest of voices resounded in them, if the fragrance of His life penetrated their spirit, if they experienced the divine action clearly and palpably? With Jesus manifest, one does not suffer. Looking at Him and receiving His caresses, the soul becomes a replica of Paradise. When He shows Himself, sufferings are either dissipated like vapor before the heat of the sun, or are turned into a brilliant and beautiful vision. The soul needs to suffer in its innermost being, and to suffer for a long time, and to suffer without much consolation. In order that the soul may suffer in this way and thus receive special graces, Jesus sleeps.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Archbishop Martinez’s When God is Silent, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.