Drowsiness can be a dangerous thing. At work it can lead to a deadly typo, an ill-advised email, or a calculation error. It can also put us in physical danger. Hence the rumble strips on the side of the highway and the warning label on medicines: May cause drowsiness and dizziness; do not operate heavy machinery while taking this medication.
That’s just physical drowsiness. Today our Lord speaks of a different, more dangerous drowsiness, that of the heart: Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life. In Scripture, the heart indicates more than just an organ or the place of emotions. It describes the innermost dimension of the person, where thoughts, choices, and – most of all – love reside. This drowsiness, then, is a lethargy of the intellect and will, of the capacity to love. Its dangers resemble those of physical tiredness but are far more deadly. It ultimately brings the danger of becoming a spiritual zombie: walking around and functioning, but really being dead inside.
Of its very nature, love requires vigilance. Our hearts need to be alert and attentive to operate properly. When they grow drowsy, we lose the discipline necessary to love properly. We begin to make mistakes and poor choices. As physical drowsiness affects our eyes, so spiritual drowsiness affects our mind’s eye. We miscalculate what is truly good and worthy of our love and then how to love. Our affections go off track and collide with the wrong things. If the heart is not refreshed and alert it is easily misled.
This kind of drowsiness accounts for most of the evils we commit. We do not typically choose evil because we know it’s evil or because we want to do evil. It’s rather that we choose evil and sin because the heart becomes drowsy. It slowly but surely grows incapable of discerning the true and the good. It becomes undisciplined in its choices and slouches into the path of least resistance. Rather than the arduous good, it opts for what is easy, popular, and comfortable.
Our Lord indicates two causes of this drowsiness. First, “carousing and drunkenness.” Now, don’t think you’re off the hook just because you’re not out carousing or getting drunk. This phrase indicates not just those specific vices, but indulgence of the body in general. It means our elevation of food, drink, and other physical pleasures to a higher level than they deserve and thus our allowing them an outsized influence on our choices.
These habits of the flesh slowly but surely put the heart to sleep. Have you ever been more alert after a huge meal and a lot of drink? And how tired were you the next morning? The person with little self-control regarding food, drink, and sex typically makes more and more poor decisions because those indulgences tug the heart down from the higher spiritual things to the carnal.
It works another way as well. No matter how irrationally we behave, we are still rational creatures and need a reason for our actions. The more attached we are to the indulgence of the flesh, the more we must dragoon our intellect into justifying what we do. We tug it down from its place of privilege to rationalize the body’s desires.
The second cause of this drowsiness is what our Lord calls “the anxieties of daily life.” We become spiritually numb when we allow the demands of the day – the tyranny of the urgent – to overtake our spiritual practices. When the pace of life that we’ve created elbows God out of the schedule and prompts us to forego our prayer, spiritual reading, confession or even Mass because. . .then we’re too busy. Something has to give.
Although the opposite of carousing and drunkenness, this busy-ness produces the same result: dullness regarding the matters of the soul. Anxiety is both a symptom and a cause of being too enmeshed in this world and inattentive to the next.
Thus, we bring about a drowsiness of heart by alternatingly indulging the body and manufacturing busyness. Indeed, the extremes of indulgence and anxiety work quite well together. We become anxious because of our busyness; we indulge the flesh to relieve our anxiety; which only leads to more anxiety. Either way the heart grows weary, tired, drowsy, and susceptible to false loves. And our culture seems eerily adept at producing both extremes. There has perhaps never been a culture so indulgent and anxious at once.
The severity of this Gospel might seem inappropriate for this time of year. Having raced ahead to Christmas already, most people expect a more joyful message. In fact, however, what we need right now is precisely a warning against carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life. It’s this time of year especially that we indulge in food and drink and become – ironically – stressed by the holidays.
Advent is the time to shake off drowsiness of heart. It is a penitential season in which we detach ourselves from both indulgence and busyness. The way to prepare for our Lord’s birth is to refrain from excessive food and drink and to master our schedules, so that we don’t become drowsy from indulgence or anxiety. Christ was born in the wee hours of the morning. The celebration of His birth is not for the drowsy of heart. Only the wakeful can grasp Christmas joy.
*Image: You Could Not Watch One Hour with Me (Vous n’avez pu veiller une heure avec moi) by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
You may also enjoy:
St. John Henry Newman on Advent and self-denial 
Michael Pakaluk’s Now and at the Hour