In the desert monastery called Mar Saba near Jerusalem, a man now known as St. John Damascene (c. 676 – 749) would conclude his day of work and prayer by approaching his bed and praying:
O Master, Lover of mankind, is this bed to be my coffin, or will You enlighten my wretched soul with another day? Behold, the coffin lies before me; behold, death confronts me…
If this seems like a morbid, depressing way to end the day, that’s only because we’re not used to thinking about death very often. We might think we’re no strangers to death — hearing about it on the news every 15 minutes, seeing it in headlines. We’ve all probably lost a friend or family member to death; we’ve all been to funerals and can still recall those painful times. But death at a distance, and even the experience of losing a loved one, is not the same as contemplating our own death. The contemplation of your own death produces an altogether different feeling than losing someone else to death.
The thoughts produced by a sincere, unwavering contemplation about the fact that, one day – maybe tomorrow – you’re going to die, are usually of humbleness and focussed priorities. When confronted with the gut-wrenching notion that the world will go on turning after we’ve failed to hold onto our breath, our littleness becomes apparent, and we gain a much more reasonable perspective on our own importance. After emerging from a deep meditation on our mortality, we cast our eyes around the room on the feeble possessions we’ve amassed which will all turn to dust, just like us. We think about the countless hours of our lives that we’ve irredeemably wasted and feel thinner in our souls for not having filled them with valuable work.
These unpleasant realizations are nevertheless beneficial to us, in that they renew our focus on what’s important. The remembrance of death helps us value time, relationships, service and works of mercy. It keeps us humble and prevents the delusion of self-importance. The most fruitful human thought and the very foundation of all philosophy and metaphysics starts with the contemplation of death. It’s no surprise then that cultures across the world and throughout time have recognized the benefits of remembering death as a foil to the vanities of this world (Romans 12:2, Ecclesiastes 1). St. Ignaty Brianchaninov, writing for monastics, asserted, “A monk should remember every day, and several times a day, that he is faced with inevitable death, and eventually he should even attain to the unceasing remembrance of death. … Forgetful of physical death, we die a spiritual death. On the other hand, he who often remembers the death of the body rises from the dead in soul.”
This contemplation can be difficult, though, and the very idea that you’re going to die can seem unreal and illusory sometimes. Here it helps to have focused reminders. It’s said that a Roman General once paraded through the city in glory after victory in battle, but that he had a servant standing behind him in the procession tasked with reminding him, “Memento mori” (Remember that you will die). In the absence of someone literally whispering in the ear that death approaches, other tangible reminders have been used. Visual reminders in the form of paintings, carvings, and the like were especially common in Europe during the 16-19th centuries for this purpose. The image of a skull is often used as a symbol and reminder of death — in Philippe de Champaigne’s famous Vanitas and throughout the genre known as memento mori, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and even beneath Jesus’ cross in iconography and statuary to identify the old Adam, buried under Golgotha (The Place of the Skull).
But a generalized skull, or even the more richly symbolic skull of Adam, can be a less-than-personal reminder of your own mortality. And for the benefits to your soul, the contemplation should be of your own death, not merely “death” as a detached idea. A much more fruitful reminder is an enacted symbol, and one that is enacted every day by every one of us. I mean, of course, sleep. The sleep/death analog is obvious. In both sleep and death, we are unconscious, passive, unproductive. Both are irresistible. Seeing death in sleep is a daily, physical encounter with it — beholding the bed as a coffin, lying down in it, the hesitation before finally closing your eyes. This encounter is so real, you come to realize that it may be no mere symbol — you might actually die tonight. Are you ready for that?
It’s precisely at this realization that a prayer like St. John Damascene’s starts to make sense. Christians for centuries have prayed similar things (and many have used St. John’s very prayer). They have acknowledged that in sleep, just like in death, many unseen dangers may await us. There are enemies about us that would seek our harm, especially when we lie disarmed and vulnerable. Christian prayers for sleep often petition God for safety from spiritual evil, from unruly passions which may overtake our unguarded minds, and from physical harm to which we are susceptible.
Much happens in the world while we sleep. The classical Christian understanding of the day, like the Jewish understanding, is that God begins his work in the evening (as the Genesis account recalls: “there was evening and there was morning, one day”), without our input or help, and we only join in with that work later. So only in a deep trust in God can we pray with the psalmist, “I will lie down in peace and sleep, for You alone, LORD, make me dwell in safety.” Any confidence of our safety throughout the night must rest in God, and so just like our Lord, upon giving ourselves finally over into sleep/death, we must also pray “Into your hands, O Lord, I commit my spirit.”
There is another prayer that resigns the soul to God in the death of sleep. I didn’t learn it from any Saints of the past, nor from Church Tradition, nor even from the Scriptures. I learned it from my grandmother when I was very young. I had it stored away deep in my mind and only remembered it as I began to enter into this long-standing Christian tradition of preparing for death in sleep. I now use this prayer that my grandmother taught me once again:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
And should I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take