The title of this reflection is taken from “The Mystery of the Holy Innocents” by Charles Péguy (1873-1914):
Nothing so beautiful as a child who falls asleep while saying his prayers, God says. I have seen the dark, deep sea, and the dark, deep forest, and the dark, deep heart of man. I have seen hearts devoured by love throughout a lifetime. And I have seen faces of prayer, faces of tenderness Lost in charity. Which will shine eternally through endless nights. Yet, I tell you, God says, I know nothing so beautiful in all the world As a little child who falls asleep while saying his prayers Under the wing of his Guardian Angel And who laughs to the angels as he goes to sleep. And who is already confusing everything and understanding nothing more And who stuffs the words of the Our Father all awry, pell-mell into the words of the Hail Mary while a veil is already dropping on his eyelids the veil of night on his face and his voice.
In this famous poem, in the form of a hymn rising from the child’s dreams, Péguy (“the theologian of hope”) effectively evokes the “prayer without words”. There is a distinction between active and non-active prayer. In a strange way, admittedly, the image of a child who falls asleep while saying his prayers is the epitome of the concept of non-active prayer.
There was a time, during traditional devotions in the Marian months of May and October, when families could often contemplate the charming sight of toddlers who, wishing to imitate their parents and older brothers and sisters, had fallen asleep clutching rosaries in their tiny hands. To Péguy, this child whose words at prayer fall away into a murmur, and who finally dozes off, is a perfect image of prayer.
Indeed, the value of prayer is not measured by the number of words we say (Mt 6:7). If praying means “remaining silent before God” or, better still, “remaining silent in God rather than conversing with God,” then the image of the innocent child who goes to sleep while praying corresponds, in a sense, to that fundamental attitude of prayer. And since “awake or sleep, we may live with him” (1 Thess 5:10), can’t we say that even sleep becomes prayer?
There is an old Japanese saying about “siesta in the capital.” “Capital” evidently referred to present-day Kyoto, the ancient capital. The expression points to the appreciation of a Kyoto siesta as different from a siesta enjoyed anywhere else. It’s the same with sleep: falling asleep during prayer, nestled in God’s arms, is very different from nodding off during class or in a train or some other place.
If prayer were merely a matter of sleeping, it would be easy for everybody. Sleep can come from fatigue, discouragement, or perhaps lack of fervor in prayer. Some people have even develop the marvelous habit of sleeping when it is time for mental prayer.
This is not the essence of the child who goes to sleep while praying, the sight that Péguy found so touching. The appearance of joy and security in being united to Christ, “whether awake or sleep,” is what makes the slumber beautiful when one is overcome by occasional bodily fatigue, drowsing in prayer, eventually falling asleep before the family altar.
There is a kind of prayer we could call “sleeping in God” because in its depths lies total abandonment to God with complete confidence and peace of heart. Moreover, if faith and love mean to close one’s eyes to the things of this world and to die to self, doesn’t this confident abandonment into God’s loving hands lead to self-forgetfulness? This is what is meant by “sleeping in God” or ” sleep as prayer.” Just as sleep, by nature of its inactivity, restores bodily strength for action, so does prayer generate the strength to wake in God and accomplish God’s will. Prayer is the mysterious union of the two poles, the sleeping and the waking in God. The words of the renowned Zen master Sawaki, that “zazen is to hibernate in order to perceive an entirely new world beyond earthly reality,” may perhaps be pertinent to the matter in question.
This type of prayer can be compared, on the one hand, to Jesus asleep in the boat during the storm (cf. Mk 4:38) and, on the other, to Jesus awake and attentive to others’ needs, even to the obligation to give a cup of water to a poor person, “one of these little ones” (Mt 10:42). If the former type of prayer is to be called non-active or passive prayer (mui-no-inori), the result becomes “prayer that accomplished everything through nonactivity.” Here, then, is a difference: If Zen practice involves “hibernating to perceive a new world,” Christian prayer, by hibernating, receives from God the power to continually re-create the world anew.
~ Excerpted and slightly adapted reflection by Augustine Ichiro Okumura, O.C.D.