There is a saying in the book of Proverbs which introduces the theme of Step 19 very well: "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep - - so shall your poverty come on you like a prowler, and your need like an armed man." (Interestingly, this saying is repeated twice: Proverbs 6:10,11 and Proverbs 24:33,34). In step 19, St. John reminds us that too much sleep, like too much of anything, can be spiritually dangerous. Of course, we all need to sleep. Just as we need to eat, so we need to sleep in order to live. But, although sleep is natural and needful, like desire it has many sources.
How can we tell the difference? St. John does not spend a great deal of time in explaining the answer. He simply reminds us: it is too much sleep when it keeps us from fulfilling our rule of prayer. When we choose to sleep rather than to pray - we have entered into the spiritual danger zone.
Many of the fathers have pointed out that Satan can oppress and make us feel more tired than we are in order to keep us from praying. This often happens at night when it is time to say your prayers before going to bed. All of a sudden, you are hit with a tremendous sense of fatigue so that you can barely make it to your bed without falling asleep. Sometimes, undoubtedly, this is natural, but more often than not it comes from the evil one. It is a trick to get us to go to bed without prayer. For if we go to bed without prayer, we leave open our minds and imaginations for demonic assault all night. When we are sleeping, we cannot be vigilant over our thoughts. Therefore, our prayer before sleep is of the greatest importance.
In this short step, John describes sleep and its sources, the habit of oversleeping, the tactics of demons especially at the time of prayer, and finally how these demons may be overcome.
Sleep is a natural state. It is also an image of death and a respite of the senses. Sleep is one, but like desire it has many sources. That is to say, it comes from nature, from food, from demons, or perhaps in some degree even from prolonged fasting by which the weakened flesh is moved to long for repose.
Just as too much drinking comes from habit, so too from habit comes overindulgence in sleep. For this reason one has to struggle against it especially at the start of one's religious life, because a long standing habit is very difficult to correct.
Let us observe and we shall find that the spiritual trumpet that summons the brethren together visibly is also the signal for the invisible assembly of our foes. Some stand by our bed and encourage us to lie down again after we have got up. "Wait until the first hymns are over," they say. "Then it will be time enough to go to church." Others get those at prayer to fall asleep. Still others cause a bad and unusual stomachache, while others encourage prattle in the church. Some inspire bad thoughts, others get us to lean against the wall as though we were weary or to start yawning over and over again, while still others cause us to laugh during prayer so as to provoke the anger of God against us. Some get us in our laziness to hurry up with the singing, while others suggest we should sing slowly in order that we may take pleasure in it. Others, by sitting on our mouths, shut them so that we can scarcely open them.
However, the man who considers with sensitivity of heart that he is standing before God will be an immovable pillar of prayer, and none of the demons mentioned above will delude him.
A furnace tests gold. Prayer tests the zeal of a monk and his love for God.