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The Night Watch

The Night Watch


This originally appeared as part of the Daily Sip, a ministry of St John’s Cathedral in Denver, CO


by Charles LaFond


Do you ever look at a person and wonder if they are processing what is going on around them? Do you ever wonder if Jesus’ trips up to the mountain early in the morning was just prayer?  Just making a divine to-do list for God’s desk? It does not seem to me, as I read Jesus’ words about the Father that they just talked together under those darkened skies.  Might they not have thought together?  And what would the world be like if we spent less time talking, texting, emailing, even planning – and simply sat there thinking about our lives and about what is going on around and within us?


A half dozen readers of the Daily Sip have recently asked me why my practice in the pre-dawn morning is divided into thirds: time for praying, time for thinking, time for listening (meditation or spiritual reading.)


I am not sure how it developed, except that I remember watching my father, a writer, sit at his desk or in his chair prior to a meeting, for a long time, before he wrote anything down or before he spoke to guests.  One day I asked him what he was doing – I was wondering if he was sleeping and was confused by how he could doze sitting, erect, with his back away from his chair.


He said he was thinking.


He explained that writing or speaking without thinking was dangerous. And I would go further and say that living without thinking is dangerous. But many do.


So my Christian Practice is three-fold: thinking, prayer and listening.  And it usually takes three hours. Now, this is my practice and it is only my practice on days I can pull it off. Some days I need more than usual sleep and some days God and I are not on speaking terms.  Well, I am in a shame storm or sullen or just pouty and so not willing to speaking face God – who waits and listens.


But most days – about 6 out of seven, my practice is to spend one third of my time with God thinking.  So after coffee and a shower, and long before sunrise, invoking God as Holy Spirit, I sit for an hour just thinking, I then stretch and sit for an hour in wordless prayer and then I sit or walk for an hour listening to the thoughts of others in the form of audiobooks or podcasts on spirituality (On Being is my favorite!)


This first hour of thinking is so important and can feel like wasting time.  Sitting, just thinking, is like being a night security guard in your mind.  You’ve seen them on TV or on those movies “Night at the Museum” in which the building is shut to the world, quiet in the night, and the security guard wanders the rooms and halls with a flashlight checking things out – looking for something that is amiss. Well, that is “meditative thought” and it is an old practice in Christianity.


I make coffee and take my shower, then I turn the lights back off, light a candle, sit in my favorite chair and think, having prayed that God would walk with me through my thoughts and my life with the flashlight of the Hagia Sophia (female Holy Wisdom.) As I age, I am growing fond of the Holy Spirit because She is funny, mischievous, sometimes quite piercing and always honest with me, but also kind.  Except when she is not kind, and needs to be really quite firm with me. And I appreciate that too. It’s like when a mother screams at her child – grabbing her violently and yanks her arm so that she does not pet that pretty brown snake with memorizing diamond shapes on her sparkling skin and that pretty rattle she makes to say “howdy!”.  And in the church there are as many of those, as there are in other parts of life.


So we stroll through my life with a flashlight, she and I – this mother-God.  I am used to imagining her long white hair and her sinewy legs, her mischievous winks, her caftans so full of orange and light green and that pink Gerber daisy she keeps in her hair – big and brassy with fingernails painted like a rainbow.  And she is used to my fearfulness and my doubts and my whining.  And we walk together, she and I, looking with curiosity at life.  And curiosity is the key to all of this.  Walking with the stride, insecurity and attitude of a short Nazi concentration camp guard is not a helpful way to wander one’s life.  Nor is pretending that life is Willie Wonka’s Chocolate factory where there are no rules.  No.  There is a middle way.


One simply takes the time to wander one’s thought and one’s card-file of actions asking questions.  “How did I do today or yesterday? I wonder why I did that? I wonder why I said that?  I wonder what will happen as a result of having made that choice? I wonder what that choice will inspire me to do tomorrow? I wonder why I got so angry?  I wonder why I was so unkind there? I wonder why he was so cruel to me? I wonder why I let him? I wonder what I should do with that wonderful gift I was given yesterday when she said I could submit a book proposal? I wonder why my right foot is aching? I wonder if that request is one to which I must say ‘no”? I wonder what is next for me in life?  I wonder if that friendship needs to be gently bowed to, thanked and firmly ended? I wonder if sage in caramelized onions with chicken bouillon would be every bit as good as the French version with thyme and beef bouillon? I wonder if I need a retreat day this month? I wonder if I have misjudged her? I wonder what God is up to here?”


In scripture, the various writers frequently make reference to “the third hour.”  It appears in psalms and also in other books of the Bible and it refers to the time of a 24-hour period when the third group of guards take over the shift from the second group of guards on the city walls.  The third hour began at 3:00 am or 4:00 am and they watched from the city gates and walls to be sure that when people in the city are most deeply asleep, no army tries to invade. We have been humans for 200,000 years but have only lived with gas lamps and lightbulbs for 200 years- the equivalent of the last word of a massive book.  So light and dark are all messed up for modern people and so, therefore is night-watching.  Modern people find that they awaken at around 3:00 am and frustrated, need to force themselves to go back to sleep, caffeine still coursing through their veins from the previous day of conquering. Our bodies are not designed to see computer screens and TV screens at night.  Our bodies and minds turn off naturally, biologically without light but, TV and computer screens mess with our night-nature, tricking us into late nights since our minds need a full 30 minutes of darkness in order to begin to shut down and turn off – and many people deprive themselves of that with TV and computer light – and so get themselves into cycles of exhaustion. Which leads to other nasty ways of being on the planet and with people.


The next time you can’t sleep at 3:30 am, get up. Sit in a chair in the dark with a candle. Take Jesus’ hand or Hagia Sophia’s and go for a walk in the night-watch of your “nefesh” – the Hebrew word for your everythingness.  See what you see inside you.  Notice what you notice about you, about others, about the life you are living.  Let God take you on a tour of the many rooms in your life. Look into boxes you have carefully kept shut. Notice gorgeousness you forgot was there. Wonder what others are doing and saying around you – not obsessively but simply with curiosity.  “I wonder why they think that?”  “I wonder if that is true?”


But beware.  Knowing what you know by seeing what you see, is a huge responsibility. It takes fearlessness.


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