Sneaking Shuteye

Yet a little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to sleep (Prov. 6.10).

Insomniac? Me, too. Let’s swap coping methods. Benadryl or Ambien? Yoga? Counseling? What about caffeine: Less? None at all?

Maybe you’ve had better luck than I have with stuff like that. Unfortunately, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to an inadequate night’s sleep on a regular basis – catching up on reading in the wee hours, or I Love Lucy reruns on TV Land, or even doing dishes on occasion – and so my challenge is figuring out how to make up the sleep deficit during the day.

Napping is the obvious stopgap remedy, but hardly a real solution, especially when it comes to the more serious effects of sleep deprivation. Michael Twery of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, says that naps “may reduce the feeling of sleepiness but do not help the biological rhythms associated with long-term health.” Better sleep – good sleep, long sleep, at night preferably – is what’s really needed. Right. I know that. It’s a work in progress.

In the meantime, of course, naps are imperative, but not always convenient. Depending on where you work, it might be frowned upon to simply spread out on the floor for a refreshing doze. Consequently, unless you work in a part of the world where afternoon siestas are de rigueur, sneaking some sleep on the sly becomes an anappingrt form. Probably you’re already an old hand and already know all the tricks, but here are a few pointers if you’re a sleepless newbie.

1. Car naps – Let’s be clear from the get-go on this one: The car must be stationary before napping occurs. In fact, car naps are a great way of preventing nodding off when the car actually is in motion.

That being said, I put this one first because, although seasonal, it’s very convenient. Seriously, what could be easier (when the weather is clement) than stopping in a parking lot, making your way to the outer rim (where the well-heeled park their Lexus sedans and shiny new SUVs in hopes of avoiding car dings), and camping out for a spell. You put back your seat, insert a couple earplugs, and then cover your eyes with a handkerchief or bandanna. Bring along a small pillow for your neck’s sake, and perhaps a light coverlet in the fall and early spring. Five or ten minutes, tops, and you’re ready for that next meeting or financial report!

A variation on this method is what I call the “River Nap.” This was a favorite when we had babies that weren’t all that great at sleeping themselves. I’d secure the wailing child in a car seat, and we’d go for an extended drive all around town until the wails gave way to lullaby land. Next, I’d find some quiet, picturesque spot to park the vehicle (often a spot by the St. Joseph River – hence the name), lock all the doors, and put my seat back to join my son or daughter in a restful slumber. Dad gets a nap, baby gets a nap, and exhausted mom of nursing newborn gets a nap (hopefully) at home. A non-REM trifecta – sweet!

2. Library napsDid you know you’re not allowed to sleep in public libraries? It’s true, and now my kids have been alerted accordingly.

We were in our neighborhood branch the other day. My teens went off to find bosleepingoks and movies and music, and my younger children plopped down in front of the computers to play games (which they normally don’t get to do at home).

I found a poofy chair within eyeshot of the computer bank and settled in. Then, after the librarian making her rounds had passed me by, I leaned back, covered my eyes with a cloth, and caught a quick snooze. Five minutes is all it takes usually, sometimes even just a couple. Sleep experts say that cat naps are better than daytime full-fledged deep sleep anyway. It’s just a recharge, and then back in the game.

Later, on the way home, I mentioned to the kids that I was glad I wasn’t caught napping or else I might’ve been thrown out. It was hyperbole, of course, but my youngest daughter thought it was a curious comment. “Why would you get in trouble for sleeping in the library?” she asked.

This was a tough one, because we’re pretty much talking homeless folks here, and the no-sleeping rule is designed to prevent libraries from becoming drop-in centers. And, as I recall, that’s one of the main purposes for drop-in centers: To catch up on sleep in a safe, climate-controlled environment.

In Chicago, I remember getting kicked out of libraries pretty regularly for sleeping – the Bezazian branch on the north side was the first. I was brand new in the city and on a February urban plunge. I hadn’t slept much in the rescue mission the night before, so I was pretty beat, plus cold and sick. I just wanted a warm place to sit and snooze a bit, so when I came across the Bezazian branch, I went in, sat down, and dropped off to sleep. It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two before a librarian shook me awake and let me know I’d have to move along surprise!

