Sleeping in Church

When I was a kid, one of the congregations my family attended had a fairly small sanctuary. We sat close to the back, but, just a couple of pews down and to our left, there was an older man who sat at the end of a pew, right under a tall stained-glass window. He was a friendly guy, but he was also a life-long bachelor, so he was just about always by himself. And whenever the pastor began his sermon, the man would lean over against the end of the pew and promptly go to sleep.

It happened every Sunday, right on schedule. It was a source of amusement to all of us kids, but I think we were also kind of confused: If we had tried that, a sibling would have elbowed us or a parent would have popped us. Because, back then, worship time was a lot like class time—you were supposed to pay attention; you were supposed to be listening.

Of course, nowadays, that old guy wouldn’t be able to sleep in a worship service. Many mega-congregations keep their sanctuaries as dark as movie theaters, but the services are so manic no one ever dozes off. And if you doubt that approach is deliberate, just look at the way this sort of worship is described on the websites for these communities. Before I sat down to write this column, I did a quick, twenty-minute survey of some of our local mega-congregations, and they all characterized their services as “vibrant”, “dynamic”, “bold”, and “energetic”. One congregation even stated that their worship is “a break-through environment”; another announced that they want the folks who participate in their services to do so with “abandon”.

Orthodox services can be every bit as engaging as those sorts of services, but there is a big difference: Folks fall asleep all the time in Orthodox services. Part of that has to do with the fact that our services can be very long. In a parish, it’s not uncommon for services to last up to four hours, but in monasteries, the services can go on for as long as twelve to fourteen hours. But Orthodox worship can also be pretty quiet—in fact, there are often long stretches where only one person is reading out loud from the Book of Psalms. So, if you are on your third hour of worship, and the service is at a really peaceful point, it’s pretty easy to nod off.

But here’s the thing: falling asleep in an Orthodox service is not a problem. If someone falls asleep in a mega-congregation, the worship team needs to pump the vibe. If someone fell asleep during the services of my childhood, that person was undisciplined; they weren’t paying attention. But if someone dozes in an Orthodox service, it’s not a big deal—because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can still reach them.

In fact, there are lots and lots of stories about how angels or saints or the Mother of God interact with folks who have fallen asleep during Orthodox worship. These folks receive warnings or encouragement or reassurance while they are dozing, and, sure, it’s easy to dismiss those stories as legends, but then you have to contend with the fact that, in Holy Scripture, the Most Holy Trinity communicates with St Joseph and St Paul and the Patriarch Abraham and the Holy and Righteous Joseph while they are asleep. And since this sort of thing happens all the time in the Bible, why shouldn’t it also happen during the worship of the Church?

To be sure, not every worship nap is going to result in a spiritual experience. Sometimes folks are just flat-out tired. But in Holy Orthodoxy, that’s not a problem either. Because we understand that life is a grind and that people get weary. In fact, one of my favorite quotations from the Holy Fathers comes from an Egyptian monk; his name was Pambo; this is what he had to say about snoozing during worship: “Whenever I see a brother who has fallen asleep during the services, I put his head in my lap and let him rest there.”

Whenever I think about that quotation, I also think about that old man sleeping in the pew all those years ago. He always looked so peaceful; the sunlight would stream through the stained glass window and fall all around him. But instead of judging him, I think it would have been better if someone had simply slipped into the pew and put their arm around him.

But that quotation also makes me think about all those folks in those ‘vibrant’, ‘dynamic’, ‘bold’, and ‘energetic’ mega-services. Since twenty-first century life is already so very hyper, I wonder about the wisdom of making worship just one more frenetic experience. Maybe what people really need is just an opportunity to be still. After all, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit don’t need us to be constantly juiced; the Most Holy Trinity can reach us even when we are asleep.

If you’d like to come take a nap during our services, you’d be more than welcome. Or, if you just want to find out more about Orthodox worship, send me a note. I’ll be happy to visit with you.