Here I am on the couch at 3 A.M. A lifelong insomniac, I have been grateful that in the past six months or so, my sleep has improved. But not tonight. The dog woke me up with her barking, and instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, I lay there and felt my anxieties flooding into my brain like a mudslide.
I never seem to be able to hold on to all that is good in my life in the middle of the night. My failures, my fears, the things that I cannot control always haunt the night hours. They pelt like hail. My jaw tightens, my shoulders tense, my fists close tightly, and sleep flees away like a dog with its tail between its legs, utterly defeated.
Silence and solitude. Two of the spiritual disciplines that sound so appealing in the daylight, so desirable. We all want more quiet, more time to just be, when we are busy and demands are high. But in the middle of the night, these states of being are compulsory, and they lose a bit of their luster. I am left with just myself, that person who defeats and annoys me the most, the one who exists in the place of who I wish I really was.
Michaelangelo said, “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and in action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” And he did, over and over. His sculptures are among the most revered of antiquities. I think that maybe our lives are like that, like great chunks of stone, rough, unformed, bulky and plain. God alone can see the beautiful sculpture waiting to be liberated. And it happens with a chisel and a hammer.
I feel those tools of refinement at work most keenly when I am alone and silent in the middle of the night. I have no vision for the finished product. I am most painfully aware of how unwieldy and unrefined I am, how burdened with the extraneous. My desires, my lusts, all the things I want to control but can’t, the heavy heavy weight of unforgiveness, all the ways I feel put upon and ignored-such a load of rocks to carry.
And the fear! How it shapes me. How much of what I have done in my life has been motivated by fear-driven by fear: fear of loss, fear of pain, fear of failure, fear of what people will think. What kind of a life are you left with when the governing principle behind all your actions is staying safe? In the middle of the night, I don’t like the answer.
I will go back to sleep at some point tonight, and when I awake in the morning, life will draw me in and I will be released from this dread. I will be busy, and I will talk to people, my day will feel full and probably meaningful. I may feel useful, or at least see a few things that I do that help someone else. I will try to focus on God, on prayer, on being still and receptive, and will not be very successful, because I will be distracted and full of objectives and ideas and goals. And that will seem a far more happy state than the way I am feeling right now.
But here in the night, in the silence, when my doubts and anger and disappointment, my fear and my longing are so close to the surface, I cannot obscure the reality of who I am with activity and other peoples’ attentions. I cannot accept someone else’s higher opinion of me as a substitute for what I know, deep down, is true of me. And I cannot substitute someone’s admiration or affection for the searing, refining, hammer and chiseling love of God, that wounds to heal, that tears down artifice and posturing, that is dissatisfied with anything short of the beautiful being waiting to be freed from the lumped and shriven block of marble. And when I think these thoughts, I know it is not the dog that awoke me in the middle of the night.