(Niagara Falls at night, photo by Sujit Kumar, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Psalm 17:3 (RSV)
Weigh my heart, summon me by night, melt me down; you will find no impurity in me.
I don't often choose the RSV over the NRSV, but the RSV version of this verse in the Psalm seems to have a more powerful imagery of this phenomenon.
Have you ever had one of those nights, when it seems like the minute you put your head on the bed pillow, that the events that you've been walking through during the day seem to rush through your head in a torrent, just like Niagara Falls?
Yeah, I thought you had. Me too.
Our tendency is to fear those torrents of thoughts. After all, a quick Google search on "racing thoughts at night" would show that this is very quickly identified as one of the symptoms of anxiety, that it can be one of the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, can precipitate panic attacks, to one of the signs of schizophrenia. Quite honestly, there are medical reasons to fear them, and when one finds him or herself troubled by racing thoughts at night constantly or frequently, one should seek the help of a medical or mental health professional.
However, when this happens once in a while, or in response to a situation, and we know that it is situational or temporary, we probably shouldn't fear them as much as we often do. What we are probably experiencing are simply compulsive thoughts that are rooted in one of those three things that so often separate us from the light of God--shame, guilt, fear. St. Maximus the Confessor calls these "the passions," but he is not using passion in the same way you and I use it in the modern sense. We tend to think of "passion" as a virtuous thing, the thing that deep love awakens. His use of the word refers more to compulsive thoughts that sidetrack us and create repetitive loops that paralyze us. So when we talk about the "passions" in the philosophical sense, it is not quite a one-to-one correlate. To deal with that disconnect, I will use words like "compulsions" and "compulsive thoughts" instead.
What if, when those torrents of nighttime thoughts came over us, we started by simply recognizing that compulsive thoughts come to the forefront when the bulk of our mind is at rest?
We spend our waking days working, doing, solving, and attending to the cares of our lives--our jobs, our families, our friends, our personal needs. At bedtime, when our activities of the evening are over, the only thing we attend to is our physical need for sleep. Our natural rhythms are converting from "movement" to "rest." So it's quite understandable why these thoughts bubble up. There's nothing to distract us. Because of the "repetitive loop-like nature" of compulsions, what can start as a ripple on a calm pond can begin to seem like a river, a raging ocean, or a waterfall, and suddenly our focus changes from shrugging off getting a wet hand or foot to feeling like we are suddenly plunging in a barrel over the heart of Niagara Falls, to be dashed to our messy deaths by the rocks at its base.
What if, instead of seeing these compulsions as "oppositional forces to our sleep," we recognized them as something within ourselves where a thought somehow got amalgamated into the deep hooks in our soul that recognize fear, shame, or guilt?
I think time and time again about how one of the most powerful tools we have as human beings is illustrated in a rather obscure part of the Genesis creation story--the ability to give things names. One of the first tasks Adam gets from God in that story is to name all the animals. Sometimes I like to think silly things like "How does one figure out to call a possum a possum?" when I reflect on that story. But other times I think about it in a much deeper way. My ability to name things also allows me to be open to what something truly is, at its essential level, and rule out what it is NOT.
St. Maximus saw our compulsions as an aspect of sin, in that misuse of God's good creation is taking place. When we fall prey to our compulsive thoughts, they prevent us from engaging in the ongoing work of loving God and being followers of Christ by example. He talks about how we can overcome our compulsions by "separating the thought from the compulsion." One of the ways we can do that, I imagine, is by naming which one of the "big three"--fear, shame, our guilt--is "behind" the compulsion. That's simply a matter of coming to God with our own sins in the situation. Sometimes for me, that is simply acknowledging that the situation is one in which I have no control, and accept my powerlessness in it. It can be something as basic as actively choosing serenity over a desire to control--it doesn't have to be some big looming transgression.
When we give these compulsions names, we often discover that once they are separated from our thoughts--our thoughts to seek and serve God in a most holy way--it turns out we were not headed down Niagara in a barrel to our doom, but were sitting in a john boat on a lazy river. Not always, of course, but more than we might have thought at the time.
This is also where the knowledge of the prayers of others can be a comfort. Of course, many of us have no problem praying for others, but asking for the prayers of others on our behalf may feel "selfish" or praying for ourselves seems self-centered. Honestly, I am just terrible at asking for prayers for myself. It feels a bit manipulative. Over time, I've gotten a little better at it, but I'm not great at it. But I have come to realize lately that prayer is an ongoing, living, breathing hand of God all its own.
We conceptualize that concept in the Episcopal church through the Prayers of the People. The book of Common Prayer has a rubric that, during the Prayers of the People:
"Prayer is offered with intercession for:
The Universal Church, its members, and its mission
The Nation and all in authority
The welfare of the world
The concerns of the local community
Those who suffer and those in any trouble
The departed (with commemoration of a saint when appropriate.)"
That, by example, swings a pretty wide net.
Now, I don't think we do this because if we insert prayer concern A into tab B, in precisely this way, something magically happens. I think we do this to illustrate the breadth and depth of this "net of prayer."
But what it means when we are lying on our beds with those thoughts racing through our minds that seem on the verge of sweeping us away, is to remind us that we are held safely in this net of prayer, cast by a God who will not allow us to become hopelessly enmeshed in it, even in our physical sickness and death. It can help us, as we hear in Psalm 4, to hear God speak to our hearts in silence upon our beds.