Sleep deprivation as Penance

Peter’s penitential side was evident when it came to food and clothing. It is said that he slept only 90 minutes each night.

That would really seem difficult. Maybe if one was so greatly devoted, they would be able to do this.

There was also, a female Saint who had little sleep as penance. I do not think it was to this extent.

My question too, would be if this were for extended periods of time. I could see it as being possible over a week’s time say.

Any reflections? This would seem to be tremendously difficult.

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We shouldn’t hurt ourselves when exercising acts of penance. That could even be a sin against the fifth commandment. I think that letting go of things that give us pleasure or that we are addicted to is much better.


As someone who has not had good solid sleep for an entire night for some time I see where it can be very hazardous to one’s health.


I’ve got to say, there were more Saints back then it seems. You’ve got to do things to reach that Saintliness but I admit, doing something like this for us in “modern times”, as I’ve said 2 times already, would seem to be very, very difficult. Almost incomprehensible as far as that goes. And yes, I have problems getting really “deep sleeps” as is needed.

Even “fasting” can be a bit of a problem. So, all of these things, yes, are indeed, real sacrifices.

Vs. giving up TV or giving up sweets, some of these other penances could be seen as very great sacrifices.

I’ve gone about two and a half days without sleep before. That’s not quite the same thing as a week with only an hour and a half of sleep a night, but the same principles apply. I don’t recommend it as a penance. After a certain point you are pushing the boundaries of clear thinking. You are also going to become a hazard to yourself an others.


That’s all modern thinking though, we must remember, these people were actually Saints. I’d not judge them too harshly, it’s just that doing these things seem very alien to us.

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Yes, and they weren’t working, for example, with mechanical equipment, driving cars, doing surgery, etc.

If you lived a life where you did hard physical labor for say 10-12 hours in order to provide yourself with food, clothing, and shelter, and then spent several hours in prayer, on your knees so that you had some sort of physical inactivity, probably had your eyes closed for much of the time, etc., that may well have been sufficient rest in an environment without light pollution and noise pollution.


Those are good points but that doesn’t pertain to 100% of the population. Maybe Saint Peter of Alcantara lived in a Monastery. We still have Monasteries today.

But with Spain in those times, they had coaches, horses and heavy duty work, so for those people involved in that, such penances were probably not practical.

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If you will have to take care of newborns at some point in your life, there will be plenty of occasions to offer up sleep depravation penance… :sweat_smile:


Hubby and I used to say at those times of babies and lack of sleep when we heard the first cry “It’s your turn, no it’s your turn”. It was not out of lack of love for our sons but out of lack of sleep for who knows how long that we kind of called each other on who was going to get up. But they are adults now and we all survived so all is good.


Same here. :sweat_smile:

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There are people who, for genetic reasons or out of habit or whatever, are able to function on little sleep, just as there are people who need more than the average amount of sleep. I was just reading an article on this.

There are also people who suffer from chronic insomnia. It may be tht some of these saints who didn’t sleep fell in that category.

Finally, it is possible that God granted special graces to some of these saints and mystics to allow them to function on much less sleep and food than normal people. However, there are also quite a few cases of saints who likely wore themselves out with penance and became ill as a result. I believe I read something about the daughter of some saint (I want to say St. Paula but not sure) who went without food as penance and basically starved herself to death. Nowadays we would call that a case of anorexia nervosa.

In any event, one must remember that St. Peter of Alcantara did not have to operate a motor vehicle or any sort of machinery on no sleep, nor was he caring for children or doing anything else that would put lives in danger if he were sleep-deprived. He also presumably lived in community where others could keep an eye out if he were in need of assistance or was doing something potentially risky as a result of no sleep.

Those of us who read these things in the modern era would do well to simply try to practice moderation and not go without sleep on a regular basis, especially if we have other responsibilities in life, like family, a job, the need to drive to the store or to church, etc. Staying up once in a while for, say, a Two Hearts vigil on First Friday that runs till 2 in the morning is fine. Doing it on a regular basis or a work night is not a good idea and would likely just end up with me nodding off while trying to pray, because unlike St. Peter of Alcantara, I need my sleep in order to maintain physical and mental health.


On what do you base this? If everybody back then was all saintly, then there wouldn’t have been monasteries in need of reform all over the place, and there wouldn’t have been death threats against St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross for trying to get the monks and nuns to quit living large and act like monks and nuns. And if monks and nuns were committing sins, you can imagine what the secular folks were doing.

Human nature is pretty much the same in all eras.


Nobody said everybody was saints.

Yes, I’d say we have quite fewer Saints being produced today, we have Mother Teresa and some other Saints of the 20th century, St. Faustina, St. John Paul the Great, not that many and some are questioned.

While one can gaze at that “Saint of the Day”, they have them for every day of the year and I believe those are mainly Franciscan Saints. Simples!

Also, there are millions more people in the world today.

Laugh if you want, the main thing is to please God. These are ordained Saints, I wouldn’t be taking it lightly if one is Catholic.

Not sure what are you trying to say. Anyway yes, certain Saints were doing great penance, miracles etc. but you can also live your Christian life and sanctify yourself in the daily ordinary life. Trust me, in everyday life you have plenty of chances for less ‘spectacular’ but very real mortification. Holding off a bitter comment, cleaning up a mess without complaining, renounce to something etc. Only you and God will know about it but it doesn’t mean that there is no value to this.


Okay, I don’t mean to be argumentative but some of this is just “turning the other cheek”, we are meant to do this if we are being Christian, I would say such behavior in itself is still holy though.

Pope JPII canonized 482 new saints, Pope Benedict 45 saints, and Pope Francis has canonized 838 new saints. While many of them were from past centuries, there are a lot more saints of the 20th century than the handful you mention. Using Wikipedia as a source, which is likely an incomplete list, and limiting myself to saints who died after 1910 so they lived at least 10 years in the 20th century, I came up with at least 75 canonized saints of the 20th century already, and that’s not counting the large number of beati.

Saints usually take at least a century or more to officially canonize so it is highly likely that future eras (assuming the world doesn’t end first) will see many more saints canonized from our centuries (20th and 21st). There are a good many venerables and beati already in the pipeline.

Furthermore, the number of official canonizations, which are usually related to the Church wishing to emphasize certain examples of saintly people and also to the groups who have resources and motivations to push a canonization cause through, hardly reflects the number of people whose lives are saintly and who go to Heaven. It is highly likely that there are future saints walking among us today who will never be officially recognized by the Church on earth, and saints who recently walked among us, who will never be officially recognized by the Church on earth. We simply don’t know what’s in each person’s heart, nor could we possibly know, nor do we need to know.

Like I said, human nature doesn’t change.

If it makes you feel better to think that this era is somehow less holy than the past, feel free; I personally see pretty much all ages as equally holy and equally evil, in different ways. In any event, some saint from centuries past going without sleep is hardly a bellwether for us today when going without sleep could cause somebody to have a 10 car freeway pileup killing innocent families. And as for what penance people do today, the ones doing the most penance likely aren’t going to tell you or advertise to anyone that they’re doing it.


Sleep deprivation is not just a mental discipline but has significant adverse physical consequences. Therefore I urge you to treat it the same as bodily mortifications which inflict pain or injury. You should never undertake such penances on your own. Seek the counsel of an experienced spiritual director.


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