Next time you’re in a downtown library, look around. You’ll see men and women (mostly men) slouching in chairs with strategically placed books to forestall the inevitable tap on the foot or shoulder. It was true in Chicago, and it’s true here in South Bend. It’s telling that I’ve never been nailed for napping in our neighborhood branch isleepern the subdivision, but downtown I’ve been called on it at least a couple times. And it’s apparently a pretty common library protocol nationwide – even in Seattle, where the public library has intentionally reached out to the homeless – but I’m glad to know that librarians wrestle with it when called upon to enforce it.

3. Church napsUnlike sleeping in the library, sleeping in church is acceptable. In fact, I even had a priest give me implicit permission once. “The least important part of the Mass by far is the homily,” he said. “If you have to duck out for some reason or catch forty winks, that’s the time to do it.” He well knows that I’ve taken him up on his advice many times.

Yes, I’m a notorious Mass-napper, I admit it. In fact, we have a saying in my family OK, not a “saying” so much as an inside joke, and the joke is on me. You’ve probably heard the musically inclined quote St. Augustine: “He who sings, prays twice.” Our family gloss on that saying is this: “And he who falls asleep, prays three times.”

But napping in church doesn’t have to be reserved to worship alone. If you can find a church that is open for prayer and adoration all day, then your drowsiness problems are over!

The key here is adopting the proper attitude of prayerful sleep – “attitude” as in positioning in the pew. My favorite napping church is still St. Peter’s in the Loop in Chicago. When I lived at the Catholic Worker, and got desperate for a break and some Z’s, I’d hop on the ‘L’ train (another good sleeping venue, but not to everyone’s taste), get off at Madison, and walk over to St. Peter’s. Like most Catholic churches, the front pews were typically empty, so I’d usually pick a spot a few rows bst. peter'sack from the Mary altar to the left of the sanctuary. I’d half kneel/half sit, and lean my head forward on the pew in front of me. I could stay in that position a good 15 minutes, and then wake up refreshed and ready to head back into the do-gooder fray, with only a big red mark on my forehead as evidence of my AWOL respite.

So, church napping is not only liturgically acceptable (during the homily), and socially respectable (as long as you don’t snore too bad), but theologically appropriate as well. Sleep is like death according to the Scriptures – especially in St. Paul:

For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

And what’s the goal of the Christian life after all? To die in Christ, right? For to die in Christ is to be rise with him on the last day. St. Paul gets at this from the negative point of view in his first letter to the church at Corinth:

For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost…. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15.16-18, 20).

We’re all going to die, short of the Parousia, and hopefully we’ll die in Christ with hope of resurrection to follow. If Christ is the church, why not think of sleeping in church as a display of Maranatha, “Come, Lord Jesus!” spirit?

In any case, please give me the benefit of the doubt. Next time you see me nodding off in church? Think of it as a theological statement and an affirmation of faith….Zzzzz-zzzzzz……


An Archaeological Thriller

jonesMy guess is that “archaeological” and “thriller” are two words that were rarely linked prior to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Generations of moviegoers have grown up on Indiana Jones’ exploits, spellbound by his death-defying feats, and enthralled by his (usually) noble sacrifices on behalf of his museum, his profession, and, more broadly, the entire civilized world.

Yet, even with three sequels, a TV spinoff, and constant exposure via DVD, Netflix, and cable reruns, Jones’ fictional output is still shy of overcoming the assumption that actual archaeology is basically dull.

Maybe so, but I know of at least one exception.

Right around the time that Harrison Ford was supposedly liberating the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis, a real-life adventure took place that also featured relics, intrigue, and ancient tombs: The hunt for the final resting place of the Fisherman, the first pope. John Evangelist Walsh wrote a book about it, The Bones of St. Peter (1985), and recently my wife presented me with a reprint as a gift. “I remember you talking about this once,” she remarked, “and I thought you’d enjoy reading it again.” She was right.

Many years ago, my pastor gave me a copy with the suggestion that every Catholic convert should know the story. “It’s all true,” Fr. Simon murmured mysteriously. “We have his bones.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant, but he got my attention, and I dived in.

The story sounds plain enough, but it reads like a cliffhanger. Longstanding Catholic tradition had always placed the Apostle Peter’s martyrdom and burial on the grounds of the Vatican, with the final resting place of his bones somewhere beneath the Basilica’s high altar—a fitting testament to Jesus’ declaration that He would build His church “on this rock (petros).” During renovations to the basilica’s crypt in 1939, a series of ancient tombs and grave markings were discovered, and Pope Pius XII authorized further investigation.

