The Watches of the Night

Heads up! This post was published about 12 years ago.

Not too long ago, TED.com posted a talk by Jessa Gamble entitled “How to sleep”.  The talk is only 4 minutes long and centers around the human body clock and sleep/waking cycles.  Judging from the comments, it left many viewers intrigued but unsatisfied: How can we get more information about this?  What is she suggesting as a solution?  What are the implications of this for our lives and schedules?

I felt much the same way, but also I found the specific schedule she suggested fascinating… which I’ll explain after the video:

What strikes me about Gamble’s schedule is how similar it seems to the schedule of fixed-hour prayer, especially the practice of rising during “the watches of the night” in order to pray (if you’re not aware of this practice, I highly suggest reading up on the biblical basis and history of fixed-hour prayer; for starters, check out the Judaism & Early Church section of the Wikipedia Canonical Hours article).  Just look over the table below, which shows the Greek Orthodox hours, and compare the highlighted sections to what Gamble said in her talk:

Name of service in GreekName of service in EnglishTime of serviceDescription/purpose
Hesperinos (Ἑσπερινός)VespersAt sunsetThe beginning of the (liturgical) day. Meditating on Christ as the “Light.”
Apodeipnon (Ἀπόδειπνον) lit. “after-supper”ComplineAt bedtimeMeditating on our final falling asleep, i.e. our death.
Mesonyktikon (Μεσονυκτικόν)Midnight OfficeAt midnightPrayed in monasteries in the middle of the night.
Orthros (Ὂρθρος)Matins or OrthrosAt dawnPrayer in the watches before dawn. Praising God at the rising of the sun.
Prōtē Hōra (Πρῶτη Ὣρα)First Hour (Prime)At ~7 AMMeditating on the Creation, Banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise, the appearance of Christ before Caiaphas.
Tritē Hōra (Τρίτη Ὣρα)Third Hour (Terce)At ~9 AMMeditating on the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which happened at this hour.
Hektē Hōra (Ἓκτη Ὣρα)Sixth Hour (Sext)At noonMeditating on Christ’s crucifixion, which happened at this hour
Ennatē Hōra (Ἐννάτη Ὣρα)Ninth Hour (None) *At ~3 PMMeditating on the death of Christ, which happened at this hour.

When I first heard about the practice of waking up in the middle of the night to pray, I thought, How in the world did monks do that? I’d be completely exhausted. It sounds kind of weird/ascetic/unhealthy. And then I watched that video. What if this practice actually far better matches our natural sleep patterns than our modern schedules do?  I also found surprising the language Gamble employed when she describe the clarity people experienced upon waking.  During the day our minds are pulled so many directions that undistracted prayer is extraordinarily difficult.  What if this moment of clarity were experienced during prayer and silent listening?  Could we finally pay attention to the “still, small voice” of God’s Spirit?

2 thoughts on “The Watches of the Night

  1. So have you tried it, or do you know anyone who has?

    I found this very interesting in light of the interrupted sleeping habits of infancy (and hence parents) that I’ve experienced in the last year and a half. Perhaps the waking in the middle of the night is more natural than most new parents would like to admit, and our problem is just that we don’t go to bed at 8pm like we expect the little ones to.

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