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Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep…

Most children are afraid of the dark. I know that I was. Parents who are too tough deny you the nightlight or the cracked door letting in a distant glow from the front room or from downstairs. Parents who are too kind leave the door ajar or plug in the nightlight. A lot of parents, tough or kind, help you learn a prayer familiar to hundreds of millions of people:

“Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake….”

It is not clear that the prayer helps allay the fear of the dark and of death in that dark, but as children we learn it anyway. It is probably the first prayer that is learned. Its lesson is that, parent or child, we are hostage to fortune or to His ineffable will. Being bound to His will is one of the most fundamental calisthenics of faith.

Most children remain afraid of the dark but learn not to admit it. At some point, you are instructed to grow out of it. You become an adult; no longer a slave to childish fears without foundations. You tell yourself, “I’m not afraid of the dark.” You’re lying but, like so many other lies that let you get through the day, you lie this lie for so long that you forget it is what it is; a lie.

I feared the dark as a child and when I grew to be a man I still felt uneasy when consigned to a room that was “too dark.” I developed some manly and not-so-manly methods for mitigating the dark — light curtains, dim baseboard night lights in the hallway, falling asleep with the television on a timer, votive candles, the whole inventory, the entire catastrophe. After some years of sleeping safe within these rituals and relics, I forgot that I was, in the core of my being, still afraid of the dark; afraid that “I should die before I wake.”

And then I did. Die, that is.

The thing about dying and then being returned to life is that, like a ghost half-seen out of the corner of the eye or in a shadow on the stairs, the experience keeps coming back. You think you’ve pretty much exhausted what you think about it — exhausted all there is to think about it — and then you are presented with a new moment, a new cause for reflection.

A bit over a week ago, at around midnight, I decided to go to bed. I went through all my rituals and dressed in my pajamas and went into the bedroom and lay down on the bed. As I lay there the old prayer from childhood appeared in my mind after many years of not being thought of at all,

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

It appeared so vividly it was as if an alien, almost feminine, voice had recited it to my ears in that room. I lay there feeling anything but sleepy and wanted to know about the origins of this common prayer.

The prayer itself is a classic from the 18th century and it was included in most basic texts for centuries including The New England Primer. Like many other things from the 18th century it has been shortened to make it “more efficient.” The full prayer is:

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,
Bless the bed that I lie on.
The are four corners to my bed,
Four angels round my head,
One to watch, and one to pray,
And two to bear my soul away.
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.

As I looked into the origins of the prayer I discovered that a “kinder, gentler” variant has lately been introduced as:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord, my soul to keep;
Guide and guard me through the night,
And wake me with the morning’s light.

I suppose that’s a way of making the poem fit for a more secular society in which nothing fatal ever happens to children. Until, of course, it does. But that’s for another, younger, and more unread generation. I’m stuck with the original in my memory.

As such it is one of my earliest memories. It was almost as certainly the very first rhyme or poem that I memorized. It would have been taught to me by my mother as she tucked me in in my childhood and calmed me for the night. I know that she, and hundreds of millions of other parents who have taught it to their children, wanted it to comfort me and I suppose it did. Thinking about it in my bed on that night last week, however, it didn’t seem to be comforting. Instead, it seemed like a horror sandwiched into the middle of a plea for rescue:

“…my soul to keep.”
“If I should die” “before” “I wake.”
“… my soul to take.”

At most times and in most places, this prayer was simply a tradition, not a reality. But I wasn’t in most times or in most places and it was terrifying.

It was terrifying because, as it occurred to me then, I had experienced the reality of the prayer. I had actually died before I could wake. I continued in death for some unknown minutes and then was revived and kept in a deathlike coma for 13 days; a time that I, gratefully, have no memory of whatsoever. And, it came to me at t hat time on that night that I had died in the bed I was currently lying down in and thinking of this old childhood prayer.

I had, without realizing it, gotten used to sleeping in my deathbed.

For a while that evening this was a very disturbing realization. In time I got used to it and I drifted off to sleep in my deathbed many times. In time we all drift off our dying bed if we are lucky enough to find our way there for our time of dying.

When I died I’d like to say that as I drifted off my final thought was,

If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

but I can’t.

Like my first death, I don’t remember anything about those last moments, or the ones that came after. So I can’t say I said a prayer. I can only pray I did.


