Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Dormition": Distinguishing Sleep and Death in Transitus Mariae

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.



  1. I was also intrigued by this idea of "dormition" of the Virgin, and kept having the phrase "do not gentle go into that good night" knock around in my head (as well as some half-formed notions about the use of a ten-dollar Latinate word where our humble compound Anglo-Saxon "falling-asleep" doesn't cut it--George Orwell would be horrified, I'm sure). Now, I find myself equally intrigued by the idea of Donne's of sleep as a powerful opiate that you quote. I suppose that because sleep is the closest we can come in our lifetime to the actual, total obliteration of our consciousness that is death, it's a good poetic fit, and I like Donne's interpretation of this as a practice. I wonder if it might be another way for a (medieval) Christian to incorporate devotion into their daily (or nightly) lives--thinking about death before bed and celebrating the literal re-rising-up that each morning brings. And, now that I think of it, it could give a whole new layer of meaning to the childhood prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep," couldn't it?

  2. Lovely comparison! What's interesting, of course, is that Donne was and was not writing from a context that would recognize Mary's dormition as part of the faith. I myself don't know enough about Donne's life in detail to know how this played out, but (going on what I learn from Wikipedia) he was raised by Catholic parents but himself converted to Anglicanism (1615). And yet, as your reading of his post-conversion poetry shows, he was still very much thinking with the imagery of "sleep" and "death" that he could have learned in thinking about Mary's passing. An intriguing example of the persistence of metaphor in expressing such mysteries!


  3. AB: Terrific post. I have long been interested in the connection of sleep with death, and you highlight it here in nice detail. I like your statement that sleep “prevents an excess of life,” together with your argument that it also prepares us for a new day of life. A similar paradox is treated in studies of rites of passage in terms of vitality; only living things have vitality, thus it must be the essence or property that also causes death, and must be overcome (thus rites of passage where the initiate symbolically dies and is reborn). St. Andrew of Crete makes a bold (but apposite in terms of your post) statement in saying that dormition is a “passage that leads us on towards transformation into a state like that of God.”

    The details are what interest me. In this analysis, Mary’s dormition and assumption are morality tales, with the details crafted to teach lessons. Are we willing to see these narratives as entirely literary because of their date, or can these still be considered historical (by the church and/or by scholars)?

    A final thought on Mary sleeping facing east. I agree with your point about her being awakened. Also, as Mary was a tabernacle to house Christ, so churches often face east (their openings, anyway).