Summon angels instead of counting sheep

“Counting sheep” as an idiom for falling asleep may have come from medieval shepherds who made a headcount of their herds each night to make sure they were all accounted for.

Lately, I lull myself to sleep by reimagining everything I ate all day. I attempt to think about every meal and savor every flavor again as I drift off.

It’s sort of like counting sheep, only I’m counting calories. If I’m unconscious before I get to supper, then all is good with the world.

But perhaps a better, or at least more wholesome approach would be to pray. If I fall asleep before I get to “Amen,” all is still good; God can fill in the blank.

Among the first prayers I can remember is “Now I lay me down to sleep”:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord, my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord, my soul to take.
Amen.

I don’t think this prayer is as common as it once was. If they teach their children to pray at all, parents nowadays don’t necessarily want to speak into existence any thought of dying before one wakes. A bit more optimistic modern ending has appeared with lines 5 and 6:

If I should live for other days,
I pray the Lord, to guide my ways.

When “Now I Lay Me” came into being in the 18th century, the child mortality rate was appalling. For every thousand babies born in 1800 in the United States, 463 died before age 5. Think about that; 46 percent did not make it to their fifth birthday. The current infant mortality rate is 5.6 per 1,000 live births.

So in the way everything old is new again, this prayer might be more appropriate for an old lady like me than it is for a child. As my husband says, “You never know when the bus is coming.”

I like how Philip and Carol Zaleski describe this prayer in Prayer: A History. They write:

This prayer constitutes more than a sweet set of words. It sets events in motion; it puts God and angels on alert.

The best I can probably say about my current bedtime routine is that is an act of gratitude to savor the gifts of nourishment I enjoyed throughout the day, but to summon God and his angels before nodding off? Think of the power in that.


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