Why do we sleep? Scientists tell us that it is a time for important brain processing, blood restoration and regaining strength. All the information we take in during the day is somehow organized, processed and stored during sleep time. Put another way, information is transferred from the short-term memory to a stronger long-term memory, a process experts call “consolidation.” Human bodies are in need of restoration and rejuvenation after hours of being awake and working, and sleep helps to grow muscle, repair bodily tissue and synthesize hormones.
This is all very technical, but we can probably readily recognize that regular sleep is essential for healthy living. Sleep deprivation can be a source of many problems, and most people from their youth are encouraged to get sufficient amounts of sleep, in order to perform better, be successful and avoid accidents that can cause injury or death.
In Italy I can see that sleep is also an important part of peoples’ lives, but maybe best to be thought of as taking place in two phases or stages. I was a boarder for some months at the home of an older couple, Mr. and Mrs. Mani, in Florence (Firenze), Italy, when I was learning Italian during the summer 1985. Mr. Mani had a job outside the house and Mrs. Mani stayed at home, cooking, cleaning, tending a flock of hens and assisting the student-boarders, such as me. The couple typically had their supper (cena) around 10:30 each night, and retired around midnight. I typically ate and retired much earlier.
The Mani’s were up by seven each morning and Mr. Mani off to work, but he was home again for lunch (pranzo) at noon, and afterwards they both took a prolonged siesta until mid-afternoon, when they returned to work. The language school I attended in Florence had a similar schedule, with classes all morning, beginning at 8:30, then a lengthy break at midday, and starting up again mid-afternoon.
I mention this because the same pattern is evident “hic et nunc” (here and now) in Rome today, as many of the stores, churches, museums, etc., routinely close up for a couple of hours or more around noon. The Mediterranean summer sun is at its zenith at midday, making it the most oppressive time of day, so presumably the idea of a break at noontime came into being long ago and remains to this day. In New Mexico the concept of a siesta after lunch is common as well, though usually not as protracted as in Italy.
The older I get, the less likely I am to obtain a full seven hours of uninterrupted sleep. The broken sleep is eased somewhat by the possibility of a “catch up” siesta after the midday meal, called pranzo. Fortunately, the building we live in at Curia Sant’Ambrogio is very quiet, despite our location in the center of Rome and close to many popular tourist haunts. Furthermore, the rooms where we monks live overlook a small but quiet cloister garden. This makes resting, day or night, a more pleasant matter than trying to sleep amidst the roar of traffic as well as police, ambulance and fire engine sirens, which many who live in Rome have to cope with unceasingly. Hence, my lack of extended sleep at night is not due to noise, but to the body I live with, now in its seventh decade.
Because of the general shutdown that occurs in Italy between noon and 3:00 pm each day, tourists, pilgrims or residents needs to take that into account and make plans accordingly. In addition to being a time for a nap, the hour or more after pranzo can also be a marvelous time to take a walk, if it’s not too hot outside, since there are fewer cars on the streets and people on the sidewalks. Trains, taxis, buses and trams still run during the siesta time, but the buses and trams are on a slightly reduced schedule. That too has to be taken into account, if one is hoping to get from point A to point B during the siesta time.
On a religious note regarding the matter of sleep, a popular devotion has arisen in Italy with the emergence of a statue, called, “Sleeping Saint Joseph.” He, of course, was the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Foster-Father of Jesus. Saint Joseph, the New Testament tells us, received important messages from God in his sleep, as did the Old Testament figures, such as the Patriarch Joseph, as well as Jacob, Daniel, Abimelek and others. While asleep, Joseph of Nazareth learned that he should take Mary as his wife and on another occasion he received a warning about the danger posed by King Herod with regard to the Child Jesus. In another dream, an angel advised Joseph to return to Israel after the death of Herod, who was responsible for the deaths of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem.
Presumably because of the devotion of Pope Francis, the distinctive reclining and “Sleeping Saint Joseph” statue is now widely available in numerous religious goods stores in Rome, coming in many sizes, but always with the same design and color scheme. Joseph is portrayed clothed in a green tunic, with a red and yellow shawl over his shoulders. I believe that the statue originated in Argentina or perhaps another Latin American country, and came to Rome with the present pope, but I am still not sure if that is the case or not.
Here is what Pope Francis has to say about the statue: “I would like to tell you something very personal. I have great love for Saint Joseph, because he is a man of silence and strength. On my desk I have an image of Saint Joseph sleeping. Even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the Church! Yes, he can do that! When I have a problem or a difficulty, I write it on a piece of paper and put it under his statue so he can dream about it (or in American parlance, “sleep on it”). This means, I pray to Saint Joseph for this problem!” The quote is taken from a January 16, 2015, address in the Philippines. Clearly, Pope Francis sees Saint Joseph as a special saint, who helps and protects us even when he and we are sleeping!
I have read that if a person lives to be seventy-five, for example, he or she spends something close to twenty-four of those seventy-five years sound asleep! That is about a third of one’s life! It may seem hard to believe, but it is based on a calculation of an average of eight hours of sleep each night. When you think about it, eight hours is a third of a day, so extended over a lifespan, about a third of one’s life is spent asleep! If you get fewer than eight hours of sleep per day, as I do, then your “years asleep” become somewhat less. But there is no way around it, we humans spend much time sleeping in the course of life!
My favorite phrase from the classic Christmas hymn, “Silent Night,” is the last four words: “Sleep in Heavenly Peace.” It is a sort of exhortation to the Holy Child Jesus to rest well, but has always struck me as a wonderful sentiment, to be able to sleep with the angels and saints, in “Heavenly Peace.” Could there be a more attractive form of peacefully resting in God’s care than this?