Now I Lay Me Down to Find a Better Bedtime Prayer
May 25, 2012
A couple of nights ago, I cracked open Patti Smith's Just Kids: From Brooklyn to the Chelsea Hotel: a Life of Art and Friendship, the National Book Award winner chronicling her early life and relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
Within the first few pages, Smith recounts a childhood memory that closely matches my own and, no doubt, millions of Americans - the moment she realized her nightly bedtime prayer was actually quite disturbing.
You probably know the one I'm talking about. It goes:
"Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take"
I recall how surprised and disconcerted I was when I realized the prayer I repeated every night directly addressed the possibility of me dying in my bed that very night. My parents weren't long on explanations as to how often children in the 1970s simply died in their sleep or why I was put in charge of asking God to snatch my soul if it happened. They also weren't forthcoming with many alernatives.
I later learned this particular prayer came from The New England Primer, a book from 18th Century America, a time when children did, indeed, die in their sleep.
When my own children were born, I decided, along with millions of young parents my age, to skip the "Now I lay me down to sleep.." prayer. In its place, I substituted A Child's Good Night Book by Margaret Wise Brown, a sweet little book that asks as night falls that God protect "all small things that have no words" and the children who love them. The book features lush illustrations by Mexican muralist Louis Henri Jean Charlot that, like Brown's child-friendly prose, are equally as soothing to the souls of both children and parents.
I won't say my children drifted happily off to sleep after listening to this book, but they never experienced any prayer-induced angst when the lights went out either.