No doubt, the Holy Father would’ve been cautiously optimistic that the experts would discover Peter’s remains where tradition had always located them, and that there would be enough empirical evidence to make a solid case that went beyond faith and piety. Still, he was willing to take a risk that the science might prove tradition wrong—itself surely an act of heroism and fortitude perhaps rivaling anything Indiana Jones attempted.

As the diggers made their way through the underground pagan necropolis, they encountered more and more Christian imagery and graffiti, but they encountered obstacles as well. One big problem was water, seeping into their excavations from leaky conduits deep in the walls. Plus there were personality conflicts, rivalry among the researchers, minor mishaps, major blunders—not to mention the commencement of a world war.

In time, the Apostle’s remains were indeed discovered, and in the very spot tradition led the team to believe they would be—directly beneath the high altar. In 1968, Pope Paul VI joyfully announced to the world that the Apostle’s remains had been found.

Of course they were found under the high altar,” the skeptics cry. “Where else would Catholic archaeologists working at the behest of the pope find St. Peter’s bones? How convenient!” What’s more, unlike the opening of the Ark in Raiders, there were no meteorological theatrics, no apparitions or ghostly terrors accompanying the tomb’s discovery—so no supernatural verification, you might say. In terms of human second opinion, there were plenty of naysayers, and scholars continue to squabble over the authenticity of the grave and its contents to this day.

So. Does it matter?

Let me shift gears a bit—to a children’s book, the Newberry classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967). It’s a story of runaway siblings that uncover what they think is a secret regarding a controversial Michelangelo statue. Is it a fake? Is it real? Claudia and Jamie think they know, and they seek out Mrs. Frankweiler, the original owner, to confer with her.

In the end, their definitive evidence isn’t so definitive, and even Mrs. Frankweiler’s more solid proof is open to doubt, as she tells them:

What they’ll do is start investigating the authenticity of the sketch…. They’ll analyze the ink. And the paper. They’ll research all his illustrated notes and compare, compare, compare, compare. In short, they’ll make a science of it…. They’ll poll all the authorities, and probably the majority will agree that the note and the statue are really the work of Michelangelo…. But some stubborn ones won’t agree, and thereafter the statue and the sketch will appear in books with a big question mark.


After digesting this, and sensing Frankweiler’s resignation, Claudia probes further and asks why she doesn’t want “the last little bit of doubt cleared up.” You can almost hear the art patron’s heavy sigh as you read her negative reply and simple justification: “Because I’m eighty-two years old. That’s why.”

Now, back to Peter’s bones: Are they genuine? Is it really his tomb? The evidence is compelling, the Pope confirmed it, and I believe it—I have no reason not to.

But would my faith be shaken should new discoveries shift the weight of evidence in the other direction? Would we have to doubt the Pope’s authority? Doubt the Church Herself? Don’t we need to know for sure—that is, in Claudia’s words, to have the last little bit of doubt cleared up?

No. Why? Because the Gospel is not about extinguishing doubt. New Testament translator J.B. Phillips wrote of this in his comments on historical Christianity:

I am not in the least concerned with what may or may not be proved by the dexterous manipulation of texts. Indeed, I think we are all of us indoctrinated more than we know by being led tendentiously from one text to another in our impressionable years. But I am concerned with this new quality of living which has as its spearhead the personal visit of God to this planet in the Person of Jesus Christ.

In other words, the Church has another agenda—an agenda of faith, hope, and love. We can’t prove those are Peter’s bones or that Peter was the first Pope; we can’t prove Apostolic succession or Transubstantiation; we can’t prove the Incarnation or the Resurrection. But why would we Luca Giordano, The Crucifixion of St. Peter (c. 1660)want to? A faith of mere proof isn’t really faith, and, besides, the Gospel is primarily about love—and you can’t prove love.

You can show it, though, and that’s Peter’s true legacy. After screwing up royally over and over, Peter finally met up with his risen Lord at the seashore. Three times Jesus asked him to confirm his love, and three times the Apostle did so, but words were not enough—action was required, ultimate action.

‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’ (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, ‘Follow me’ (John 21:15-19).

As Peter tells Jesus elsewhere, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Love invites us to follow as well, bones or no bones. Our own thrilling tale awaits.


A version of this story appeared on The Catholic Thing.

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