Over this last year of COVID-19, Christian Nationalist uprisings, the murder of Black and Brown people, and the general fatigue of living in so-called “historical moments,” like so many others, I have had difficulty with focus, feel uninspired, and live with a kind of perpetual brain fog. My body has also asked for a lot of sleep.
Though I would claim the habit of occasional insomnia, this year feels like an exception. Rather than a second wind at night, there have been many occasions where I’ve settled down with my spouse to watch an episode of “Star Trek: Next Generation,” a nostalgic creature comfort from my adolescence, and I have fallen asleep, drool on my pillow, by 7:30 p.m. This year of isolation may be a time for exploring all that Netflix has to offer, but I am afraid I’m not going to stay awake for it, so I’d better not risk watching any new television shows that are more than half an hour in length.
I serve as Chaplain at a small liberal arts college in southeastern Indiana and know that I am not alone in my exhaustion. We’ve been teaching hybrid courses. We’ve been contact tracing on top of the work that we usually do in a given semester. We’ve been trying our best to foster a sense of community in the thick of anxiety, uncertainty, and masked social distancing. By the time that the Winter term rolled around, it felt like we were simply extending the previous term, sleep crusted in our eyes as we roused from a holiday break. Faculty members asked if I would provide some kind of “opening worship” to begin the semester, and I turned to the Revised Common Lectionary to see what it had in store: the call of the prophet Samuel, roused from his slumber by the voice of God. I was immediately drawn to the text: here was a call to vocation while sleeping. Samuel didn’t carve out a time with God when he was feeling perky and entirely focused, but this didn’t matter. “Is it you, Eli? Why do you keep waking me up? What? You didn’t call me? Great, I’ll go back to sleep.”
A graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Tricia Hersey serves as perhaps the one and only “Nap Bishop,” and is founder of the The Nap Ministry, started in 2016. According to the Nap Ministry’s website, the ministry serves to “examine the liberating power of naps,” naming rest as resistance, and sleep deprivation as a social justice issue. Rooted in Black Liberation theology, Hersey names rest as a space to claim the divine gift of the body, and to honor the body’s origin in its creator. For Hersey, the “grind culture” that is staple in American life has become all the more apparent in These Unprecedented Times, but the root of our “productivity” fixation goes back to the Southern plantation. Simply speaking, the idol of white supremacy has claimed human bodies for the service of an economic system, forgetting the divine claim and origin of all flesh. Such a perversion of “vocation” has not been good for any body, Black, brown, or white.
In a recent Atlantic Monthly podcast, physician contributor James Hamblin was subject to an “intervention” style conversation with Tricia Hersey. One of Hamblin’s colleagues noted her worry over his utter lack of sleep as he tirelessly researched COVID-19 related questions and wanted the young white doctor to know that he too, has a body. With tenderness, Hersey reminded Hamblin that he is “worthy of rest,” and in his slumber, a power becomes available that he particularly requires as a medical professional in the thick of a pandemic. When we rest, Hersey sees that we both resist the idols of the world that would deny our connection to the divine while also tapping into a power that belongs to us, that is given to us by God. Further in their conversation, Hersey mused that it was the intention of the plantation economy to keep a body tired, as this would delay capacity to confront and dismantle the oppression of chattel slavery.
For more on Tricia Hersey and the idea of rest as a form of resistance, see this episode from “For the Wild.”
In the Spring Lecture at McCormick Theological Seminary, I believe Dr. William Jennings spoke to this power Hersey names in rest: this is the power of the prophetic imagination, the power that allows us to dream new dreams, re-claiming authentic vocation in the thick of the world’s cacophonous noise. Jennings expressed that often the prophetic task is seen as critique of powers and principalities, but this, he warns, is only one component of a much larger process. The prophet, for Jennings, must first listen, and work towards the greater goal of communion with God and each other. Rest, as Hersey asserts, is thus not a luxury, but a necessity. For those of us who seek to reclaim our sense of vocation when all feels like navigation through a miry bog, the invitation to rest and to listen becomes all the more imperative. Samuel responded to God “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
In a White Accountability reading group among faculty and staff on our campus, we spoke the other day about our challenges ahead as we learn to engage in antiracist behaviors; a few of us (me included), described how much urgency we experience in the world, and how quickly we’d like to FIX ALL OF THE THINGS, similar to the sentiments of Dr. Hamblin. As white folks stuck in the thick of white supremacy’s dangerously deceitful definition of vocation, this of course is another example of how we truly have our “work” cut out for us. We’re not going to find God’s voice if we don’t first sit still, love our bodies, and know that we are worthy of rest.
Thankfully, my body has a little wisdom of its own, and with a firm grace, she’ll have me tucked up next to my terriers on my sofa, snoring gently to the sounds of the Star Trek theme song over the television. I may think it’s just simply a coping mechanism that I need to in order to keep doing the hard work ahead, but no, it’s much more necessary than that. When I’m asleep, I can re-connect to my own humanity and let the Spirit enter into my dreamscape. It is here and only here that I can listen to find the authentic voice of vocation, drawing me closer to the world and to the divine.
Rev. Dr. Catherine Knott is a Presbyterian (USA) minister serving as the Ball Family Chaplain at Hanover College in Hanover, IN. She also teaches in the English Department, and enjoys collaborating with students to help them better live out their belief system(s) in varying roles on campus. She lives with her spouse and three rowdy but affectionate terriers, and loves walking in the woods.