(20) Dylan’s Other Voice: In My Time of Dyin’ – YouTube

Well, in my time of dying don’t want nobody to mourn
All I want for you to do is take my body home
Well, well, well, so I can die easy
Well, well, well
Well, well, well, so I can die easy
Jesus gonna make up, Jesus gonna make up
Jesus gonna make up my dying bed

Well, meet me Jesus, meet me, meet me in the middle of the air
If these wings should fail me
Lord, won’t you meet me with another pair?
Well, well, well, so I can die easy
Well, well, well
Well, well, well, so I can die easy
Jesus gonna make up, Jesus gonna make up
Jesus gonna make up my dying bed

Lord, in my time of dying, don’t want nobody to cry
All I want you to do is take me when I die
Well, well, well, so I can die easy
Well, well, well
Well, well, well, so I can die easy
Jesus gonna make up, Jesus gonna make up
Jesus gonna make up my dying bed

{ 26 comments… add one }
  • tim June 17, 2019, 10:42 AM

    Zeppelin’s version is much better, IMHO –

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scpqae3P7Dg

  • Dr. Jay June 17, 2019, 12:18 PM

    I’m partial to Laura Nyro’s . . .

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzyHe3Y87v8

  • MOTUS June 17, 2019, 12:49 PM

    I had my first episode of sleep paralysis in college; terrifying in itself as you simply KNOW you’re wide awake yet find yourself incapable of moving a muscle, any muscle, even to blink. Worse though, I could feel my mother’s breath on my forehead, hear her voice whispering above my ear – “Now I lay me down to sleep….”
    When I finally willed myself to move I woke with a sharp breath and was alone. I dearly wished my mother had actually been beside me, to tell me not to be alarmed, to assure me that all was well, to affirm my life. All the things moms do.

  • ghostsniper June 17, 2019, 2:02 PM

    Your night dreams seem to stop when you wake and sometimes you remember them, sometimes not. But do dreams really stop when you wake? I think not, your perception simply changes. Your mind is not part of your body, it just hangs out there for a spell. Dreams are what your mind is when the body is inert as when sleeping. If your body dies before you wake the dreams of your mind will continue on forever.

    Are you ever consciously aware that you are dreaming while you are dreaming? There seem to be built in safeguards to prevent that from happening but it can be done. Typically, if you become consciously aware that you are dreaming you will awake. There is a fine line that cannot be crossed. It takes practice. Go right up to the edge and not one micron more, otherwise, POOF!, it is gone. And you have to start over. Push it. See how far you can go. Careful. Not too far. The space between here and there is less than the width of an atom. One one hundred millionth the size of a quark. So thin it almost doesn’t exist. But it does exist, you know it does. Because you cross it every time you go to sleep and wake. If you could only pass through solid walls so easily. Or dimensions.

    What happens after death? You already know.

  • Donald Sensing June 17, 2019, 2:05 PM

    I have never had an experience like yours, but I do know what it is like to be a dead man walking.

    Hard rain, a shallow left turn, I-40 West at Tenn. mile marker 171, near Dickson, 1:30 Saturday afternoon. I pretty quickly figured out that my control inputs were not doing any good. Looking through the windshield at other westbound traffic behind me was one clue. (Fortunately, the nearest traffic was 200 yards or so away.)

    In one gestalt moment, I realize that I am wrecking at interstate speed and surely will not survive.

    “Jesus, it’s your automobile.”

    And yet I am still here.

  • Larry Geiger June 18, 2019, 8:44 AM

    My young son:
    Down I lay me down to sleep
    I pray the Lord my self to keep
    Glad and swell may I awake!
    This I ask for Jesus sake.

  • Anon June 18, 2019, 6:04 PM

    My generation learned that prayer, too … this way.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CD-E-LDc384

  • Casey Klahn March 22, 2020, 9:48 AM

    Your story made me think of lesser things than you; I suppose I’ve never died but I have faced death a handful of times. I wish for courage if I see it coming, like Don Sensing did.
    I used to go into the dark, with or without NVG goggles, and had no fear. I was young, strong, and full of piss and vinegar.
    Now, I am kind of infirm. Not so you’d notice unless we walked or spent time together, then you’d see my unsteadiness on my feet, and my board stiff back.
    Now, I fear not only the dark, but even the woods in daytime. That is so incredible to me; I used to be the master of forest and mountain alike. I trod in fearful places without dismay, but that time is over.
    It makes me wonder about my native courage. I was courageous because I was uber fit. Now, without the fitness, I am circumspect and shy about dangerous places. I realize the dark harbors unseen things, although I must admit I know the things very well and so at least there’s that.
    Norm MacDonald told a good Coronavirus joke this last week, when he said “remember just a week ago when you didn’t know how you were gonna die? Those were sweet days, huh?”
    I guess I don’t, and I know most here don’t, fear the virus. We have that.
    As an army infantry vet who never went to war, I often ponder courage. It turns out that the army knew some shit about courage – they linked it to character. If you keep your mind fairly clean, and your morality, you have a much better chance of facing fear.
    Take it easy.

