Sleep and angels

Jacob’s dream – detail from a 17th century etching

Angel of God, my guardian dear
to whom God’s love commits me here.
Ever this night be at my side
to light, to guard, to rule and guide. Amen.

My mother taught me this prayer when I was a small boy. A prayer before sleep.  I think about it at times and especially on the Feast of the Guardian Angels (October 2nd).

When I was a little older I encountered Compline, night prayer, recited peacefully in Lent with a small group of people in our village church. Close to the beginning the priest read:

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5.8)

Close to sleep, then, I heard of angels and demons nearby!

As we prepare to sleep, as we sleep, we move to a different place, a place of images, and images which are divided – good and bad images, nightmares and sweet dreams. In sleep we surrender ourselves to be in this place, open to dreams and images in the mind and soul. A place sometimes of fear, sometimes of serenity. A place sometimes of awe, sometimes of  comfort.

Old woman praying (detail) Matthias Stom 17th cent.

Although we are vulnerable as we sleep, we are not totally at the mercy of the ups and downs of our minds and the images. The great theologian Karl Rahner writes: “The correct, calm and recollected signing of oneself with the Sign of the Cross, the simple gesture of prayer, the words of prayer  … all these … ought to be characteristic precisely of night prayer, if it is to become an exorcism and consecration of that kingdom into whose power man surrenders himself in sleep.”

Calmly praying before sleep, Rahner suggests, sanctifies the place we enter in sleep. My mother’s simple prayer, or of the prayer of the Church at Compline, perhaps speak then to deep cosmic and spiritual realities.

So then, these traditional prayers encourage us to think of how we sleep, and consider how we prepare ourselves to enter through sleep a new place, a kingdom, of mystery and wonder.

It is in vain that you rise up early
   and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
   for he gives sleep to his beloved. (Psalm 127, 2)

Visit, we beseech Thee, O Lord, this dwelling, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let Thy holy Angels dwell herein, to preserve us in peace; and let Thy blessing be upon us forever. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.  (Traditional prayer used at Compline).

Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings sleep to my eyes, slumber to my eyelids. May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my ancestors, that I lie down in peace and that I arise in peace. Let my sleep be undisturbed by troubling thoughts, bad dreams, and wicked schemes… (From the Jewish Bedtime Shema)

Fr Ian


About stchrysostoms

St Chrysostom’s is an Anglican (Church of England) parish church in Manchester, UK. We’re an inclusive, diverse and welcoming faith community rejoicing in our Anglo Catholic tradition, where people of many differing backgrounds make friends. Find our Facebook group at
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