night watch


There have been emails recently from the 800 people who sign up for receipt this blog or those who read it occasionally and on Facebook or on the syndicated version of The Daily Sip on Episcopal Cafe.Com each Sunday in “The Magazine.” They have been asking about Christian Practice.  They are kind and inquiring and all seem to find their way to one question: “What do you mean when you say you think as one third of your practice?”

I am not sure how it developed except that I remember watching my father, a writer, sit at his desk for a long time before he wrote anything down or before he spoke to guests.  One day I asked him what he was doing – I was wondering if he was sleeping and was confused by how he could do so sitting, erect, with his back away from his chair.  He said he was thinking. He explained that writing without thinking was dangerous. And I would go further and say that living without thinking is dangerous. But many do.

So my Christian Practice (and it is just mine – and it is only mine on days I can pull it off – and some days I need more than usual sleep and so I cannot) is to spend one third of my time with God (that is time sitting still before sunrise and invoking God as Holy Spirit) thinking.  I sit for an hour thinking, I sit for an hour in wordless prayer and I sit or walk for an hour listening to the thoughts of others in the form of audiobooks or podcasts on spirituality.

Sitting, just thinking is like being a night security guard in your mind.  You’ve seen them on tv or on those movies “Night at the Museum” in which the building is shut to the world, quiet in the night and the security guard wanders the rooms and halls with a flashlight checking things out – looking for something that is amiss. Well, that is “meditative thought” and it is an old practice in Christianity.  I make coffee and take my shower, then I turn the lights back off and light a candle and sit in my favorite chair and think, having prayed that God would walk with me through my thoughts and my life with the flashlight of the Hagia Sophia (female Holy Wisdom) which is one person of the trinity with whom I very much like to walk because She is funny, and mischievous and sometimes quite piercing and always honest with me, but also kind.  Except when she is not kind and needs to really be quite firm with me. And I appreciate that too, like when a mother screams at her child and grabs and yanks her arm so that she does not pet that pretty snake with that pretty rattle.  And in the church there are as many of those as there are in other parts of life.

So we stroll through my life with a flashlight, she and I.  I am used to her long white hair and her sinew-ey legs, her mischievous winks, her caftans so full of colors and that gerber daisy she keeps in her hair – big and brassy.  And she is used to my fearfulness and my doubts and my whining.  And we walk together, she and I, looking with curiosity at life.  And curiosity is the key to all of this.  Walking with the stride and attitude of a Nazi concentration camp guard as if through a camp of discipline is not a helpful way to wander one’s life.  Nor is pretending that life is Willie Wonka’s Chocolate factory where there are no rules.  No.  There is a middle way.

One simply takes the time to wander one’s thought and one’s card-file of actions asking questions.  “I wonder why I did that? I wonder why I said that?  I wonder what will happen as a result of having made that choice? I wonder what that choice will inspire me to do tomorrow? I wonder why I got so angry?  I wonder why I was so unkind there? I wonder why he  was so cruel to me? I wonder why I let hem? I wonder what I should do with that wonderful gift I was given yesterday when she said I could submit a book proposal? I wonder why my right foot is aching? I wonder what is next for me in life?  I wonder if that friendship needs to be gently bowed to, thanked and ended? I wonder if sage in caramelized onions with chicken bouillon would be every bit as good as the french version with thyme and beef bouillon? I wonder if I need a retreat day this month? I wonder if I have misjudged her? I wonder what God is up to here?”

In scripture, the various writers frequently make reference to “the third hour.”  It appears in psalms and also in other books of the Bible and it refers to the time of a 24 hour period when the third group of guards take over the shift from the second group of guards on the city walls.  The third hour begins at 3:00 am or 4:00 am and they watch from the city gates and walls to be sure that when people are most deeply asleep, no army tries to invade. Many people, because we have been humans for 200,000 years but only lived with gas lamps and lightbulbs for a 200 years, find that they awaken at around 3:00 am and need to force themselves to go back to sleep. Our bodies are designed not to see computer screens and tv screens.  Our bodies and minds turn off without light but, tv and computers mess with our nature, tricking us into late nights since our minds need 30 minutes of darkness in order to begin to turn off – and many people deprive themselves of that with TV and computer light – and so get themselves into cycles of exhaustion.

The next time you can’t sleep at 3:30 am, get up, sit in a chair in the dark with a candle, take Jesus’ hand or Hagia Sophia’s and go for a walk in the night-watch of your “nefesh” the Hebrew word for your everythingness.  See what you see inside you.  Notice what you notice.

But beware.  Knowing what you know by seeing what you see, is a huge responsibility and takes great courage.

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