Conversatio Divina

Part 8 of 16

The Night Watch: Mystical Practice for Everyday Life

Anna Grizzle

Mystics have ears and hearts tuned to another world, that of the Divine. Amidst my busy modern life, I’ve tried to keep turning and tuning my heart to God. However, one practice that the Holy Spirit quickened off the pages of a book fifteen years ago changed my spiritual life forever: the night watch.

I was on a silent retreat, and my spiritual director had suggested I might look at a little book by Basil Pennington, Lessons from the Monastery That Touch Your Life. Many of the lessons were familiar to me after a decade of contemplative seeking. However, one little chapter described the night watch, something entirely new and intriguing to me. The only particular words from the book that I still remember are, “This became the sweetest time of day.” He was talking about the monks rising at 2:00 or 3:00 in the middle of the night to wait on God. I am not naturally a morning person. I love the morning from the warmth underneath my covers as I push the snooze button one more time. So, the idea of rising before dawn to wait in the cold dark of night was about as appealing as a freezing shower in winter. And I am naturally a busy, active person who crams all I can into each day of life, so going to bed early is a rarity, and simply sitting and waiting any time, much less in the wee hours of the morning, seems a bit of a waste. I’m not sure I had ever really watched the sun rise, except perhaps at the end of a long night of paper writing in college. But the Spirit struck deep in my soul with a challenge to test this strange offer of a sweet night watch.

I determined to rise early one morning and try this practice. For me 5:00 a.m. was plenty early, and Saturday was a day I would at least not fall asleep at work for having gotten up so early. I set my alarm, rose, got a cup of hot coffee, pulled on a heavy wool poncho, and sneaked out to my little front garden seat. I sat down and looked up into the night sky. There in front of me in the midst of the dark canvas was a huge full moon that gradually lowered in the black sky. I gasped in awe, though only later did I realize how rare it is to be at the right time and place for a full moon setting. As the darkness turned into day that first night-watch morning, a little bird flew close by, landed on the lowest branch of the nearest tree in front of me, and began to sing. I could almost hear God laughing with delight as he said, “If you get up to be with me, I will meet you in ways you never imagined.” God was so clear that I determined to make this a weekly discipline every Saturday morning.

I have not read or researched extensively about the night watch. But I have practiced it faithfully in my own modified way in the midst of an active professional and family life. And this has opened to me a greater experience of waiting, mysticism, and glory than anything else in my life. So, I write as a person of faith testifying about the power of applying a spiritual practice to my own life with God’s leading.

01.  As the Watchman Waits for Morning

The only real keys to a night watch are that it be at night and be a time of watching for God. Basil Pennington wrote about the night watch as a time not to pray for people or accomplish certain readings, but simply to wait and watch in the dark with God. In my night watches, the only words I use are those from Psalm 130:6, “My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (NIV, 1984 All Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™). That sets the tone of my heart and intention of my time: to be a watchman for God.

Waiting is not something most people in the West practice or desire to learn. Yet the beginning of the spiritual life is to let go of our own desires and look to God for all that we are to be and do. The night watch has been for me one of the best ways to turn my attitude around from doing to being, from leading to waiting on God.

One of the wonderful things about a night watch is that most people, most noise, most telephones, and most computers are asleep in the wee hours of the night. Whether in the country or the middle of New York City, a quiet blanket of stillness fills the air at night-watch hours. The sounds of the world are naturally hushed, making it easier to enter a quiet space with God without being in a particular retreat setting. While intentional, a night watch is less intense and more relaxed than a twenty-minute session of centering prayer. The experience is less like that of a good, quick wash and more like letting one’s soul soak in the dye of God’s heart colors.

After an initial adjustment, this night-watch time became a great treat for me, with its freedom simply to sit with no agenda except to be and wait. I was like a child set free from chores to listen to the wind and birds, to dangle my feet and do nothing. The night watch gave my child-heart and spiritual center time to recharge. Recharging batteries does not happen instantly, but takes time plugged into a source. This became my time for reconnecting in a much deeper way than ever before to the source of energy and life in the universe.

02.  There Were Evening and Morning, the First Day

My busy mind always imagined the day starting when I woke up and night falling after I had completed a full day of work. Jews recognize that each day begins with the night, and when we wake, we join God’s already alert presence in the day. The night watch taught me to start my days by listening in the night for what God is already about and only then seeking to join in the direction of God’s prayer and care. It resets my own self-absorbed sense of what is important and reorients me to the Creator of the universe.

Practicing a regular night watch set a new spiritual rhythm for my life. My Saturday night watches created a regular Sabbath time of rest. Before this, I would go at top speed in my life until my spiritual well was almost depleted, then periodically collapse into a much savored silent retreat. Once I began a weekly Sabbath night watch, I found my spiritual center stayed fuller and more balanced, so I rarely get to the place of feeling really dry.

03.  Fruitfulness From the Fallow Time

I tend to worry about wasting precious time. I admit that amidst my busy life, after getting up early and sitting, a bit tired, for several hours in which seemingly nothing happened, I would sometimes wonder if these waiting hours were worth it.

However, something for which I had not been prepared happened in these night watches. After sitting empty and open for quite a while, sometimes after several hours of seeming emptiness, a jewel of an image or idea would rise like a pearl from the bottom of the sea. Occasionally it would be a clear, bright image, like a bird suddenly flying into a clear sky. But more often it would first appear like a faded image on a canvas, gradually coming clear only with peering and waiting carefully, or like a tune heard faintly in the distance, eventually coming clear in the early morning air with quiet, attentive listening. I would try to jot down a phrase or few lines carefully to catch the image, but mainly waited to see and hear more clearly, lest by any action of mine the little bird of spiritual beauty would fly away.

