Thoughts of fasting last month have turned me to other forms of physical deprivation that have been used in religious communities to great effect. During the Kirtland holy season (1835-36), the Saints occasionally held portentous meetings, familiar from broader evangelical culture, in which they stayed up all night praying and singing and worshiping, waiting for the endowment of power that would attend their earnest pleas for the divine presence.Some external observers have suggested that sleep deprivation contributed to the supernaturalism that resulted from these earnest and often strenuous devotions. There is no doubt that sleep deprivation (probably 24 hours or more of uninterrupted wakefulness, perhaps less) leads to worse cognitive function–concerns over the effect of sleep deprivation on cognition has underlay a variety of complex and possibly counter-productive attempts to limit the number of hours that physicians-in-training can work. It is reasonably clear that in the animals in which the experiments have been allowed, long-term wakefulness (days to weeks) is fatal. In humans, by 48-72 hours almost everyone is micro-napping (this recognition is the conceit behind the recently remade Elm Street nightmares). Scientists of course have no real idea why we sleep, just that we need to, and theologians aren’t much further along.
On the scientist end, there are a variety of hypotheses: Perhaps we sleep to allow restoration of spent body systems, perhaps we sleep to allow the brain to process the dizzying array of signals it has encountered during the day, maybe we sleep because it’s metabolically advantageous, and evolution doesn’t work fast enough to delete sleep in an age of super-sized McHumans.
On the theologian end there are other hypotheses: Perhaps we sleep because it unveils the other world to our sight. Maybe we sleep because it is during sleep that we know our spiritual mettle (the Desert Fathers and their near obsession with wet dreams comes to mind). Many religious traditions (and one of the more onerously irreligious traditions, the Viennese delegation) emphasize the significance of dreams, those motley irruptions of consciousness into sleep.
We have used sleep as a metaphor or metonyme for death. We have hoped that in fact the bodies of our loved ones (and our future selves) are sleeping until a great awakening that will come with the return of Jesus. John Donne has marvelously conjured the image of Death as a fraud because sleep can as easily mimic death as a potion. In our age of cultural inadequacy in the face of death, we often yearn to die, in advanced age, in our sleep. Nabokov in his characteristically nimble and stimulating prose presented in his autobiography the image of a child terrified of sleep, intensely fearful of the possibility that letting his consciousness fade into nothingness, however temporarily, would be the utter loss of that consciousness.
The Book of Mormon loves the image of sleeping, whether a converting trance (Alma the Younger or the Lamanite King), or a stratagem for escape (intoxicating guards so that they slept as the prisoners fled their incarceration), or the many dreams that communicated divine messages to eager listeners. The early Restoration had a similar love for sleeping communications, whether the complex and fascinating visitations of Moroni to the slumbering boy prophet or the adult dreams of Joseph Smith or Brigham Young that have reached us in manuscript form.
I have had a complex relationship with sleep over the years. My job often requires me to be awake for up to 36 hours at a time. I never have supernatural experiences, and I have not observed lapses in judgment. Mostly I am moody for the last 8 hours of such a shift. When I was younger, occasionally we would be called on to perform for 48 or even 72 hours with minimal chance for short naps. That is the professional sleeplessness.
Sleeplessness for pleasure has been somewhat different. I remember fondly how marvelously funny we all were in our late teens staying up until 6am on a Saturday just to enjoy each other’s company and discover just how funny we could be. Even when I dabbled with intoxication in the last couple year’s of my agnosticism, I was never as pleased with the humorous camaraderie drunk as I was with our camaraderie sleepless.
I also cherish from adolescence a distinct memory of a tent in a rain storm, of a group of friends praying well after midnight for God to bless us with greater wisdom (this came, naturally, after I had abandoned agnosticism at the age of 18) and a convicting witness, of our sincere and tired tears on our cheeks merging with the drops falling into the tent’s fly, one of my own first experience’s with the metaphysical law of correspondence, a time when I felt intimately connected with the universe through the divine power unleashed in the company of other believers hungry for contact with the divine. I remember from college chartered buses from Boston to DC for us to visit the temple as a student congregation, the incredible sense of friendship and community that came from conversations held between 2 and 4am, in anticipation of our arrival around 6am to the temple grounds in Washington.
What are your relationships with sleep? Thoughts about its meaning or function, about whether sleeplessness could be used appropriately in some circumstances?
 Mark Staker covers this in his Ohio Revelations. I cover this in chapter 6 of my Early Mormon Conquest of Death, which is probably still about 18-24 months out from publication.
 This is from Death, Be Not Proud.
 Speak, Memory, one of my favorite books of all time. Like Proust but readable.
 Look for a treatment of one such fascinating dream in an essay my wife and I are doing on Embodiment and Sexuality for a Handbook of Mormonism.