Acquainted with the Night

Christ on the Mount of Olives by Josef Untersberger

The poem doesn’t require explanation, though some might be surprised to hear such a somber sound from Robert Frost.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

Deep in the night, most of us desire only sleep, “nature’s soft nurse” as Shakespeare said. Denied that, rolling in bed, searching for the position that brings slumber, we can’t help but to join Job, thinking ourselves accursed.

So I have been assigned months of misery,
and troubled nights have been allotted to me.
If in bed I say, “When shall I arise?”
then the night drags on;
I am filled with restlessness until the dawn (7:3-4).

The mind won’t surrender. It brings the day’s cares to bed and can’t let go. A pharmaceutical industry exists to offer slumber, but sometimes, we follow Frost. We engage the night, looking out of our windows, listening to the silence of the house, maybe even going for a walk.

Since the night will not let us go, we ask what it wants of us. My family has a picture of Jesus, doing the same. Painted by Josef Untersberger, in the early twentieth century, it’s entitled, Christus am Olberg. I’ve seen it in many other homes. Christ sits above the city of Jerusalem, at peace with the night. Pondering the day? Praying? Probably all of that. Mark’s Gospel records him doing the same.

Rising very early before dawn, he left
and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed (1:35).

Sleep is God’s soft, sweet grace. To lose it is surely to suffer. Yet even if we do not choose the restlessness, sleep’s loss is something that we can offer to God. We can ponder the day. We can pray. In the long hours of the night, the many years of life have a way of contracting. If we are graced, we might glimpse our lives from the heights.

In the Third Spiritual Alphabet, a work on prayer by the Franciscan Francisco de Asuna, Saint Teresa of Avila, for example, would have read:

Blessed are those who pray for a long time before sleeping and on waking up immediately begin to pray again, for they emulate Elias in eating a little, then sleeping, eating a little more, then sleeping again, and in this way they pass time reclining, as it were, on the Lord’s breast after their meal, as children rest against their mother’s breast where they sleep after having sucked, wake up, nurse again, and then fall back to sleep. In this manner they spend the time for sleeping in these glorious intervals so that the time is more for prayer than for sleep because their primary intention was to pray. And they use the majority of time others spend for sleep in prayer, and even during sleep they realize as soon as they awake that the soul slept in the arms of their beloved.

Most of us are not ascetic Franciscans or Carmelites, seeking to offer suffering, or the absence of sleep, to God. But it is something we can offer. All those Gospel calls about staying awake aren’t simply metaphors. Yes, night is for sleep, but it’s also when lovers wake.

Job 7: 1-4, 6-7  1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23  Mark 1: 29-39

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Bruce Snowden
3 years 11 months ago
"Yes, night is for sleep, but it's also when lovers wake." Scrolling the internet I came across Terrance W. Klein's beautifully true, "Acquainted With The Night" and as I do not recall seeing it at another time on AMERICA'S sites, I'd like to post a little on a subject near and dear to me - the night. Yes, it is for sleep and for awakened love, both aspects with which I am familiar in ways human and for want of a better word, divine. I'm a spurt-sleeper, never in my entire life sleeping through the night, often in my youngest years "getting up with the roosters" to walk barefooted on dew-laded grass. Even now at eighty-three 5 AM is my waking time, helped by habit and old age which makes long sleep seem so unnecessary, not exactly accurate however, as sometimes I sleep late until 6:30 A.M. so much to do and so little time left to do it! This is not scary to me, but rather simply a part of life's cycle of adventures. So I do know what it means to lie awake in bed at night unable to sleep. In younger times it offered opportunity on how to love and on how not to love humanly! But for me it has also become a way to deepen spirituality, to do as St. Paul says, "grow in love" in love with the Lord! Now as I lay awake deep into the night, while crickets sleep, Passion-flashbacks come to me of Jesus on that first Holy Thursday night, arrested by ruffian soldiers and through the night into early Friday mocked, spit upon and in short rendered sleepless through prison mockery. I pray, Jesus let me share with you your sleeplessness experiencing the best I can the horrors of your nocturnal capture, hoping thereby to comfort you a little, making my sleeplessness spiritually advantageous, paradoxically lulled back to brief slumber tired with the Lord in his agony. This is one way I've found to put to good use sleepless nights and I don't think one has to be an ascetic to do it. It's simply the kind of thing that a lover does, like a loving parent does towards a little child crying and restless deep into the night with a colicky tummy, or from teething pain, this experienced by both my wife and I when our little ones cried for comfort in the middle of the night, nothing heroic, just ordinary love enacted. At least so it seems to me


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