In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house and went off to a lonely place and prayed there. — Mk. 1:35
“I wonder if I will have jet lag when I go home?” I mused to my spiritual director one morning. While I’ve never left Philadelphia’s time zone, my schedule looks more like I’m somewhere in Madagascar. It’s 3:18 EST in the morning as I write this. The last time I saw this hour with such regularity, I was getting up to feed a 3-month-old Christopher.
During these 30 days that I am making St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, my days are marked out only by the evening liturgy and my mid-morning meeting with my spiritual director. Outside of Mass, I am spending five formal hours in prayer, but the times of these are up to me, my director and God. God seems to have given me the night watches.
I get up, like Christ in this scene from Mark’s Gospel, long before dawn, make my way to the silent chapel and pray. At midnight, at 2 a.m., sometimes again at 4.
Unlike Christ, I’m not alone in my vigil. As often as not I share the chapel with one or two of the Jesuit novices making the Exercises here with me, all of us burrowed into our hooded sweatshirts against the night chill. Nor are we the first to make use of these late hours. One of the early Christian desert fathers, Abba Isidore, recalled, “When I was younger and remained in my cell I set no limit to prayer; the night was for me as much the time of prayer as the day.”
In contrast to Abba Isidore, St. Ignatius does set some limits on prayer during these Exercises: no more than five prayer periods a day. Ignatius does offer less binding advice on the times of these periods and recommends one be at midnight. In his reading of the Spiritual Exercises, Jesuit Father David Fleming suggests that Ignatius had in mind that after a few hours of sleep, both body and mind are quiet and rested. In such a state, we are open to God in ways that we are perhaps not in the midst of even the most silent and still of days.
Ignatius believed that quieting of mind and body by withdrawing, if we can, from our usual schedules and responsibilities, by praying in these night watches, help us bring our desires to grow closer to God and to move more freely about His work into sharper focus.
Dawn is famous at this retreat house. The rising sun seen through the windows behind the tabernacle in the chapel is said to be a magnificent sight. Alas, I wouldn’t know.
Truth be told, I feel no lack in missing the dawn. What I have seen through that window is the moon on the clouds, shading layers of deepest blues; snow falling in ribbons, twirling in the sea winds and the light of the Presence lamp; shards of ice beating against the glass; and, just once, a shooting star arcing across a brilliantly clear, cold night sky.
In the burst of the dawn there is no mistaking God’s hand at work. In the more subtle beauties of the night, God is teaching me anew to hear His voice, as did Elijah, in the softest of murmurs, to wait patiently for the moments when His glory arcs in all clarity across the heavens – to live and move and have my being entirely within Him.
For this, I’ll deal with jet lag when I get home.
Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that
awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace. –
The antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis, Night Prayer
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.