Monday, August 7, 2017

Vigils

This evening (morning?) at 11:59am, something snapped me out of the clutches of sleep. It wasn't my kids or my wife, it wasn't a dream--it was just a strong sense that I need to get up to pray for something or someone. I've experienced this from time to time. On January 18th at 2:42pm I was working in the garage and felt the need to stop what I was doing and pray for an evangelist friend I know. She told me later at the exact time I was praying for her she had made the decision not to travel through what later ended up being an ice storm.

The middle of the night is a hard but good time to pray, often born during periods of inner crisis, as the quiet drapery of dark silence envelopes everything and you are alone with God, "pondering on your bed, being still." (Ps 4:4). St. Pope John Paul II, as a young Karol Wojtyla, remembers waking up in the middle of the night and seeing his father kneeling in the dark, praying silently. For a busy family man, this is sometimes the only part of the day/night when we have the opportunity for an intimate moment alone with the Lord.  Or sometimes, He just rouses us from sleep for His purposes.

The problem is when it's the middle of the night and you are dog tired the clutches of sleep are strong. At midnight, my eyes opened, but my body was chained to the bed by grogginess. All I wanted was to drift quietly back to sleep, but I had a nagging sense I needed to get up. The war of the senses began to rage hard, the flesh and the spirit, "for the Spirit gives life, and the flesh counts for nothing" (Jn 6:63). At the center was the will. I needed to exercise the will for God's purposes, and it was so so hard at that moment.

During this struggle I remembered what I had heard about the "Five Second Rule." It's the idea that

"Because of the way your brain is wired, when your thoughts and feelings are at war, when there is a discourse between what you know you should be doing and what you feel like doing, your feelings are always going to win. If you don't feel like doing it, you're not going to do it. If you have an impulse to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill the idea."

Sure, it's a secular principal, but I decided to adopt it for my spiritual life, the way Augustine adopted the philosophy of Plato to the Christian life. When you are being called to action, and your flesh and your spirit are at war, act within the first 5 seconds. Otherwise things get infinitely harder and you are more prone to lose the battle, "For to will is present within me, but not to do good." (Rom 7:18)

In my time spent at the monastery, we would rise at 4am for Matins (Vigils) as part of the Divine Office. It was always so hard, but eventually I got in the rhythm of it. It was also customary temptation when working in the fields or the orchard or in the workshop, to hear the bell for prayer, and want to ignore it if you were right in the middle of something, to finish it or say "just a few more minutes." But it was good practice to drop whatever it was you were doing when the bell rang, as a matter of obedience, and make your way to the chapel, for nothing should be above prayer.

Though wounded and weakened by original sin, and often opposing or subverting reason, the will can still receive God's grace, co operate with it, and love as God loves. When we encounter resistance and suffering in doing what God wants us to do, it is because we are so unaccustomed to it, and love comfort so much. Our will to do the good can often be like a hoe or rake left outside and overtaken by weeds and brambles because it is hardly ever used. We are no longer slaves to sin, but we often return to such disobedience like pigs to the slop, on account of this perpetual war we are fighting within ourselves to subject the will to right reason, for

"I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not." (Rom 7:18)

The will is not good thoughts or noble intentions, but the action of assent. And when exercising it for God's purposes, it really can hurt, like a flabby unused muscle in a Crossfit workout. In the case of rising from sleep, getting out of bed to pray in the middle of the night, I needed to "physically move", and then most effectively within those first five seconds of receiving the prompting to get up, lest the foggy mist of sleep envelope and drag me back to the ether of suspended consciousness.

When the Lord nudges or gives you an impulse to do something, to take action, to pray--don't hesitate. Ideally, respond immediately, but at the very latest, within five seconds. Otherwise your brain might hijack your will and snap you back into place. The Devil would like nothing more than to keep you from carrying out God's will when He calls. So be extra vigilant and willing to suffer discomfort, and take heart that He will give you the grace needed to carry it out. You never know who may be saved by your prayers in such a moment that may have otherwise passed you by!

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