  • Fluella March 22, 2020, 10:22 AM

    Well, thinking of your own death is sort of like a primagravida contemplating labor and delivery. There comes a point in the pregnancy when it dawns on you, yes, you are actually going to have to do this thing. The only way out is through. You don’t know what it will be like or how painful it scary it might be or exactly what comes after or how well you will acquit yourself, but you know you will pass through it because there is no other way. With that realization comes acceptance and peace. I would imagine. The instinct for self-preservation is very strong.

  • rabbit tobacco March 22, 2020, 10:45 AM

    Good song about dying: Desperadoes waiting on a train
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOOH8shmKnQ

  • DAN March 22, 2020, 10:59 AM

    afraid of the dark? nope just what’s in it!

  • Jack March 22, 2020, 12:10 PM

    Regarding dreams and being aware that you’re dreaming. I don’t know what that phenom might be be called but it began when I was a kid and I have experienced it a large number of times. I’ll be there….just dreaming along….and a part of myself says something like “hey, just remember you’re dreaming and this isn’t real”. After that occurred a number of times I have always sensed, in dreams, that I’m really just a by stander watching with no real involvement.

    I’ve only experienced “something else” being involved in a near death event. I was driving along, about 50 mph on an icy State road and I drove up on an bridge that spanned a river. I had slowed to around 40 mph was being careful but did not see a long patch of black ice ahead of me and sho’nuff, my truck lost traction on the black ice and performed a snake act that I thought would slam me into the side of the bridge.

    But, it didn’t. Instead, my truck was pointed at a 2:00 position when the ice ended and it went plunging down a steep river embankment. It rolled on its axis and came down hard on the roof. A tree limb ripped through the passenger side, taking out the front passenger seat and the truck slid another 40′ down the river bank before it stopped.

    The odd thing about the wreck was that from the split second the truck left the road and the crash began, I was certain that someone else was in control of the vehicle. It was a tangible feeling and even though the event only lasted maybe 3 -4 seconds I was completely relaxed and well aware that another power was in control.

    The truck came to a crashing halt upside down. I turned off the engine and when I released my seat belt I fell into the roof of the truck. I had to crawl into the back seat and open the driver side back door to get out and the only injury I received was a small glass cut on a knuckle when I released my belt.

    Truck was totaled and no power in this world will ever convince me that I was alone during that accident.

  • jwm March 22, 2020, 12:30 PM

    Many years back when I was going through some difficult times with my mental health I would have what I called the black dream. It often came on me late in the morning after coffee, and a few first thing in the morning chores. I’d get strangely drowsy, maybe stretch out on the couch, and before I was aware of even dozing off I’d find myself myself in the middle of a lucid nightmare- a terrifying dream so intense that I thought it was real. Frequently I’d be driving eighty miles an hour on a crowded freeway, but my vision was so bad it was like being under water, and I was heavily drugged so that I could barely remain conscious. And I couldn’t get off the freeway or even change lanes because I couldn’t see. But I’d awaken from that, and be relieved that it was only a dream. I’d get up from the couch, and then everything got indescribably hideous in the house. I’d be in a wild panic until I awakened again, and it would take me several minutes before I was sure that I was actually awake, and not in another phase of the nightmare. Once I was pulled out of the second nightmare by a phone call, and I had to ask again and again if I was awake, and the phone call was real. I still get lucid dreams from time to time, but nothing of that magnitude in many years.

    JWM

  • Rob De Witt March 22, 2020, 1:04 PM

    I’m living among the oldn’hip here in The Leftmost County in America (® The Congressional Record, 2001.) The erstwhile community organizers are just having a ball organizing meetings and televised New Age advice and buying each other eggs and organic produce. Sigh.

    What I see daily is that we here like Gerard and Casey and Fluella have seen some shit, and it makes all the difference. As I’ve ranted for years, there’s a world of difference between “I know we’re all gonna die” and “I’m gonna die now, and nobody knows and nobody cares.” It’s just astonishing to realize how many people have lived through the same 70+ years as I have (seventy-five on Earthquake Day, or the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride, take your pick) and have apparently learned nothing from the experience. I keep thinking a lot of them managed to avoid adulthood sufficiently that they don’t know about living, or dying, or family, or in general what hurts. They are, after all, all self-congratulatory lefties who think living in Government Housing means they won somehow. I’m ashamed of it, but there you go.

