The use of the word "dormition" to describe Mary's death in the Transitus Mariae readings got me thinking about the analogy between death and sleep and the religious implications of this connection. The "dormition" was especially emphasized in St. Andrew of Crete's second homily, where he writes, "It is death's tyranny, real death, when we who die are not to be allowed to return to life again. But if we die and then live again after death- indeed, live a better life- then clearly that is not so much a death as a sleep ('dormition'), a passage into a second life" (118-119). While reading this, I kept drawing parallels with John Donne's deathbed reflections Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), and I think looking at these texts side by side could help us explore more ways of understanding the relation between sleep and death and dormition and assumption.
Donne approaches the dual nature of death as an end of life in the earthly realm and a rebirth in heaven by comparing it to the similarly conflicting effects of sleep: "Sleep is an opiate which gives us rest, but such an opiate, as perchance, being under it, we shall wake no more" (91). Sleep reduces the amount of time in your life spent living, prevents an excess of life and prevents humans from overstepping their bounds and exceeding the capacities of nature, but it also rejuvenates the body, so that it can be "reborn" in a new day. In the same way, death can be viewed negatively, as the withdrawal of earthly life and pleasures, but it is also positive in that it prepares your for a new life in heaven. St. Andrew of Crete is clear about the renewing effects of "dormition" before the final death, saying it is a period of preparation for the final judgment, in language that evokes a caterpillar changing inside a chrysalis, calling it "a kind of ecstatic movement towards the things we only hope for during this life, a passage that leads us on towards transformation into a state like that of God" (121).
In the same way, Donne proposes that sleep during life is a taste of death every time, and that every time one sleeps, one is cutting a little more time off one's life, training for "real" death through a long series of gentler versions of death: he says of death that it is "a preparing of the soul for the next" (91).
More than simply a training for death, sleep is, both Donne and the Coptic apocryphal text of Evodius of Rome agree, a gentler version of death that God grants us in remission of original sin. The reason Mary's death is a "dormition" followed by an "assumption" rather than simple death is because Christ's death had redeemed mankind's original sin, and though death could not be eliminated altogether, it was transmuted into a sleep, a gentler death, from which one could be awaken and reborn into heaven. This idea is most evident in the text of Evodius, in which Jesus tells Mary that Death cannot approach while he is there (interestingly juxtaposing Death as a separate agent in itself) but then tells Death to come to her in a less intimidating form. Donne says of this guise of Death as sleep, "God, I say, intended sleep only for the refreshing of man by bodily rest, and not for a figure of death, for he intended not death itself then. But man having induced death upon himself, God hath taken man's creature, death, into his hand, and mended it; and whereas it hath in itself a fearful form and aspect, so that man is afraid of his own creature, God presents it to him in a familiar, in an assiduous, in an agreeable and acceptable form, in sleep" (91).
Another interesting aspect of the dormition is how Mary always seems to prepare herself for her death by lying down in her bed, often facing east, even though none of the narratives say she is sick or that she has any condition that would confine her to her bed. This idea that comes out in the texts that the proper way to die is lying in bed compares death to sleep, and, perhaps, the reason Mary faces east is because that is the direction from which the sun rises, thus ensuring that she will be "awakened" when the time comes for the Assumption. According to Donne, this comes down, once again, to sleep as a kind of practice for death, that the dormition is a long period of renovation and preparation for the final death/rebirth. Donne says, "I must practice my lying in the grave by lying still, and not practice my resurrection by rising any more," implying that waking life is practice for life after death, which is why it is necessary to act morally (14). He also suggests that men must assume a prone position at death because it is the moment at which they are most humbled before God, and that it serves as a reminder that it was only because of God that he could stand erect, closer to heaven than other creatures, and that God could also take this privilege away at will: "When God came to breathe into man the breath of life, he found him flat upon the ground; when he comes to withdraw that breath from him again, he prepares him to it by laying him flat upon his bed" (13).
I'm sure the theological tradition Donne was building off of would have included narratives of the Assumption, so the similarities are probably not accidental, but I think his interpretation of the connection between death and sleep can be productively applied to the idea of "dormition" in these narratives and raises interesting questions about language.