Some old men came to see Abba Poemen, and said to him: Tell us, when we see brothers dozing during the sacred office, should we pinch them so they will stay awake? The old man said to them: Actually, if I saw a brother sleeping, I would put his head on my knees and let him rest.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers

I once visited Romania, and I had the opportunity to stay one night at a Transylvanian monastery. Of course, being me, I gladly accepted their hospitality. The grounds were beautiful—a former Soviet military outpost, actually, by a lake where a town used to be (also made by the Soviets). Dinner was light but satisfying. After dinner, at six o’clock, we attended vespers. At seven o’clock was vigil; it ended at midnight.

I had been in Romania about a week by that time. From the monastery, I would head back to Bucharest, and then fly home. The trip back there is a story for another time. What matters for this reflection is simply that I was tired. Overtired, even. It didn’t help that I really don’t know much Romanian, but even so I tried my best to stand and pray for six hours with the fathers at the monastery. I’m grateful I did it—their chapel even had a relic of St. John of Damascus, my patron saint. But I distinctly remember having to actively focus on keeping my eyes open. To the extent possible, I likely nodded off once or twice while standing. No one pinched me, I’m happy to report.

I am approaching that same level of overtiredness now, except I’m at home, happily spending a bit more time with my family. Our third child, Erin, was born a month ago, and we are still adjusting to the change. Mostly, I’ve been adjusting by drinking about (at least?) a pot of coffee every day.

The days are full, yet I rarely feel like I’ve accomplished all that much. It usually isn’t until about ten o’clock at night that I have a moment alone (right now being a surprise exception). I put the boys to bed almost every night, usually lying down with Aidan, our fifteen-month-old, until he falls asleep. His older brother Brendan is a bit too noisy for me to put Aidan down in his bed at this point.

But this has brought back a practice that had fallen into neglect. When lying down in bed, waiting for the right time to sneak away from a sleeping baby without waking him up, there is nothing else to do than pray. So I pray the Jesus Prayer. This version, in particular:

[Breathe in] Lord Jesus Christ,

[Breathe out] have mercy on me.

[Breathe in] O Son of God,

[Breathe out] save me.

One would expect that reintroducing this practice—which I hadn’t altogether neglected, but is now more regular—would improve my moods throughout the day. I assume it has, but no one would guess as much. I’m overtired. I have so much less patience and energy. But even so, I am content, maybe even more so than I had been.

A psalm I used to have memorized contains the lines, “Be angry, and do not sin. Meditate within your heart on your bed, and be still” (Psalm 4:4).

My practice isn’t much right now—due to dietary concerns I rarely even am able to fast anymore—but as my economist friends remind me, everything could always be worse. I could be worse. Indeed, I probably would be worse.

I am comforted by something I’ve written about before. For ancient Christians, perfection for created and mutable beings like ourselves can never be a static state. The best perfection we can hope for is perpetual progress. Of course, even the desert fathers only spoke of their progress in perfection; even St. Antony, in humility, would have denied attaining it.

So if I’m making progress, even baby steps, in the right direction, I need not be discouraged. And, indeed, just being able to acknowledge that I’m far from perfection is a gift as well, so long as I can receive it.

For those of us in the world, perhaps the greatest gift to remind us of our deep imperfection is the gift of children, who are not impressed with any of our accomplishments, who wake up with gas in the middle of the night even though we need to work the next day, who, each in their own way, change us for the better, if only by revealing new, unseen imperfections in ourselves.

I’m overtired, yes. But in this, too, I’m grateful, unworthy of so great a gift as this family Kelly and I have been given.

So if you see me dozing during liturgy, please don’t pinch me. The second child is probably already doing that anyway. (He’s a pincher!)

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