3:17 AM

A Theological Phrasebook entry.

A thump in the night and I am awake, staring at the glowing digits of the bedside alarm clock: 3:17AM. I roll over in the quiet but my mind is already vibrating with the dissonance of the coming day. It is unlikely that I am going to be able to navigate back towards sleep. Nothing unusual here, just considering the state of things, the various paths I have walked down that have brought me to this moment, 3:17AM, in the dark.

At different times in my life there have been moments of crisis in these early morning hours: a particular source of suffering elbowing me sharply in the ribs. But, I have been fortunate, with crises few and far between. More common is a mix of the mundane and existential: a concern about whether or not I filtered the duplicate data in that spreadsheet yesterday bumping up against a question of life purpose. How did I end up here, clicking imaginary Excel cells in the middle of the night? At 3:17AM I don’t have the ability to parry the inquiries, my defenses are down, my mind too loud and the world too silent.

The language of digital alarm clocks and Excel spreadsheets may somehow imply that this is a uniquely modern sort of thing. We might like to think so, it would make us feel special: the brave modern, facing the dark, where the ancients huddled under the comforting cloak of ritual and tradition. But, some ancient near eastern poet, thousands of years ago reminds us that there is nothing new in the anxieties of 3:17AM: “in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted … You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled I cannot speak” (Psalm 77). There is some difference here, I admit, the psalmist is considerably more engaged with something, with Someone (that “You”), than I usually am in contemplating the emptiness of the night. But we recognize each other across the years.

There is something deeply human about the dark hour of 3:17AM, that moment of trying to make sense of things (and usually failing). Human beings are the “praying animal,” said the American theologian, Robert Jenson, and this is something of what he meant, I think. We are a creature that wants to understand things as a whole, that wants to make sense of things. To be a praying animal is to wake at 3am and be turned outwards to the night, to ask questions of it that it can never quite answer to our satisfaction.


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