Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Ready for bed, and dreading the prayer.

"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..."

This was one of the prayers of my childhood, a nightly ritual that fostered neither a love for bedtime, nor anyone who takes the souls of little children while they sleep.  In our little family, we had this addendum:  "God bless Mommy, Daddy, Danny, and me, and help me to be a good girl.  Amen." I didn't have a problem with that non-rhyming part; I did love my parents, and my little brother when he wasn't bugging me, and even then, I could see I may need help being good.  I noticed I didn't have to pray that the souls of my family would be taken during the night.  I just had to worry about my own. 

Thus began my early training in prayer, and my fear of the dark.  What a dreadful prayer for a young child to recite.  It had served my mother well when she was a child, and was taught to me so that I could have a bedtime ritual.  

Every night, Mama would help me into my footy pajamas after I went potty, and brushed my teeth in that haphazard way that children do, and then she would tuck me in bed, and I would press my hands together, and say the perfunctory prayer, as quickly as possible.  I didn't want to spend much time lingering over the words, and later, the thoughts that pointed gnarled fingers at me in the darkest crevices in my brain, dredged up the fear of scary things, and childhood death.  

Hmmm...I hadn't really considered that perhaps there was a correlation of my being a light sleeper, my fear of the night time, and that hastily repeated prayer each night after I was tucked-in.   Perhaps that prayer would have been better for parents, to be concerned about the eternal state of their child's soul. Shouldn't the prayer of a five-year-old have focused on gratitude for all of the wonderful blessings He has given us, instead of advising God about what to do with my soul in the event of death?

Our blessing of the food, saying grace, was also a recitation.  

"God is great; God is good. 
Let us thank him for our food 
By his hands we all are fed. 
Give us, Lord, our daily bread. 

(It may surprise you that I recited that prayer before lunch with my classmates up until fifth grade at Lovingston Elementary.  Miz Persis Saunders Dolan led her class in saying grace before we walked down to the lunchroom to get our trays of food, and returned to our classroom to eat. Praying before meals was a southern tradition, even in public school, as late as the seventies.)

I never minded the daytime prayer of thanks for the food.  God was great, and I loved bread, even then, and certainly didn't mind expressing my thanks for both.

That nighttime prayer gave me the willies.  Where was God "keeping" my soul as long as I breathed through the night?  And where would he take it if the unthinkable happened, and I died before it was time to get up?  These are the thoughts that troubled my mind as a little girl. I didn't want to die.  

Now when I pray, I am grateful for my, relative good health, clothing, shelter, this wonderful world, and especially my family and friends.  I pray for those who are in need of comfort and guidance. My whispered words ask forgiveness for things I've done I shouldn't, and things I should've done, but haven't.  Mostly, I'm just thankful.  Sometimes, that's all I say. "Thank you."  

In case you are a parent of young children, and you wish to enjoy bedtime prayers with them as a nightly ritual, may I suggest the following recited prayer, if a recited prayer is what you want. Words are so powerful, and I find these words to be similar to the prayers I said, with an added level of comfort that mine were missing:

"Now I lay me down to sleep, 
I pray the Lord my soul to keep: 
May God guard me through the night 
And wake me with the morning light. 

Mom's prayers changed over the years, and so did mine.  By the time I was a teenager, I no longer used memorized prayers, and spoke my mind freely, asking for what I needed, and expressing my gratitude for all that I had.  When words come from the heart, and not a sing-song rote prayer that conjures up the "worst-case scenario", there is comfort to be found in the words we pray.

So, the bedtime ritual that started those many years ago continues.  I still pray; I've just adapted the words to suit my needs.  I thank my mom for teaching me the habit, and I'm very glad to have discovered that prayers don't need to start with "Now I lay me down to sleep..."  That one was just too scary for this girl.

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