After a while I would come inside and write out these images. They came out as poems. I had never written poetry, besides the mandatory poetry writing of high school English classes and literary journals. Yet out of the night watch, with spacious time for listening and creative imaging, came words of poetry to describe an image of beauty or spirituality that had arisen in the waiting. I discovered why poetry is a spiritual language. One must listen deeply for it and then transcribe from above or from deep within. I began to write poetry from my night watches and shifted in my own life-journaling to write in poetry rather than prose. Rather than using many words of prose to describe a journey or experience, I began in all my life to listen for a few carefully crafted words with mental heart-space in between to capture a significant idea or experience. My poems are not primarily written for public consumption, but rather as a scrapbook of gifts from God. Yet sometimes I have shared them, and they have given life to others as well. Without the night watch, I would never have discovered or exercised my poet-heart. Like an open field for playing or a dance floor with no one watching, the night watch can be a place for discovery not only of God’s deepest heart, but of one’s own as well.

Not only poems but also a number of profound, life-altering visions and directions have come out of these night watches. Perhaps, after many nights of waiting, a single word that would change my whole direction might come. One morning, after several hours of night watch and dawn joy on my grandparents’ farm in Virginia, the image of building a retreat center rose up, as if from an underground well, out of nothing. Ten years later, that vision is becoming a reality, all from a seed that germinated in the soil of a night watch.

At times, after hours of empty, open attentiveness, a key idea for a project I was working on would come floating into the air. Like needing to loosen a tight knot before it can be untangled, taking time to let ideas and projects soak in the open air of God’s grace can produce more fruitfulness than focusing on them directly. At other times, the image of a particular person of whom I might not have thought for days or years would arise out of the silence, alerting me to a concern of God’s without phone or letter from anyone else. By setting aside my own agenda, I become more open to hearing what and who might be on God’s heart.

Even when nothing at all arose in the night watch, I would often find, as I resumed the rest of my day, that something came clearer for having spent time waiting in silence. Like the fruitfulness of centering prayer, which comes not so much in the time itself but in the change in life-attitude, the night watch resets the clock of the heart closer to God’s time and pace.

The night watch has taught me the principle of letting the land lie fallow to produce more fruitfulness. It has taught me the principle of pregnancy and seed germination: the most precious things in life often begin in the dark and in waiting.

04.  Mystical Experience of Hope

The monastic practice of the night watch may be entirely in the dark (for monks who go to bed when the sun sets at 6:00, rising at 2:00 still gives them eight hours of rest). However, my own modified practice of the night watch starts a bit later, around 5:00, and lasts through the sunrise. I also try whenever possible to be outside, preferably facing east, or at least looking outside at the sky. Even if I must dress in five layers and wrap myself in a blanket, I find that smelling the air, hearing the birds, and seeing the colors of creation are a rich part of my own experience of rejuvenation.

Blue has become my favorite color since beginning the night watch. When I am sitting in the night, watching the black sky closely, there eventually comes a moment of wondering, “Is the sky black, or is it now blue?” The very first sign that the day is coming, that light has pierced into the darkness, is the black canvas turning blue. Then the sky gradually turns a deep, royal, azure blue for just a few wonderful minutes before gradually lightening to a baby blue. Only later do the rosy pinks and reds of the rising sun appear in the sky. Although it is wonderful to watch the day arise from the east, practicing a night watch makes it possible to delight in the day’s arrival while watching from almost any direction with almost any view. I remember a three-day retreat with two friends during which we got up every morning to sit for the sunrise. Never was there a brilliant sky, yet every morning we saw God. One morning all we ever saw of the sun was a momentary peek through the clouds, but my friend’s poetry of the day included the line, “Father God winked at me this morning.”

One favorite night-watch spot for me is in Bolivia on the balcony of Amistad Mission’s guest house. The view faces west, looking down the hill to the city, which is full of lights at night. During the night watch, the sky behind the city lights is black except for stars. Gradually the early blue reveals a line in the midst of the sky that draws in mountains surrounding the city. As light increases, the mountains take on details and eventually shades of green and brown. The western sky reflects baby pink and blue just before sunrise. The actual sunlight first hits on the highest western peak and then gradually spreads across and down the mountainsides. Sitting there for several hours of night watch and dawn, I feel as if I’ve experienced the majesty of seeing a master painter at work with a full palette of colors.

05.  Mystical Experience Into Day

Mystics write of profound experiences of God’s love and light. For me, every night watch and dawn is such an experience. Sitting in the dark night and gradually seeing light bring the whole earth to color, whether with the majestic flares or subtle signs of the sun, never fails to revitalize an inner core of hope within me. It reminds me that God’s light will set free the worst darkness of our lives, that the dayspring has risen upon us and will indeed one day bring eternal light.

As others wake up, I am like one who is coming out of a trance, out of a glorious time with God. My eyes see different colors. My stage is set differently for the rest of my day. I look like a modern-day mother, but really, I’m a night-watch mystic.


About the Author

Anne Grizzle is a psychotherapist, author, and spiritual director who lives in Houston, Texas. She is the author of Reminders of God and Going Home Grown Up. Married and the mother of three sons, she relishes silence and finds poetry rising out of quiet spaces.