The Lady Chapel of Guildford Cathedral contains within it an icon of the Jesse Tree. At the heart of its branches is the Mother of God with her Son, the focal point of the icon, enthroned upon her lap. Jesse sleeps at the foot of the tree. He sleeps not inattentively but in a generative repose of deep sleep as Adam did. Out of Adam’s side a rib was taken to create the mother of all the living, Eve, and out of Jesse’s side comes the tree from which the New Adam is descended and the mother from whom he is born.
St John of Damascus calls Mary New Eve. This title, which predates John, alludes to sleep since this is used to ‘correct’ the action of the first Eve. So, as Kallistos Ware says, ‘where Eve is disobedient, Mary is obedient. Where Eve is unguarded and inconsiderate, listening all too readily to the deceitful words of the serpent, Mary is watchful and prudent, only accepting the Archangels’ message after she has carefully questioned him’. So for John, Eve brings the ‘sleep of death’ upon humankind, but Mary is, ‘initiator of life for the whole race’. Mary’s is the ‘unwedded bride’ or ‘Bride without bridegroom’ she is the Wise Virgin who watches for, and points out, the bringer of the New Wine (John 2.5)and resists the Eve-like sleepy behaviour of the foolish bridesmaids in the gospels who fall asleep.
|Icon of the Dormition of Mary|
The Eastern Church proclaims that, ‘Neither tomb nor death overpowered the Mother of God, unsleeping in her prayers, unfailing hope in intercession’. This proclamation is for the feast of the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God, the Dormition. It recalls the declaration of the Saviour at the bed of Jairus’ daughter, ‘she is not dead, but sleeping’ (Luke 8.52). This is the proclamation made to all who hear the voice of Mary’s Son, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (John 5.25). She who is declared by the angel to be ‘the favoured one’ (Luke 1.28) falls asleep and the human body of one of God’s creatures is ‘crowned with mercy and loving kindness’ (Psalm 103.4).
It can now be said:
The virgin of the Magnificat, on whose lips is placed the message that God is exalting the humble and casting down the powerful, finds her life confirmed and glorified by the Father of Jesus. Mary’s assumption – seen in the light of Jesus’ resurrection – is hope and promise for the poor of all times and for those who stand in solidarity with them; it is hope and promise that they will share in the final victory of the incarnate God.
For John of Damascus Mary is ‘Ladder of Jacob’. She is the ladder whose two extremities touch earth and heaven whilst Jacob, and humanity, sleeps. She was awake and alert, though fearful at first, of an angel who stepped off the ladder to call her to be mother of the Saviour.
Mary is not a goddess, not immortal, but as John of Damascus teaches emphatically, she who fell asleep was raised as expression of love. It is out of this love, and echoing Song of Songs that, John places on the lips of Mother and Son these words, ‘Into your hands my child, I commend my spirit, says the Mother to her Son as she dies; and her Son replies, ‘Come, my blessed Mother, into my rest…Arise, come, my beloved, beautiful among women’.
At the coming of sleep we entrust ourselves into the hands of God and pray that we will sleep in peace ready to be raised to the life of the new day, as Mary in her Dormition was swept up, like Elijah (2 Kings 2.1-12), to the very presence of God. Hence why the Church for centuries has associated sleep with the maternal care of Mary.
Dom David Steindl-Rast describes the monastic practice of Compline at his community:
At the very end of Compline, it has become a custom for the Abbot to bless the whole community by sprinkling them with holy water, a sort of evening dew. The monks then file into the Lady Chapel for a final hymn to Mary. This hymn changes with the seasons. For most of the year it is Salve Regina; at other times, there are Marian antiphons like the Regina Coeli or the Alma Redemptoris Mater, jewels of chant.
This custom has always reminded me of children being tucked up in bed at the end of the day by their mother. It brings a smile to my face to think of all those monks sweetly singing at day’s end to their Mother, opening themselves to the anima realm of their psyche, and entrusting themselves to the infinite darkness as maternal. Thus the part of the monastery indelibly linked for me with Compline is the Lady Chapel, where we return to our spiritual womb to be reborn again next morning.
Jean-Luc Nancy’s words could almost have been written as a meditation to be placed on Mary lips as she gazed upon the Christ-Child:
Tomorrow morning, God willing, you will awake again: sleep my child, sleep my soul, sleep my world, sleep my love, sleep my little one, the child will sleep soon, already he’s sleeping, look he goes to sleep with the first night of the world, the divine child who plays with the dice of the universe and of all its centuries, he sleeps with every night that rocks anew, tirelessly the repetition of the first, of the initial nocturnal lullaby where the first day fell asleep with the first sleep.
The new day will come, before which we sing, ‘Ave Regina caelorum’:
Hail, Queen of Heaven, beyond compare,
To whom the angels homage pay;
Hail, Root of Jesse, Gate of Light,
That opened for the world’s new Day
Rejoice, O Virgin unsurpassed,
In whim our ransom was begun,
For all your loving children pray
To Christ, our Saviour, and your Son.
As we prepare to lay ourselves down to sleep let us close in prayer before sleep with the words of St Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) entrusting us to the care of Jesus Christ, Blessed Mary and the angels.
Jesus Christ my God, I adore you and thank you for all the graces you have given me this day. I offer you my sleep and all the moments of this night, and I ask you to keep me from sin. I put myself within your sacred side and under the mantle of our Lady. Let your holy angels stand about me and keep me in peace. And let your blessing be upon me. Amen.
© Andrew Bishop, 2016
 “‘The Earthly Heaven’ – The Mother of God in the Teaching of St John of Damascus” in McLoughlin, W, & Pinnock, J,. 2002. Mary for Earth and Heaven: Essays on Mary and Ecumenism. Leominster: Gracewing. p. 358.
 Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer, Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor, trans. Phillip Berryman, (Maryknoll N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1989),119.
 Ware, ‘The Earthly Heaven’, 364.
 Dormition Sermon 2.10.
 David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence: A Sacred Journey Through the Hours of the Day. (Berkeley CA: Ulysees Press, 1998, 2002), 109.
 Nancy, The Fall of Sleep, 32-33.