Members are to sleep in separate beds. They receive bedding as provided by the prioress or abbot, suitable to monastic life.
If possible, all are to sleep in one place, but should the size of the community preclude this, they will sleep in groups of ten or twenty under the watchful care of elders. A lamp must be kept burning in the room until morning.
They sleep clothed, and girded with belts or cords; but they should remove their knives, least they accidently cut themselves in their sleep. Thus the members will always be ready to arise without delay when the signal is given; each will hasten to arrive at the Opus Dei before the others, yet with all dignity and decorum. The younger members should not have their beds next to each other, but interspersed among those of the elders. On arising for the Opus Dei, they will quietly encourage each other, for the sleepy like to make excuses.
Typical to Benedict and the Rule, as well as to wisdom literature generally, is the combining of the practical and the symbolic. When the symbolic is in the practical and everyday of life, the symbolic is more accessible. When the practical is enriched with symbol, the sacramental aspect of reality comes alive; we experience the everyday as the mediator of a transforming God.
In this chapter on sleeping arrangements, the lamp that burns throughout the night is an example of the coming together of the practical and the symbolic. Practically, a bit of gentle light in a room full of sleeping people is a useful thing. If someone has to get up in the middle of the night, the light can help them negotiate the beds and people around them; the light can also help older monks see who or what might be causing that early morning disturbance.
The lamp burning in the dark of night is also symbolic of the light of Christ. Scripturally light is a metaphor for the presence and action of Christ (John 8:12). The lamp at night, burning while the community is asleep witnesses to Christ always alive in the life of the community working within and among the members so that all may grow into love. It also signals Christ’s protection during vulnerable times. The lamp burning until morning also calls to mind the Easter Paschal candle.
A lack of sleep has practical consequences. If we don’t get enough it becomes increasingly difficult to stay awake and alert during the day. We are easily distracted. We may start to rely too much on stimulants such as coffee and energy drinks. We miss opportunities for kindness and times of learning; we get grumpy and short-tempered. The ‘ordinary tensions’ of communal life and the gifts they have for us are missed or become too hard to live with.
So, Benedict works here to limit distractions during the time of sleep. Separate beds allow for a bit more personal space, a time of solitude when the common practice of the time was for families to share beds. Clothing, as well as enough and appropriate bedding, provide comfort and modest boundary in a common sleeping space. While a knife might provide security, it could disrupt sleep with its blade. The young interspersed among small, multi-generational groups, provide the best chance for both supervision and for sleep.
The Rule highlights the importance of routine and place around sleep. Consistent times to bed and for rising; the same place and circumstance; the importance of the limitation of distraction so as to give sleep the best possible chance. All of this is just as relevant for us today.
Quality and length of sleep improves for many who practice meditation. Over time and with practice a restless and anxious mind settles. Meditators report that this settling of mind helps when falling into sleep. Life’s questions and problems may remain unsolved, however the way we relate to these, our relationships with them, change; there is less worry, less anxiousness, more patience, more letting go. This helps sleep.
Getting enough sleep also provides the best possible chance to ‘rise without delay’ when the alarm sounds. The Rule asks that the very next thing we do after getting out of bed is to move into our prayer routine. It is good to do this before distraction and delay themselves rise, as they can (though it may be necessary to free ourselves from the distraction of ‘nature’s call’ on the way). The Rule reinforces here that times of prayer need to be central to the life of the Christian and the contemplative. Morning TV is not the next thing, nor a cup of coffee or breakfast. For the meditator following the Rule we are invited to meditate after getting up. Over time, gentle perseverance and shared encouragement in this way bears fruit; in the midst of life and circumstance excuse subsides as faith grows.
It happened that one day he got into a boat with his disciples and said to them, ‘Let us cross over to the other side of the lake.’ So they set out and as they sailed he fell asleep. When a squall of wind came down on the lake the boat started shipping water and they found themselves in danger. So they went to rouse him saying, ‘Master! Master! We are lost!’ Then he woke up and rebuked the wind and the rough water; and they subsided and it was calm again. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ (Luke 8:22-25a, NJB)