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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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • tim June 17, 2019, 10:42 AM

    Zeppelin’s version is much better, IMHO –


  • Dr. Jay June 17, 2019, 12:18 PM

    I’m partial to Laura Nyro’s . . .


  • 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.


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