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Agnostic Testimony 19
The Spirit of Sleep

from Laura W

Originally given as a sermon at a Unitarian Universalist Church, July 8, 2007

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Good morning. If my voice sounds kind of tubular, I apologize. My summer vacation has begun with a summer cold. But I am very happy to be here. This annual sermon is the carrot they hold before us, and you may have seen how eagerly I trot. I am also grateful to have Chris as my worship associate, because again he instantly grasped a vague idea, and offered wonderful elements that complete this hour. I’d like to thank Liz too, whose talents and sensitive choices are framing our service in music.

I apologize also for this sermon being rambling. There’s not a lot of structure to it. It may be partly due to my cold, but I believe the primary cause is genetic. I write poems, for example. And, when my daughter was young, she would lie in her bed at night and talk out loud for at least an hour, not telling stories to dolls but addressing the ceiling, waving her arms, before she slept. One day she said, “You know how I talk in bed? Is there a name for that?” “It’s called free association,” I said. She asked, “Can a person major in that in college? I’m really good at it.”

A third apology should probably be for choosing the irreverent dog for the cover of our Order of Service, but that would be insincere. I’m not sure there’s anything more reassuring than a happy dog napping on its back, spine relaxed to full length, jowls flopping onto the floor, tongue so unhitched that it hangs over the edge of the lip like a gooeyduck, and nether parts sprawled unguardedly under a beam of sun.

But that’s daytime sleep. Afternoon naps seem much less complicated than the idea of getting through an entire night unconscious. As UUs are always open to new revelation, I will share one that has visited me: at night, it’s dark.

I’d like to invite you to examine with me, or more accurately ramble around in, the moonlit space between waking and sleeping. It might be a metaphor for agnosticism, or the space between faith and reason, and for any of you who also get lost in vague spaces now and then, maybe it will be useful. Perhaps, like me, some of you practice Self-Soothing with Labels. I have latched on to various self-definitions as though they were nurses in the night-time. I have called myself a very optimistic agnostic ripe for a deathbed conversion. Lately, a more reluctant agnostic who prefers to read mysteries because I’m scared of what more mystical books might demand. I have also defended agnosticism with passion, as a wonderful membranous space that’s as full of worship as a happy ascetic, as full of thought as a peaceful philosopher, as full of positive purpose as a good teacher.

One thing I feel very clear about is that agnosticism is not atheism, and for some reason it really gets my dander up when the two are lumped together carelessly, alphabetically, as though an agnostic is too lazy to make metaphors for “I don’t know, but I remain open.” Agnosticism is not the absence of caring, it’s not dismissal, it’s not arrogant, it’s not fixed, it’s not a lot of things. It requires courage and a sense of wonder. I am conspicuously lacking in the courage department, but I’m awash in wonder.

And too often, in general dread. Falling asleep strikes me as a fine parallel for a transition into faith, because both involve a great deal of trust. When we roll over that soft cliff every night of our lives, why are we doing it? Why on earth would we DO that? What’s at the bottom? Where’s the GPS? Who’s in charge? I may have taken the words too literally when I was little, but night after night, I went to bed obediently pronouncing that if I should die before I wake, I prayed the Lord my soul to take. These were not good suggestions for a small chicken such as me. I latched onto my soul with hypervigilant determination as I recited my prayers, and not much about that has changed, unfortunately.

As I’ve gotten older and sleep has become even more complicated, life brought a turn so that sleep often preoccupies me during the daytime, too. Where I work now, we sell bedding, and sometimes in the store we’ll talk about sleep in the same yearning or blissful tones that people use when they describe a new flavor of high-cacao chocolate, or write incomprehensible adjectives about the tastes of wine. Customers come in with weary faces and tell us stories of pain, or insomnia, or thrashing, or allergies, and of their inhospitable beds. I feel I recognize them, these kindred sleepless spirits. I want to tuck them all in on something comfortable, tell them a soothing story and croon a lullaby. Ragged insomniacs from all over the country call us all week long. People with desperation in their voices talk into our ears about their sweaty battles for sleep, their wild desires for painless rest.

I am a little contrary in that I often have a wild desire to not sleep. But still, I know that for our species like so many others, there is no choice. We must sleep. Our bodies grow weary or ill or we find in fatigue that our minds no longer make sense. So we must trust that our hearts will continue to beat, our lungs breathe, and barring death or the disasters which do happen, the people we love will be there in the morning as they were when we said goodnight.

I think faith is, or might be, a similar roll off a soft cliff. The question has become much simpler to me, perhaps because I’ve stayed awake about it, although no easier. I finally figured out that I have spent so many years fixated on arguments with myself regarding the object of faith that I forgot about the verb. I have gone cross-eyed trying to figure out what I could have faith in, whether there is a deity or no deity, whether there’s love in the sky or only Christopher Hitchens, and if there are a deity or deities why are they so mean, and if love is the answer then why hasn’t love won the brutal world-wide debate.

My uncle Homer the Nazarene preacher once told me when I spent the night on his farm, “I nearly wore out the knees in my pajamas praying for your soul last night.” I loved my uncle, who was not mildly distressed when I became a UU, and I shared his love for the garden. But not his religion. Still, I knew that something like a moth hovered over me while I was there. As usual, I had not much of an answer for him, so I just said, “Thank you! That must be why I slept so well.” If looks could condemn one for unbelief, I might well have been planted in his tomato patch that morning.

How does anyone go to sleep with these questions unanswered? I often can’t without banging myself over the head with an Ambien, so I do pretty much the same thing my daughter did, free-associate for an hour or so, although usually not out loud. If you think of it, making metaphors and analogies can be endless. They’re great sleep fighters. You can make analogies between people and animals. Between reason and dream. I could spend hours asking such questions as, if insomnia is a mind aware of danger, is sleeping soundly stupid? If robust health is like that of a well-loved animal, what is bolting awake at the sound of a cricket? If a dog runs and hunts brilliantly in her dreams, what is Restless Legs Syndrome? Am I running in my sleep? From what? Am I getting somewhere? Where is the finish line?

