25 August 2013

Rising at Midnight: Changing Sleep Patterns and Daily Prayer

Most western adults try to sleep between seven and eight hours a night, with some needing less and others more for proper functioning during the day. However, many of us suffer from insomnia, unwillingly lying awake for hours in the middle of the night. As it turns out, however, fretting about wakefulness seems to be a modern preoccupation. Our ancestors appear to have taken this as a normal state of affairs, as reported here: Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You.

Your ancestors slept in a way that modern sleepers would find bizarre – they slept twice. . . . The existence of our sleeping twice per night was first uncovered by Roger Ekirch, professor of History at Virginia Tech.

His research found that we didn’t always sleep in one eight hour chunk. We used to sleep in two shorter periods, over a longer range of night. This range was about 12 hours long, and began with a sleep of three to four hours, wakefulness of two to three hours, then sleep again until morning.

References are scattered throughout literature, court documents, personal papers, and the ephemera of the past. What is surprising is not that people slept in two sessions, but that the concept was so incredibly common. Two-piece sleeping was the standard, accepted way to sleep.

Although unfamiliar to us today, a perusal of the Bible appears to support Ekirch's discovery. Here are a few telling references:

But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron (Judges 16:3).

At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! (Ruth 3:8)

At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules (Psalm 119:62).

Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning (Mark 13:35).

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).

What did people do with these wakeful hours in the middle of the night? According to Stephanie Hegarty, writing for the BBC,

During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.

This answers a question that has puzzled many of us who have studied the ancient patterns of daily prayer practised by God's people of the old and new covenants. Nowadays we have difficulty imagining why anyone would willingly consent to be roused from a supposedly deep slumber by the summons to prayer at such an (if you'll pardon the expression) ungodly hour. Yet they may already have been awake. Both Roman and Orthodox monasteries prescribed a midnight office, with certain psalms assigned to be prayed at that hour. According to chapter VIII of the Rule of St. Benedict:

Making due allowance for circumstances, the brethren will rise during the winter season, that is, from the calends of November till Easter, at the eighth hour of the night [between 12 and 1 am]; so that, having rested till a little after midnight, they may rise refreshed.

Some of us who have suffered from insomnia in the past have already discovered the benefits of prayer during these periods of wakefulness. Perhaps it is time to change our attitude towards these times. Rather than see them as occasions for suffering, at least where obvious illness is not a factor, perhaps we might view them as opportunities to bring our praises, petitions and thanksgivings before a gracious and loving God, who, as the psalmist assures us, neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4) and for whom night is as bright as day (Psalm 139:12).

19 August 2013

Christians and nationalism in the Middle East

At the start of the twentieth century the Middle East was largely ruled by the Ottoman Turks, with Great Britain administering certain territories in their behalf, such as Egypt and Cyprus. Although Muslims outnumbered Christians, there were still sizeable Christian minorities, including the Maronite Catholics of Lebanon, the Assyrian Christians of Mesopotamia and the Coptic Christians of Egypt.

Centuries ago followers of Jesus Christ were in the majority in the region, even after the Muslim Arab conquests and possibly as late as the fourteenth century when the tide turned in favour of Islam. The Ottoman authorities were tolerant of religious diversity, content to rule their nonmuslim subjects through their religious leaders, or ethnarchs. True, they persecuted Christian Armenians from the mid-1890s, but much of the prosperity of the Empire depended on the commercial activities of the nonmuslim communities. Such cities as Thessaloniki, Constantinople, Smyrna and Alexandria were polyglot, religiously-diverse urban centres in which Muslims, Greeks, Jews and Armenians rubbed shoulders constantly in pursuing their respective livelihoods.

This all changed with the coming of the Great War, when nationalist régimes replaced the old imperial orders in so much of Europe and the Middle East. Nationalists pursued a policy of ethnic homogeneity, reserving Turkey for the Turks and Arab countries for the Arabs. This forced Christians to embrace a different strategy for coexistence with Muslim majorities. Up until then they did not generally see themselves as Arabs, but as Copts, Assyrians and so forth, identifying with the pre-Arab populations that had once dominated the region. But Arab nationalism compelled them to embrace an Arab identity or risk being treated as outsiders.

This coincided with the departure of the European powers, especially Britain and France, which had protected the Christian minorities of the Middle East and North Africa. In 1933, after the end of British occupation in Iraq, more than a thousand Assyrian Christians were killed by their Arab neighbours in the Simele massacre. After unsuccessful efforts to secure autonomy before the League of Nations, Assyrians felt betrayed by Britain. Henceforth they would have either to emigrate elsewhere, which many did, or to find a new way to integrate into the newly independent states.

As a consequence many Christians threw themselves into the Arab nationalist movements, which were anti-imperial and antiwestern in flavour. This necessitated a shift from their previous status as pre-Arab indigenous peoples to that of Christian Arabs fighting alongside their fellow Arabs in the struggle for independent nationhood. In the decades after the Second World War, Christians were disproportionately prominent in the Arab nationalist movements. For example, Michel Aflaq, who was born into an Orthodox Christian family in Syria, eventually became a communist and led the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, a movement that would be dominated by the Assads in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Arab nationalism played down religious distinctives, focussing instead on a pan-Arab identity. As such it seemed an ideal vehicle for the aspirations of Christian minorities who were now part of an Arab majority.

By the 1980s, however, the old Arab nationalism had run out of steam, while Islamism was moving into the ascendancy. Because local Christians had tied their fortunes to such nationalist autocrats as Mubarak, Saddam Hussein and the Assads, they increasingly became targets of the Islamists, who associated them with the discredited old guard. This has made Christians increasingly vulnerable in countries affected by the Arab Spring. In recent months reports have reached us of the anti-Assad rebels in Syria targeting Christian villages. Despite such attacks, western governments, including that of the United States, are supporting the rebel Free Syrian Army against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, apparently judging that the tide of history is on their side.

It would be easy for us, as outsiders, to judge that Middle Eastern Christians severely miscalculated by throwing their lot with Arab nationalism. Yet because Islamism by definition makes no place for religious minorities, local Christians understandably prefer the least bad alternative, which might enable them to continue to live in their ancestral homelands with at least some hope of security.

The long-term prospects for Christians in the Middle East are not encouraging. Unless western countries change their policies towards the region, we will continue to see increasing numbers leaving the very places that saw the birth of Christianity two millennia ago.

David T. Koyzis has taught politics at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, for just over a quarter of a century. This appeared in the 12 August issue of Christian Courier as the latest instalment of his "Principalities & Powers" column, which has been running monthly since 1990.

07 August 2013

Visões políticas e Ilusões

I am pleased to report that InterVarsity Press has contracted with Brazilian publisher Edições Vida Nova to produce a Portuguese-language edition of Political Visions and Illusions. Graças a Deus! Thanks be to God!


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