As we find ourselves in the midst of a stressful and confusing time, we need rituals, routines, and reminders of God’s peace and presence more than ever. Start simply, start tonight, with bedtime. Bedtime is the first threshold experience we remember, I think. We close our eyes and prepare to enter another world vastly different from the one we live in during our waking hours. No wonder kids (and some adults) often have such a hard time with it. How do we make a bedtime routine calming and soothing?
You could begin with a bath. A drop or two of essential oil such as lavender is enough. My friend Brook Packard writes, “Some children respond well to calm, peaceful touching. You can use almond, coconut, or jojoba oil, gently massaging feet, or the back of the neck, or even the child’s hands. There is an acupressure point on your child’s forehead, just above the eyebrows, that when stroked for half a minute, will calm your child down.”
If you have little ones, then bedtime stories are already a part of your routine, but even if—or perhaps especially if—you don’t have little ones, this might be a great time to start reading or telling stories or listening to them. My friend Linnae Peterson started a Facebook Page called Tucked In where you can listen to a bedtime story online, read by Episcopalians and others who have chosen their favorite stories with messages we all need right now. She was inspired by this elementary school principal who reads bedtime stories to her students. Operation Storytime is also a wonderful resource, with authors and actors sharing their favorite picture books.
Bedtime prayers are a beloved ritual in many homes, easing the transition from day into night and giving children and parents a chance to reflect together on past events and present needs. Young children may want to name those they love and be reminded of those who love them. When my son Peter was tiny, I sang a version of the spiritual “Seek and ye shall find” to him before sleep, even naps, adding names to the chorus that included family and eventually classmates, teachers and neighbors:
Peter, Jesus loves you, Peter, Mommy loves you, Peter, we all love you, and love, love, love comes trickling down.
Older children may take the opportunity to pray for their own needs and those of others.
Pastor and author Traci Smith’s newest book, Prayers for Faithful Families, includes sweet and simple bedtime prayers as well as bedtime blessings for parents to give their children. I especially love this one:
The day is done.
It’s time for sleep.
We say goodbye to the day.
We say hello to the night.
We breathe in love and peace.
May you have rest and peace
From the top of your head
To the bottom of your feet.
Love, rest, and peace to you.
Good night.Traci Smith, Prayers for Faithful Families, p. 20
One form of prayer that lends itself well to the close of day is the Examen, a reflective practice developed by the 16th century saint, Ignatius of Loyola. This can be done with the whole family, with a parent and child, or by a teen in private, especially if you model this as a family practice first. The Examen begins with an invitation to notice God’s presence. You could light a candle. Next, take turns recalling something that made you grateful today. Then name your sorrows and your joys or lows and highs—just a few—from the day. Wonder together where you found God in them. Think ahead to tomorrow. What are you looking forward to? Ask God to be present in that, too. Conclude with the Lord’s Prayer or any words of your own to bring these thoughts together. That’s it, the Examen at its simplest.
Peter, who long had trouble falling asleep (he still does), learned a technique from my husband Phil’s own practice of centering prayer, using the imagery of letting thoughts float down a stream. One of Brook’s meditations uses the same imagery. It reminds me of a poetic Examen:
“With your eyes closed, see that you are standing
in tall yellow grass near a gentle stream.
The stream bubbles along, over pebbles and stones.
You look around and see a long twig with several branches on it.
You pick up the twig and swirl it in the water.
The water of the stream flows around the twig.
Now think back on your day….”
At each prompt, the child in her imagination breaks off a piece of the twig and lets it float down the stream along with the pleasures and distractions of the day.
For many nights during middle school, the bedtime prayer that most resonated with Peter was this “Prayer for Anxiety” from the excellent collection Call on Me: A Prayer Book for Young People:
Release everything that’s making me anxious, especially
(name whatever is pressing in upon you).
Fill every cell of my body with your presence.
Help me feel your love everywhere:
in my body, in my brain and in my soul.
Hold me in your arms
so I can let this tension go.
Your love is stronger than anything.Jenifer Gamber and Sharon Pearson, Call on Me, p.60
We tweaked it slightly it to include that which brought him comfort.
Compline is the ancient service of night prayers dating to at least the sixth century, the last of the monastic “hours,” traditionally said or sung just before bed—the Church’s bedtime prayers. It begins on page 127 of The Book of Common Prayer. For several years, Peter and I said Compline together sitting at the foot of his bed almost every night; we said Compline together over the phone when I was traveling. We have begun to say Compline together again as a family this week, by candlelight, just before bed.
It doesn’t always start off that way, but invariably, in those moments in the dark when we finally pray together, we let go of our anxieties of the day and our tensions with each other, too.
Trinity Church Wall Street, where I worship, has a particularly beautiful sung Compline you can listen to or watch online. Karen Holsinger Sherman has written and illustrated a lovely picture book, Candle Walk: A Bedtime Prayer to God that gently introduces Compline in a walk through the woods.
This prayer, which comes near the conclusion of Compline, is dear to my heart:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this night and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake. Amen.Attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo
My husband’s favorite night prayer is from A New Zealand Prayer Book:
it is night.
The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.
It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.
The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.
The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
In your name we pray.ANZPB Liturgies of the Word, p. 184
These are long days, dear ones. May we find rest and peace.
Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.
Brook Packard is the creator of Sleepytime Club, bedtime kits for families.