Lately, I have begun to realize that I will probably never have a satisfactory answer about the object of faith or a comprehensible map to the land of dreams. I know I want faith, but I don’t want to be tricked. I want the kind of faith that everybody could agree with, because I hate discord. I haven’t polled anyone, but I think generally speaking a good kind of faith would be that which promotes harmony, relieves suffering, and lessens fear. I am dubious about the forms or interpretations of religion that promote disharmony, cause suffering and increase fear. So just try to unglue me from this community; you’ll have a fight on your hands. Anyway, the object of faith still escapes me. But the verb continues to attract and overcome me, and I will roll over the soft cliff in spite of myself.

I have a new goal: to “do” faith” rather than to “have” faith. Consider that “to place faith in” is an active choice rather than passively “having”. It means to trust. So I have come to believe at least this, which may be sounder than I know: I believe that I will do, or experience, faith, the more I choose to do, or experience, trust. The challenge for me, and perhaps for some of you too, is to trust with bravery and discernment, rather than surrender to mayhem. For example, I trust entirely that this beautiful planet will continue to roll in its sleep without help from me. I do not trust that the earth will keep breathing polluted breath or bathing in polluted seas without sacrificing uncountable forms of life, including ours, without help from me.

There is a membrane, a boundary between wakefulness and sleep where so much mystery lies. Perhaps some of you also like to linger in this sub- but not unconscious place, rather than sensibly wake or sensibly sleep. The attraction of agnosticism is not lack of commitment. It’s not fence-sitting, it’s fence-walking. In the middle of the rail is no time to pick a side, it’s a time to feel the reality of gravity and balance, to sway and be amazed at the miraculous ability of lifted arms to prevent your fall.

Agnosticism handled gracelessly may explain a particular kind of insomnia. It’s not that I have difficulty going to sleep, although I do. It’s more that I defy sleep. Sometimes I feel it coming on and literally shake myself awake. Who does that? It’s not that I can’t anticipate how this episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter will end. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable or unhappy. I’m not afraid of sleep. Dreams are deliciously interesting and I know I feel unusually good when I have slept long and thoroughly. I recognize that it’s a healthy way to proceed. I just too often find sleep a poor competitor with the balancing joy of walking along the top of the fence. I don’t know how high the fence is, I can’t think about that. But if you said to me that defiance of common sense is not the cleverest of reasons to be short on sleep, I would agree with you.

I know I’m not alone with sleep issues, however. If you have any of these you could say Amen. There’s nothing embarrassing about snoring, is there? How about apnea? Restless legs? Early waking? Insomnia? Hypersomnia? Narcolepsy? How about sleepwalking? Or my favorite, sleep eating? I took an extra Ambien by accident one night and woke up in front of the refrigerator at 3 a.m. eating cheese. I had also fed the dog.

For so many of us, why is sleep such a battle sometimes? Why doesn’t the spirit of sleep just fly over us like the big green moth in the sleeping pill commercials? Why do so many of us toss and turn at the edge of sleep instead of abandoning ourselves to it as naturally as a napping dog? Doesn’t anybody slumber anymore? I don’t think so. I think in this culture slumber has mostly gone the way of having nothing much pressing to do, or porch swings and lemonade, or home-made music. In my case, as stupid an idea as insomnia has proven to be, I just don’t want to miss anything. One of the benefits of trying to go without air conditioning most nights is experiencing the sounds and smells of a muggy summer.

When I was little I hated school but loved reading. So at night I would take my lamp and put it under the covers, risking inferno, and read under my heated tent until about 3 a.m., and then I’d be prodded out of bed at 7:00, so I began to experience in daytime a lot of waking dreams I hadn’t had time to finish the night before. I think in fact that may explain a lot of things about my life. Unsympathetic teachers, when I flunked the ninth grade, seemed to feel that I lacked discipline! I’m sure…I just lacked sleep. I was as disciplined about smuggling novels into my classes to read behind propped-up textbooks as I was about the night-time reading. I had obligations—to the story. I owed the author my full attention until the night was through and only exhaustion made me fail.

In a similar way, I am devoted to free association. Poets know that it releases the metaphors from their cages of consciousness. Good metaphors, few of which you’ll hear from me this morning, are as dazzling to me as bolts of lightning. Like conversion experiences! Even if they might come from the unconscious, the plain fact is you have to be awake to read them or to write them down. Here are some words James Dickey wrote in 1961, in his poem “The Heaven of Animals”.

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt, as they have done
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.

I want everybody’s sleep to be a sovereign floating of joy. But years of being agnostic have taught me that you can’t get joy by willing it. You can’t “get” sleep at all, really. You have to allow it to get you. Maybe it’s the same as faith. As elusive and as comforting. Maybe trying to get it, as though sleep is an object you can grasp, is what keeps it away. And maybe like the spirit of sleep, the spirit of faith has nothing to do with the objects of sentences, but only with their verbs.

Maybe the simplest way to be at peace is to work hard for what is right, play music for our planet, stretch our spines to their full length, tend to our health, and help each other. Maybe we can just do that—do those good actions—without fixating on the threats and distractions that might prevent us. Maybe the spirits of faith and of sleep will come to us if we do those things. I don’t know, but I remain open.

In spite of peril and war and injustice and fear and the disasters which do happen, I believe we can make it together, when the good verbs of the day are done. When the good verbs of the day are done, we can lie down to sleep, and we can dream sweet dreams.