On Angels and Sleep


Angel of GideonSeeing as there was at least a little interest in my first post on angelology, I thought that the feast of the Guardian Angels would be a fitting time to draw attention to one of Karl Rahner’s quirkier essays: ‘A Spiritual Dialogue at Evening: On Sleep, Prayer, and Other Subjects.”  The essay is quirky both because of its genre (an imagined dialogue between Rahner and a physician who is strangely tolerant of dense theological prose and periodic sentences) and because of its subject matter (a theology of sleep).  At any rate, Rahner here nuances the traditional understanding of angels as “pure spirits.”  He grants that they are not as definitely related to matter as the human spirit is, but, nonetheless, holds for the position–developed at greater length elsewhere–that angels bear some proper relation to the material world.

If so, Rahner muses, then perhaps our surrender to sleep and to the realm of the unconscious opens us to the influence of both angels and demons. He recalls hints of this in the  the broader tradition of demonology to which the Church is heir:

The old masters of matters ascetical and mystical–therefore the psychotherapeutic experts of olden days–as also the theologians of the Middle Ages said that devils have no possibility of exercising any direct influence on what is purely spiritual as such in us, but–surely something extraordinary for ‘pure spirits’–the sphere of their immediate influence over us lies in the ‘sensitive’ part–we would today say in the subconscious life which is rooted in the corporeal. (227)

Impossible to verify, of course, but ’tis intriguing to contemplate.

Rahner finds some corroboration for this position in several scripture passages.  He notes especially the ancient placement of the 1 Peter 5:8 in the Church’s night office: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  Angels, of course, would exercise the same influence over our subconscious, but toward more benevolent ends.

The folk wisdom advising us to “sleep on” decisions certainly attests to the transformative effect of our forays into the unconscious.  Rahner, however, is not convinced that sleep is automatically clarifying or salutary:

I am only surprised that people so naturally assume that one always judges and acts better and more correctly if one has first ‘slept on it’.  Surely it is often the reverse: often one sleeps away the highest inspirations, if one first sleeps on them before acting in accordance with them and definitively making them one’s own.  In brief: the wellspring of our personal waking thinking and acting, to which we can never penetrate completely, is altered during sleep, and this in an uncontrollable way.

Despite our vulnerability during sleep, however, we are not entirely at the mercy of these alterations.  Rahner argues that, if angels and demons exercise some influence over the infra-personal level of man–over the realm of disturbing images and Jungian archetypes–then the proper precaution against demons is imaginative, nocturnal prayer:

In recommending this kind of ‘imaginative’ prayer, I naturally include under the heading of ‘image’ everything which belongs to the realm of sensibility … words, sounds, signs, gestures, in short, everything in which the celestial spirit can be embodied, the nether depths of our being sanctified, and the spirit of the earth banished.  The correct, calm and recollected signing of oneself with the Sign of the Cross, the simple gesture of prayer, the words of prayer  … all these … ought to be characteristic precisely of night prayer, if it is to become an exorcism and consecration of that kingdom into whose power man surrenders himself in sleep.

Rahner can even point to the Ignatian counsel of “pre-lection”–that is, of recalling the matter of the next morning’s prayer before  sleeping–as  a  spiritual practice corroborating his speculations.  Perhaps it is no accident that Ignatius, who was so sensitive to the alternation of Good and Evil Spirit in retreat, also regarded unhallowed slumber with ambivalence.

So perhaps the tradition of praying to one’s guardian angel before bed has profound roots in both human psychology and cosmic reality.   If Rahner is right, we can also invoke the same angelic protection indirectly through the attentive recitation of Compline.  Do such considerations call for some adjustment to our evening routine?  Perhaps. But we needn’t decide just yet.  We can always sleep on it…

6 Responses to On Angels and Sleep

  1. John Marquez says:

    Fascinating post! Thank you for this. In addition to 1 Peter 5:8, I find the inclusion of Psalm 90 in Compline to be instructive and comforting: “For you has he commanded his angels, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you upon their hands lest you strike your foot against a stone.” And at least one Trappist monastery I know ends Compline with this prayer: “O Lord, we beseech you to visit this community and drive far away from us all snares of the enemy. May your holy angels dwell here with us to keep us in peace, and may your blessing be always with us. This we ask through Christ our Lord.”

    Where might one find the Rahner’s essay that you mention?


    • John,

      Peace of Christ. The essay I mentioned can be found in Volume III of the Theological Investigations. The prayer you mentioned at the Trappist Monastery, if I’m not mistaken, is the customary closing prayer for Solemnities not occurring on Sunday. A beautiful passage…

  2. crystal says:

    Bedtime Shema …..

    Blessed are You our God, who casts sleep upon my eyes and slumber upon my eyelids. May You lay me down to sleep in peace and raise me up in peace. Blessed are You who illuminates the entire world with Your Glory.
    Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad.
    God of Israel, may Michael be at my right, Gabriel at my left, Uriel before me and Raphael behind me; and above my head the Presence of God, Sh’chinat El.

  3. Father Joseph SJ says:

    Thank you for a beautiful reflection. So much unknown, but let’s enjoy the mystery and wonderment. . .

  4. Fascinating stuff and more insight on Rahner: thanks!

    And as an aside in support of the meandering
    explorations: Jungian Psychology, via study of
    the MBTI, would support the role of dreams in
    our normal lives, in summary mainly saying that
    the mind sleeps without conscious use of the will,
    hence allowing the imagination to run rampant,
    hence making it productive if an individual still
    faces therapy needs to revisit dreams they can
    remember in order to detect patterns of events
    which would tend to speak to attitudes and such
    prevelant during waking hours. Additionally, it
    would also be Ignatius insight to our psychology,
    ahead of Jung, that it is very wise to go to
    sleep with those thoughts that will bring us
    interior liberation: the sleeping imagination
    retains that last retained before falling asleep.

    And for me as to Angels, I still reason that both
    Jesus and the Spirit remain our dominant influencers
    within, as we work on becoming the Authentic Self
    (Kierkegaard) and speak to our inner silence
    whether asleep or awake, making the subconscious
    take equal place to our consciousness in power
    over our existential lives. The angels are more
    remote and metaphysical, more under the Father’s
    control and role than ours….as their mysterious
    presence can only be encountered if one ever does,
    in the Company of Strangers, as did Abraham
    in the Desert. And so can we on any street corner
    of any city. Of any life! On any bus route. And
    so the iteration goes: are we spiritually prepared
    to be encountered? And challenged? God does make
    demands on us! And not just us on Him!

    As Rahner writes, every encounter with the Word
    of God, is an encounter with Silence!!!

    Thus, knowledge of God is not a possession,
    but an ever maturing faith, searching in hope,
    within the practise of love!

    NB: Christian love is different from all other
    forms of love because its distinquishing feature
    is that it is not from us, but from above.
    Its source is God! Human love does not endure,
    Christian love is eternal, and endures all things!

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