A fascinating encounter with a stranger has lingered in my thoughts for many weeks. As I sat in a temple endowment room waiting for the session to begin, a woman seated herself next to me and quietly asked for a favor. “I have narcolepsy,” she explained. “Would you mind nudging me if I doze off?” Though I had heard of narcolepsy–a chronic sleep disorder–I was not prepared for what I witnessed over the next ninety minutes.

As the session proceeded, it was obvious that this young woman was making a serious effort to keep herself awake. She shifted carefully in her seat; she quietly moved one leg slightly up and down; she discreetly rubbed her arms. For about ten minutes these actions were effective, and my attention shifted back to the endowment film. Then, without warning, the woman’s head flopped forward so her chin nearly touched her chest. I was about to nudge her arm when her head suddenly popped up again. This cycle repeated over and over–her head flopping forward for several seconds, then quickly raising up.

After a few minutes of this, the woman seemed to slip into a deeper sleep. Her head dropped to her chest, then her upper body gradually drooped either toward my shoulder, or far enough forward that I feared she might fall out of her seat. Each time this occurred I gently grasped her upper arm to help her lean back, and she woke up briefly. Partway through the session, when the patrons all stood for several minutes, the sister grew wide awake again. Then, after we all sat down, the whole process repeated itself: the woman was able–through great effort–to keep herself awake for ten or fifteen minutes, then her head alternately fell forward and popped up again every ten seconds or so for the remainder of the endowment session.

Later, as I sat in the Celestial room thinking of that sweet sister who was doing her best to cope with a condition that was not her fault, my mind drew parallels between narcolepsy and the natural man/woman in all of God’s children as we experience the effects of the Fall.  The natural man is defined as: “A person who chooses to be influenced by the passions, desires, appetites, and senses of the flesh rather than by the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Such a person can comprehend physical things but not spiritual things. All people are carnal, or mortal, because of the Fall of Adam and Eve. Each person must be born again through the Atonement of Jesus Christ to cease being a natural man.” (1)

My husband can confirm that if you put me in the passenger seat of a car and start driving, chances are I will begin nodding off within ten minutes. The same thing happens on airplanes and trains. Unless I’m the driver or I’m actively engaged in conversation with another passenger, there’s something about the rhythm of a moving vehicle that lulls me to sleep. Because of the Fall, men and women are easily lulled into spiritual sleepiness unless our spirit takes charge and actively seeks the Savior. Elder David A. Bednar explains it this way: “Focusing our lives in and on the Savior and His gospel enables us to overcome the tendency of the natural man to be spiritually snoozy and lazy.” (2)

The scriptures are replete with references to waking up spiritually:

“… let us not sleep as do others; but let us watch and be sober.” (1 Thess. 5:6)

“O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell…” (2 Nephi 1:13) 

 “Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin.” (2 Nephi 4:28)

 “…awake and arouse your faculties…” (Alma 32:27)

 “…awake to a sense of your awful situation…” (Ether 8:24)

“Behold [the Spirit] changed their hearts; yea he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God.” (Alma 5:7)

How can we wake up spiritually? There are many possible answers to this important question, but here I list only three:

  1. Daily spiritual stillness. Holding our bodies still increases the chance of becoming drowsy, but the opposite is true for our spirits. While studying the gospel of Mark, one Christian writer identified twenty-three references to Jesus seeking solitude in order to commune with his Father. (3) Two examples: “And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, [Jesus] went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.” (Mark 1:35) And when [Jesus] had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray.” (Mark 6:46) Spiritual stillness–quieting all the noise of our busy life–allows us to focus on God and to listen for the whisperings of the Holy Spirit who is always trying to communicate with us. We may think we’re too busy to slow down, but if the Savior of the world (who was continually sought out by crowds of people) made spiritual stillness a priority, we can too. If we dare to set aside our phones for a time each day, we might be surprised what ten minutes of engaging with God will do to wake up our spirit.
  2. Eyes on the prophet. The natural man is self-centered–focused solely on his own entertainment, pleasure, and comfort. This leaves us spiritually vulnerable. Elder Neil A. Andersen has declared, “A prophet is a watchman on the tower, protecting us from spiritual dangers we may not see… the prophet’s voice brings spiritual safety in very turbulent times… The prophet’s voice, while spoken kindly, will often be a voice asking us to change, to repent, and to return to the Lord.” (4) When we are spiritually drowsy, the prophet’s words can rouse us from our slumber and prepare us for coming danger. Elder Bednar states, “Spiritually speaking, we need to stay awake and be alert to…the signals that come from the Lord’s watchmen on the towers.” (5)
  3. True observance of the Sacrament. Knowing the tendencies of the natural man, God has blessed us with a spiritual reset button that we can push every seven days as we worship on the Sabbath and participate intentionally in the ordinance of the Sacrament. President Henry B. Eyring taught that as we renew our willingness to take upon us the name of Jesus Christ, “… we must see ourselves as His. We will put Him first in our lives. We will want what He wants rather than what we want or what the world teaches us to want.” (6) I cannot overstate the importance of mindfully partaking of the Sacrament. More than almost any other act, participating in this ordinance can wake us up to our true spiritual situation and subdue the inclinations of the natural man.

Beyond the above-mentioned ways to wake up spiritually, let us recognize and give thanks for other means Heavenly Father has generously provided to awaken us to a spiritual life. His many creations are a constant, beautiful reminder of His existence and power. “…all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (Alma 30:44)

The holy scriptures, particularly the Old Testament and Book of Mormon, reveal patterns of wickedness and righteousness which serve as warnings to us. Our loving Father in Heaven has revealed that He gave each of us weakness “that [we] may be humble” and turn to Him for strength. (Ether 12:27) If we have eyes to see, the temple garments we received as part of our endowment serve as a constant reminder of sacred covenants that bind us to God. In the Lord’s church we receive callings beyond our abilities, compelling us to seek heavenly assistance. And, of course, we experience sobering trials which can serve as life-changing wakeup calls.

After nearly six decades of life, I still feel the pull of the natural man. How deeply the following hymn text resonates with me:

“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it;

 Prone to leave the God I love.” (7)

After viewing the dramatic effects of narcolepsy firsthand I’m grateful for my experience with that sweet sister in the temple.  I am touched that she attended the temple even knowing that she would fall asleep. I am impressed by her efforts to keep herself awake–even knowing it would not be enough–and that her desire to be awake was so strong that she was willing to ask a stranger for help. May our desire to be spiritually awake inspire our best efforts, and may we turn to God, acknowledging that we need Divine assistance in our quest, continually calling upon Heavenly Father to change our hearts and awaken us from our spiritual slumber.

Notes:

  1. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/gs/natural-man?lang=eng
  2. Elder David A. Bednar, Watchful unto Prayer Continually, October 2019 General Conference.
  3. https://www.soulshepherding.org/jesus-solitude-and-silence/
  4. Elder Neil L. Andersen, The Prophet of God, April 2018 General Conference.
  5. Elder David A. Bednar, Watchful unto Prayer Continually, October 2019 General Conference.
  6. President Henry B. Eyring, That We May Be One, April 1998 General Conference.
  7. Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, hymn text by Robert Robinson.

Recommended reading:

  1. Elder David A. Bednar, Watchful unto Prayer Continually, October 2019 General Conference. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/10/22bednar?lang=eng
  2. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Daily Restoration, October 2021 General Conference. https://abn.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2021/10/41uchtdorf?lang=eng