    Like Gerard, I had a family of my own once, with a daughter I loved. All of it was taken from me by the first wave of “feminism” in 1971, and it broke my heart and my spirit; so much for being a tough guy. I plugged on with absolutely nobody in my corner and the pain just never let up. In 1983 another musician turned me on to Unity, and reading that steered me back to my childhood practice of one simple prayer: “I give up, Lord. If you’ll show me what to do I’ll do it, whether I want to or not.” And God said, “Hold my beer.” In five years I went from a hovel in Oakland with no phone to an apartment in Sausalito and a rebuilding reputation as a singer, and a closet full of clothes I bought new. Onward, and I lost all that and ended up in a trailer outside of Santa Rosa and back into clothes out of free boxes. A broken collarbone got added to the childhood Polio pains, and I kept coming. God never abandoned me, and I’ve never in my long life experienced the arrogance of blaming Him for my difficulties.

    Eight years ago I was confirmed as a Catholic after studying the Catechism with a great man and a great friend, and focus for my prayers was finally given me. I’m still alone, years of psychiatry have made it clear there’s no one who I could possibly connect with, my daughter’s last words to me were “I don’t want you in my life”……and yet still there is art and music and a place where I can cry alone when it’s necessary. And I pray without ceasing.

    So as I just told my oft-mistaken-but-never-uncertain neighbor in answer to an invitation to a televised Kumbaya-along, “The worst that will happen is we’ll die, and we knew that. Worse would be to spend our final years in the equivalent of Venezuela.” I’m a very good neighbor, and they all know that I’m there to look after them, whether I scorn their politics or not. And they all let me sing when it’s time, no small thing for a pro singer, believe me. If you don’t own a house you’ll spend your life wrangling with the neighbors while you learn how, and I’ve had enough of that.

    It’s been a lot worse than this, and I know the folks here will join me in that. It’ll hurt. It’s hurt before.

    Thank God for my friends. I pray for you all.

  • Vanderleun March 22, 2020, 1:25 PM

    Thank you Rob. Thank you.

    And as for you Jack, here’s a collaboration between Gary Snyder and John Muir that has something to say about your experience::

    John Muir on Mt. Ritter:

    After scanning its face again and again,
    I began to scale it, picking my holds
    With intense caution. About half-way
    To the top, I was suddenly brought to
    A dead stop, with arms outspread
    Clinging close to the face of the rock
    Unable to move hand or foot
    Either up or down. My doom
    Appeared fixed. I MUST fall.
    There would be a moment of
    Bewilderment, and then,
    A lifeless rumble down the cliff
    To the glacier below.
    My mind seemed to fill with a
    Stifling smoke. This terrible eclipse
    Lasted only a moment, when life blazed
    Forth again with preternatural clearness.
    I seemed suddenly to become possessed
    Of a new sense. My trembling muscles
    Became firm again, every rift and flaw in
    The rock was seen as through a microscope,
    My limbs moved with a positiveness and precision
    With which I seemed to have
    Nothing at all to do.

    Gary Snyder

  • jwm March 22, 2020, 2:51 PM

    Close encounters of the fatal kind do tend to rewire your perspective. In ’75 I foolishly paddled out in the fog in Baja thinking the surf was maybe six to eight foot, which is very big. It turned out six to eight was the small inside waves, and I suddenly found my self clawing for my life up the faces of bigger swells than I had ever seen. Three times in a row, I had to throw the board, dive into a stories high vertical face, and come out the back just a hair’s breadth away from getting sucked over the falls. I tried to paddle in to one wave, but when I looked over the edge, my nerve was shot, and I didn’t have the courage to push off. I sat out there for a long long time. Finally I waited for one of the bigger sets to roll through, and when it passed I just started digging for shore like the devil was chasing me. By the grace of God I got far enough inside that the next set broke a long ways out. I caught the wash charging in, and it spit me up in the sand like I was something that didn’t taste good.
    The guardian angels stayed with me when I had my own adventure in the cardiac ward. I started feeling it when I was out walking. Again, by God’s grace I was a few hundred yards away from Whittier hospital. The pain was like nothing I’d ever felt, but I knew if I stopped I wouldn’t make it. I was fading out. It was like one of those nightmares where you want to run but your legs are made of jello. No air was getting to my head, but I shoved my way through the doors of the ER, and collapsed on the floor. That was in ’06. I learned only a couple weeks ago when I had an ultra sound on my heart that I had what the cardio guys call the widowmaker blockage. Apparently, God had a use for me, although I’m still not sure what it is. I had no hospital room conversion. But somehow, afterwords everyone I followed on line turned out to be Roman Catholic, or at the least, a Christian of some stripe. I have not yet made it to church. I remain a feral believer. But I find myself on a team I used to despise, and it still is a mystery to me how I got here. But I can live with mystery. Life is pretty flat without it.

