At the beginning of the Great Lent, the Christian faithful contemplate their ascetic effort in the body and spirit. Many take their cues from their readings of the church fathers. Some find their standards of asceticism too high, while others try to emulate them at least in some respect. Overnight prayer vigils are a prominent aspect of Lenten asceticism among monastics. Many saints who lived in the world also practised them in their spiritual lives.
Many believe in the great power of the night prayer, when most other people are resting and the world is in a slumber. It can cleanse, purify and enlighten our spirit and move us forward in our knowledge of God. But is this a feat to be attempted only by monastics, but not suitable for a layman? More broadly, what advice on praying at night can we find in the works of the holy fathers and Christian scholars across the time? And what are the potential dangers of this practice?
References to overnight prayer vigils as a religious practice can already be found in the Old Testament. The Prophet Isaiah, for example, said this prayer to the Lord, My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you (Isaiah 26: 9). Kind David wrote in his psalms, “At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws.” (Psalms 119: 62), “Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord who minister by night in the house of the Lord. Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the Lord.” (Psalm 134: 1-2).
In the New Testament, we find more mentions of praying by night. The Lord Himself sets an example of solitary prayer at night: “One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.” (Luke 6:12). For Christ, it became a rule to pray in the desert at night, standing at an elevation. He also taught His disciples the importance of keeping vigil in his parable of the blessed servant expecting his master: “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” 12: 40). After His prayer by night over the Cup, the Lord rebuked the apostles who fell asleep and commanded them: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Matthew 26: 41)
The apostles passed this teaching on to the next generation of disciples, reinforcing their teaching with their example. In the Bible, the life of Apostle Paul is described in some of the following terms: “in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger”, “poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything”. (2 Corinthians 6:5. 11, 27). In his epistle to Timothy, Apostle Paul gives the following description of a pious widow: “The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.” (1 Timothy 5:5). In the first centuries of our age, all Christians – not just ascetics – engaged in long and vehement prayer. In times of persecution, worship services were held at night for security reasons; often, Christians gathered in catacombs and other secret places.
Nor does it surprise us to read about the early Christian hermits and monks who retired to deserts, mountain caves and other hard to reach spots to spend the night praying and reading the Psalter. All-night vigils have been practised at monasteries throughout the history of monasticisms, as we read in the works of the early church fathers such as Saint Basil the Great. All-night vigils are still a part of monastic life today, especially in the Holy Land.
For the rank-and-file parishioner, the only late-night services remaining in their regular church lives are the two-hour vespers on the eve of Saturdays and major feasts. At monasteries, late-night services may be held more frequently and will last longer. Also, a relatively recent practice in Russian Orthodox Churches is the overnight liturgies for Pascha, Nativity, Theophany and even the New Year.
But private vigils for laypeople have never been a formal part of the church order. Nevertheless, some lay saints, such as Saint Juliania of Lazarev, have practised nightly prayers. Saint Juliania, a mother of thirteen, got up to pray at night even during sickness. Saint Seraphim of Sarov also advised his spiritual children and other laypeople to pray at night.
So what makes a night prayer special? And why is it given so much prominence?
The benefits of night prayers
The holy fathers have written extensively about the spiritual benefits of prayer vigils. Some of the most detailed descriptions can be found in the works of Saint Isaac the Syrian.
To the feat of the night prayer, he attributed more value than to most others. He wrote: “No-one should be in any doubt that no feat of a monastic can rank more highly than the night prayer. A night prayer will benefit you more than any other ascetic feat performed during the day.”
Also, he believed the night prayer vigil to be the prologue of a successful day spent in the Holy Spirit. “The spiritual light from a night prayer is our source of joy throughout the day,” write the saint.
Furthermore, he believed that the spiritual impact of the night prayer to be akin to the feat of fasting: “Fasting in the body is incompatible with spending one’s whole night comfortably asleep in one’s bed.” In his view, any ascetic engaged in his invisible battle must strengthen his fast eventually with vigils, which he ranked among our most potent weapons in the fight against sin and the stratagems of our enemy.
Saint Isaac believed in the transformative power of the night prayer and was convinced that no such feat would remain unnoticed in the eyes of our Lord: “The Lord cannot bypass the men who practise the night prayer their whole lives with His great gifts.” Many saints have had important truths revealed to them during the night prayer.
