Praying the Hours (2): Vigils

This is the second in a series on the canonical hours, the ancient Christian practice for living a mindful day. The first, “Reclaiming My Time,” gives a general introduction, with a list of helpful resources for your own practice of prayer and meditation. This second reflection concerns “Vigils,” the liminal space between yesterday and tomorrow.

“Could you not stay awake for one hour?” — Lippo Memmi, Agony in the Garden (detail), Collegiata Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Italy (c. 1340).

What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then? 

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “What if you slept?”

The night, O my Lord, is a time of freedom. You have seen the morning and the night, and the night was better. In the night, all things began, and in the night the end of all things has come before me. 

— Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”

Vigils is the most fluid of the canonical hours. It may be kept at midnight, or at 3 a.m., or just before dawn, as a prelude to the sunrise hour of Lauds. While the world sleeps, monastics rise from their beds and make their way in the dark to the choir. The sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict recommends that the first Psalm be read “slowly and deliberately,” to allow the community’s sleepyheads extra time to arrive. “If the resurrection of the dead is anything like getting up in the morning,” complains one monk, “I am not completely convinced that I want to be included.”[i] But prayer never sleeps. “At midnight I will rise to give you thanks,” says the Psalmist. “My eyes are open in the night watches.”[ii]

Vigils is not for all people at all times, but as an occasional practice it has much to offer. Being awake in the night is not like being awake in the day. We are different, our surroundings are different, and time is different. All these differences affect the quality of our consciousness, our physical energies, and our prayer. It’s no accident that the two most mysterious events in the gospels, the Nativity and the Resurrection, took place in deepest night.[iii] “When all things were wrapped in peaceful silence and night was in the midst of its swift course,” said Meister Eckhart, “a secret word leaped down from heaven.…”[iv]

The hours between midnight and dawn should not go unvisited by the waking self. They whisper secrets which sleepers never know. I’ve driven through black nights on lost highways, watched 72-hour film marathons with (mostly) open eyes, arisen at midnight to ascend Mt. Rainier with a headlamp, drifted in and out of sleep lying on the floor of the Fillmore Auditorium in the wee hours of a Grateful Dead concert, and curated all-night multi-sensory worship in a circus tent with 400 Episcopalians.[v] Even though only the last of these was a specifically religious event, I always felt transformed to some degree by my night-journeys. By the time the sun restored the ordinary, I was no longer quite the same person. Something had shifted. Maybe it was the world; maybe it was just my eyes, or my heart. But the next morning I always felt radiant and new, like the first morning of Creation. 

What is it about a vigil experience that makes this so? For one thing, my post-midnight self, even when awake, is more prone to a state of reverie, when the daytime’s fully conscious subject gives way to the “night dream” which, as Gaston Bachelard suggests, “does not belong to us. It is not our possession. With regard to us, it is an abductor, the most disconcerting of abductors: it abducts our being from us. Nights, nights have no history.… we are returned to an ante-subjective state. We become elusive to ourselves, for we are giving pieces of ourselves to no matter whom, to no matter what.”[vi]  

The world, too, is different in the dark—its solid forms dissolved into shadow, purged of detail and color, cloaked in absence. The noise and strife of daytime forgotten in the hush. Deep, deep silence: like the primordial stillness before the birth of everything. An environment without verbs. “Baptized in the rivers of night,” said Thomas Merton of the Vigils hour, the earth recovers its “innocence.”[vii]

Time slows, pausing deliberately between yesterday and tomorrow. No longer a flowing river, it becomes a pool of infinite depth where we can wash away our hurry-sickness. “A single hour takes a long time to pass,” says a modern Book of Hours, “but living in it is discipleship for eternity.”[viii]

In the Book of Genesis, Jacob has two contrasting experiences at the Vigils hour. In one, he is given a blissful vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, revealing the ultimate Reality so often invisible in the glare of sunlight. In the other, he wrestles desperately with God till dawn.[ix] So it is for us. Sometimes our night vigil is bathed in tranquility and illumined by love. And sometimes we watch anxiously over a sick child or a dying friend, or pray for the ones who are afraid or lost in the dark, or wrestle with our own troubled thoughts, or wait with expectant and vulnerable hearts for the dawn of God.

Benedictine writer Macrina Wiederkeh distills the essence of Vigils prayer, when even the most restlessly wakeful are invited to rest in the sacred pause of what T. S. Eliot called “the uncertain hour before the morning.”[x]

“In the middle of the night, I pray for those who sleep and those who cannot sleep. I pray for those with fearful hearts, for those whose courage is waning. I pray for those who have lost vision of what could be. When I rise in the middle of the night, my prayer is simply one of waiting in silence, waiting in darkness, listening with love. It is a prayer of surrender. In my night watch I do not ordinarily use words. My prayer is a prayer of intent. I make my intention and I wait. I become a deep yearning. The silence and the darkness are healing. My prayer is now a prayer of trust. I keep vigil with the mystery.”[xi]

When I was a teenager, the climactic all-night vigil in Alan Paton’s novel, Cry the Beloved Country, made a deep impression on me. In the days of South African apartheid, on the night before his prodigal son’s execution, the Rev. Stephen Kumalo, an Anglican priest, climbs a high mountain to pray—for his own failings, for the soul of his son, and for the liberation of his people. Hour after hour, through the darkness, he keeps vigil for Absalom (“my son, my son!”) and for all the broken and lost. When the sun finally breaks the horizon—the very moment of his son’s execution—he makes eucharist with a maize cake and tea, remembering with thanksgiving God’s promise of salvation. “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”[xii]

Over the years, the image of Fr. Kumalo on that nocturnal summit has informed my own affinity for Vigils. There is something profoundly uncanny about every “night watch,” when sleep is forsaken in order to contemplate “the Mystery of the world,”[xiii] whose ineffability is uniquely conveyed in the hours of deepest dark and silence.

At Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, the monks would take turns making the rounds of the expansive main building on “fire watch,” guarding the multitude of flammable wooden spaces through the night while the community slept. Thomas Merton’s shift on the night of July 4th, 1952, became for him a vivid metaphor for the spiritual journey into God, related in his famous “Fire Watch” essay. 

As Merton moves thoughtfully and prayerfully through the monastic spaces, he retraces his personal history as a monk. Every room is inscribed with significant memory. But his fire watch is also the journey of the human soul. By first descending into the monastery’s lower depths and gradually ascending to its highest point in the abbey tower, he replicates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery and the Divine Comedy, where the way down becomes, in the end, the way up. 

Merton’s “Fire Watch” reflection is framed by biblical images. It begins with Isaiah’s tower watchman keeping vigil through the long night, alert for a word of revelation. And it concludes with a divine word of comfort to Jonas, better known as Jonah, whose descent into the belly of the fish foreshadowed Christ’s death and resurrection. 

“The sign of Jonas”––Merton’s term for the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising––is “burned into the roots of our being,” he said. And he described his own life’s pilgrimage as “traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”[xiv]

For the receptive soul, Vigils is the hour when we listen to the voice of silence, and rest in the grace of unknowing. In “Fire Watch,” Merton sums up prayer in the dark in four lines:

While I am asking questions which You do not answer, 
You ask me a question which is so simple that I cannot answer.
I do not even understand the question. 
This night, and every night, it is the same question.
[xv]


[i] Mark Barrett, O.S.B., Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 11.

[ii] Psalm 119: 62, 148.

[iii] The Christmas midnight mass and the Easter Vigil both incorporate the Vigils aura of nocturnal mystery when they take the assembly deep into the night. But many churches sacrifice this dimension when they choose the convenience of starting so early that they end well before midnight. 

[iv] Meister Eckhart, cited in Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Noroton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 50. Yates’ book contains prayers and reflections for each of the 24 hours. The Eckhart quote appears at Midnight.

[v] A description of the all-night liturgy may be found here: https://jimfriedrich.com/2014/08/12/experiments-in-worship/

[vi] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language, and the Cosmos (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 145.

[vii] Thomas Merton, “Fire Watch, July 4, 1952,” epilogue to The Sign of Jonas (1953), cited in Lawrence S. Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master—The Essential Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992), 107.

[viii] Yates, A Book of Hours, 55.

[ix] Genesis 28:10-17; 32:23-33.

[x] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” (section II), in Four Quartets. “In the uncertain hour before the morning / Near the ending of interminable night …”

[xi] Macrina Wiederkehr, O.S.B., Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2008), 31.

[xii] The last line of Paton’s novel, published in 1948. 

[xiii] Eberhard Jüngel’s name for the Divine, unencumbered with overuse or limiting connotations, offers an open space for the varieties of religious experience.

[xiv] Merton, The Sign of Jonas (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1953). 

[xv] Merton, “Fire Watch,” in Cunningham, 111.

How can this be?

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

My mother Elaine, pregnant with her firstborn child Marilyn, rode to Bethlehem on a donkey (in 1936 around Jerusalem, cars weren’t safe – they attracted gunfire). My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, made biblical films, including several on the birth of Jesus. In Holy Night (1949), I was a shepherd boy at the manger, with a stupefied look on my face from the blinding lights behind the camera. But no one could top my sister Martha, who played the baby Jesus in Child of Bethlehem (1940). You could say the Nativity story runs in our family. Even the Episcopal parish church of my childhood was a converted stable.

The thing about Christmas, though, is that everyone gets to be in it. By virtue of the Incarnation, our human nature, our human stories, have become the place where God chooses to dwell. Meister Eckhart put this claim most vividly in the fourteenth century:

“There is only one birth – and this birth takes place in the being and in the ground and core of the soul…Not only is the Son of the heavenly Creator born in this darkness – but you too are born there as a child of the same heavenly Creator. and the Creator extends this same power to you out of the divine maternity bed located in the Godhead to eternally give birth.”

Of course I have been reminded by women friends that only a male could find the sublime in a labor lasting for eternity. But Eckhart’s image makes us uneasy in other ways, for in these disturbing times it may be hard to imagine ourselves as worthy vessels for divinity. Everywhere we turn, we see human life devalued and held in contempt. The poor, the weak, the wounded are marginalized and forgotten. Abuse, violence, cruelty and self-loathing are rampant. Overt racism is making a comeback. Even torture has its shameless defenders.

But Christmas tells a counter-story, about a God who remembers the glory for which we were made, who yearns to speak the word of Love in the vocabulary of human flesh. The seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan expressed his astonishment at this fact in a memorable line:

Brave worms, and Earth! that thus could have
A God enclosed within your Cell…

Oh, we are brave worms indeed, to believe our frail flesh made for the Incarnation, for the union of time and eternity, finite and infinite, flesh and Word. “God became human,” said St. Athanasius, “in order that humans might become godlike.” And St. Paul told the Corinthians that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

In the face of such a wonder, we find ourselves repeating Mary’s old question: “How can this be?” And the best answer I know was given by the medieval mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg: “Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly, to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator who practices these things ceaselessly in us.”

As we kneel before the Mystery this night, may we know how beloved of God we mortals are, and how very much the Glory wants to be born in us.

To you, dear readers, I wish the merriest and holiest of Christmastides.
God bless us every one!