Seeing 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…