Friday, December 6, 2013

Matins and sleep patterns

Matins, now known as the Office of Readings, used to be said in the wee small hours of the morning. I remember the first person to tell me about it was a Dominican who described it to me as what they did "back in the days when ships were made of wood and men were made of iron."

The local Dominicans, it must be said, have slacked off considerably in their practice of the Divine Office but, even at that, I thought he was right in suggesting that the practice of getting up in the early hours before the dawn was pretty hard going.

Lately, however, I find myself saying Matins earlier than I used to; the current instruction allows for it to be said at any hour of the day. I say it at 5:30 in the morning now. These days, the shortest of the year, I find it particularly wonderful to sit in the glow of a  single low light surrounded by darkness and solemnly say the office. I find I say it slowly and more reverently. I love the long, drawn out quality of saying it at that time. The other offices, which end up being said in the middle of work, I too often find myself looking to get over. Matins I want to last.

Some recent scholarly discoveries suggest that it wasn't as difficult for our ancestors as I imagined to get up in the night to pray. They are suggesting that the notion that we should all sleep eight hours straight a night is a modern innovation and that our ancestors slept two sleeps running about twelve hours. You can read more about it at this link. I first found out about it here.

The implication here is that perhaps the eight hours we have always been told is healthy practice may just be something that is convenient for an industrial age. Perhaps we would be better if we slept in two sleeps extending over a longer time? I don't know enough to do any more than raise these questions. I do know that I often wake up in the early hours of the morning and have a hard time getting back to sleep. My usual practice when that happens is pop my ear buds in and listen to a lecture or book on my iPhone. Next time it happens, I may just get up and say Matins instead.

In any case, it would seem that, far from the harsh discipline I imagined it to be, the practice of Matins may have been simply a prayerful way to make solemn an hour when most people were awake anyway.

Matins used to be the most important part of the Office. I can't remember exactly how many, but I think a total of nine Psalms and three readings were included. Today, the Office of Readings is three Psalms and two readings. The local Dominicans no longer say it at all and have chosen to incorporate the two readings into Morning and Evening prayer instead. That is a sad thing.

Postscript: The Office of Readings, as noted above used to be called Matins. Morning Prayer was formerly known as Lauds and Evening prayer was formerly known as Vespers and Night Prayer was formerly known as Compline. For the life of me, I can't think why the reformers looked at those beautiful names—Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline—and decided that we needed all that poetry ripped out of our lives.

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