    JWM

  • ghostsniper March 22, 2020, 6:30 PM

    That was pretty good John, you pulled me so far into the picture when I was done reading I had to grab a towel and dry off. Now where my swallowtail iz?

  • H March 23, 2020, 4:56 AM

    I learned all there was to know about this before growing out of my teens, and have brushed up against the inscrutable immutable a few times since, as have we all. This I have learned from the experience: all that nonsense about “live each day like it may be your last” ain’t nonsense, it’s quite literally Gospel truth. I take great comfort in that.

    Nobody here gets out alive and every day is a miracle. Act accordingly.

  • Chris March 23, 2020, 6:01 AM

    I was raised saying that Prayer every night before bed. On the darkness thing,as a young lad 45+ years ago we overcame our fear of it by sleeping in the woods,on the ground,with no tent and a couple barn burners for a fire and nothing else.
    The old man wouldn’t even let us take our 22’s or the red riders with us. It worked!!

  • jd March 23, 2020, 7:25 AM

    I’ve had one dream in which I was aware of its being a dream. Sat on the top step of a staircase and
    screamed for someone to wake me up. Don’t know if anyone heard me. It was probably 60 or more years ago.

    I really wanted to write so I could share this link which I discovered yesterday. Hope someone
    finds it useful. https://mass-online.org/daily-holy-mass-live-online/

    God bless!

  • Jack March 23, 2020, 8:06 AM

    GVL, thank you for the Snyder and Muir collaboration. It does express the experience of that accident from an outside-looking-in perspective.

    I read it two or three times and thought about it over night and it occurred to me this morning that I’ve had dreams which evoked a very similar sense of that kind of reality and that is when my sense of being reminded that I’m experiencing a dream kicks in.

  • Anne March 23, 2020, 10:10 AM

    1962–one of the small coves south of Laguna Beach, a young woman alone, just turned eighteen. Alone on the beach I dove in for a swim and a little body surfing. Found the rip tide and while trying to remember to swim parallel to the shore I kept looking to the empty beach and praying that someone was there. Someone who might hear me scream, or see me struggling. Then I heard the voice: ” I love you. I know you are afraid, stay steady, don’t panic and don’t quit on me”. Stoke. Stroke. Stroke until the rip disappears and it is an easy float to safety.

    I am so grateful for all those years of choir practice after school on Thursday, singing two services on Sunday, plus Sunday school. I am so grateful for that little Episcopal Church and the quiet, wise, and well read Reverend who taught me I would never be alone if I just followed the two big rules and tried to follow the other 10! I was not alone on the beach that day and have never felt alone since.

  • Joan Of Argghh! March 23, 2020, 2:43 PM

    Reading this and an old Beth Wood song came drifting into my mind:
    Ghost of a Man

    Had I a lifetime at my fingertips
    I’d lay it in your hands
    Had I a life-line in my palm
    I’d trace it in the sand
    I shouldn’t even be here
    But somehow I still am

    I don’t make no plan
    I’m a ghost of a man

    I still have that bullet
    That went clean through my chest
    Some said I was the devil
    Some said I was blessed
    I don’t know about that
    I’m just lucky I guess

    I don’t make no plan
    I’m a ghost of a man

    Sometimes I levitate late at night
    Stiff as a two-by-four and feather-light
    When the angels come down for me I know
    I won’t have far to go

    My friends all ask me
    About the ghost train and the light
    I heard the engines turn
    I saw the sky go white
    Something with no name
    Dragged me back into this life
    I don’t make no plan
    I’m a ghost of a man

    Some folks waste their time
    Not knowing what it’s worth
    Most folks wish they had
    More time here on this earth
    Me, I know I got much
    More than I deserved
    I don’t make no plan
    I’m a ghost of a man

  • ghostsniper March 23, 2020, 5:34 PM
  • Joan Of Argghh! March 23, 2020, 8:01 PM

    I like that whole album. Heard most of it live, in a small bistro in Jax, FL.

  • Deborah March 26, 2020, 3:37 PM

    Episcopalian kiddoes learn:
    “New ev’ry morning is the Love
    My waking and uprising prove:
    Through sleep and darkness safely brought,
    Restored to life and pow’r and thought.”

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