Finally, he viewed the night prayer as a source of heavenly joy and a means for cleansing one’s heart and enlightenment of the mind. We also know from the life of Saint Pachomius the Great that night prayer vigils helped him achieve such perfect purity of the heart that he experienced all the Beatitudes and saw the Invisible God as if in a mirror. By practising all-night prayer vigils, Saint Arsenius achieved great enlightenment and resembled a fire as he prayed.
What constitutes the value of prayer during the night, a time when our human nature disposes us to sleep? Does not praying at night contravene the laws of nature by preventing us from replenishing our energies for the next working day. Nicholas Peskov, a prominent 20th-century theologian, wrote: “Like our ailing body needs medicine for its physical infirmity, so does our soul, corrupted with sin, need a cure. Our night prayer is a cure for our soul. Worldly rationality does not mix with the reasoning of God. We might believe that sleeplessness in prayer saps our energies, when in fact the Lord increases our energies by virtue of our prayers.
In the hustle of our daily routines, turning to God may be difficult. But at night, or in the early morning, while the world is still asleep and does not throw at us its avalanche of sounds, sensations and thoughts, we are in a position to detach ourselves from things of this world and unite with the Holy Spirit. It is easier for us at this time to focus on prayer our minds and our hearts and grow in humility, gratitude, endearment and love.” In turn, John Chrysostom wrote: “At night, the mind has more liberty to ascend to God, our night prayers put us on a path towards repentance, and the Lord will hear our prayers said at night faster than during the day.”
Deciding on the measure of our feat
A Christian does not have a duty to engage in night prayers. However, every believer may choose to follow the example of the saints by practising night prayer in a manner that he finds the most appropriate. Our circumstances differ, and so do our levels of spiritual achievement. For some of us, our evening prayer rule may coincide with the night prayer if our regular bedtime hours are after midnight. Nicholas Peskov recommended to the beginning ascetics to practise praying in the early morning. To do so, it is best to go to bed at nine or ten in the evening and rise for prayer at four or five in the morning, taking another 1 – 1.5 hours for sleep during the day. Interrupting one’s night’s sleep for long periods of prayer puts a heavier strain on the body and mind and makes our invisible battle harder. All-night vigils are incompatible with the day-to-day life of a lay believer.
Can praying at night cause us harm?
There is little doubt that any practice like the night prayer that benefits us spiritually stirs opposition in our enemy, who will try every means to tempt us and defile our ascetic feat. The Venerable Antonius the Great described myriads of devices used by the devils to lure a Christian away from the path of his salvation. He instructed his disciples to pray extensively for the wisdom to recognise and resist temptations from the devil.
As Nicholas Peskov warns us, night hours are the time of our closeness to God, but they are also the period when the forces of darkness wield their greatest power over the world. The enemy may interfere with our prayers by inducing sleepiness, sapping our enthusiasm or frightening us with strange sounds or visions. Without proper preparation, we can all be vulnerable to falling into the devil’s trap.
Perhaps one of the greatest temptations is our pride, leading us to the false belief in our superb achievements as ascetics and putting us above all others. Many fall into this temptation when they take on the feat of praying in the night without the proper blessing. Sergey Nylus, a religious writer, narrated this sad incident at Optina Pustyn. A young man was preparing to become a monk. However, he did not listen to his spiritual father and began to pray at night. Soon, he became possessed by the devil. One night, he stormed into the church ran naked around the altar. Finally, the monks caught him and delivered him to a mental clinic, where he spent the remainder of his days.
Another grave danger is one of falling into a delusion from the visions of the devils appearing as angels, sometimes leading a believer to insanity.
Sometimes, the devil may manipulate a faithful into escalating his feat to make him fatigued and deprive him of the motivation to seek communion with God and continue the less ambitious practices towards his salvation that he had performed in the past. The Venerable Ambrose of Optina wrote, “It is more beneficial to persist in moderate worship than to exert oneself to excess; it is also advisable sometimes to discontinue the essential practices from time to time to combat excessive fatigue.”
The risk of serious temptations makes many members of the clergy weary of recommending night prayers to laypeople. Before taking on a new ascetic feat, do not neglect to seek advice first from an experienced confessor and ask for his blessing.
In conclusion, please accept our wishes of a productive Great Lent and successful preparation for the Great and Holy Pascha.