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Redeeming Night Terrors


Jason Jones - published on 08/30/13

When I'm awake at night comforting my child after a night terror, I pray for the children suffering all around the world. Unfortunately, I never run out of children to pray for.

My daughter woke up screaming as if a bear had crawled through her window. I raced into the room, seized her, held her, and waited it out. I’d learned firsthand that nothing I could do would wake her up, console, or comfort her in the least. What she was suffering wasn’t a nightmare, doctors assured me; in fact, when she goes through these fits – she’s so deep asleep that her mind is blank and she wakes up in the morning remembering nothing. So all I could do was hold her, keep her safe, and suffer with her. Welcome to “night terrors,” my friends.

In Eva’s case, she doesn’t have them every night, but sometimes they will come in clusters so that three or four nights in a row, I must rush to the rescue at 3 or 4 AM, and hope that the rest of my kids can get back to sleep when it’s all over. When the night terrors first started happening, I couldn’t sleep – I’d lie there and stare at the ceiling.  First of all, it was the relief that nothing serious was happening (it always takes a second or two for my sleepy, rational brain to reassure my twisting gut that my daughter is howling with fear not because a wolf or a prowler has attacked her, but thanks to some random brain static generated by the transition into REM sleep). Then I feel relief. Then compassion, concern, and tenderness.   

After a few weeks of this, I knew there had to be a better way to handle all this – and by “better” I don’t mean something like getting some earplugs and leaving this mess to my wife. The doctors told me that this condition would pass as her brain develops and grows. So I needed a way to cope – or better yet, to transform this patch of night-time shock and awe into something useful and good. This is where Jesus comes in: Christianity, at its heart, transforms suffering into holiness. It takes that ugly toxin, and turns it into a whole family of medicines, such as empathy, patience, humility, and love. But you have to work the chemistry right, and to learn the formula, I turned to a favorite saint: Ignatius of Loyola.

It’s hard for someone like me to resist a saint like Ignatius: he started off a vain soldier, a triumphalist, renowned alike for bravery and braggadocio. He pursed the ladies of the court and chased after glory and wealth. In other words, he was a guy. If he were alive (and unconverted) today, I think that Dana White would sign Ignatius to a UFC contract.  But after a battlefield injury ruined his leg – and hence, in his eyes, his looks – he spent long months in bed reading the only books on hand: the lives of the saints. And Ignatius was converted. He took his own raw materials and turned them on the pivot of the cross: the militarist became a militant preacher; the soldier became a pauper; the womanizer pledged his faith to the Virgin Mary. You know what happened next: he started an army that would conquer the earth’s four corners for Christ, or willingly die trying.

What I learned from Ignatius was his technique called the “composition of place.” It’s the method he used to teach lay Christians to read the scriptures – not as amateur scholars or proof-texters, but rather as participants. Since the goal of the Christian life is closeness to Christ, why not use his own words and story to train your imagination and heart by his example? So Ignatius takes a scene from the New Testament, and teaches us how to “be” there in our minds: to taste the olive oil, smell the sweat, hear the crowds, feel the heat, and see the beards. Once we’ve tried to register in every sense what it might have been like to be present alongside our Lord, we tap into the emotions that Christ or the Apostles might have felt: the fear, the joy, the confusion, the hope. A few months of this sort of thing, and Christianity ceases to be an abstraction – as it too often is, even for solid believers – and becomes a part of your lived reality.

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