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    painting of apartment windows lit up at night

    The Witching Hour

    We start the day intentionally and prayerfully, but all bets are off after five o’clock p.m.

    By Kathleen A. Mulhern

    September 25, 2023
    • Craig

      Really perceptive to how we live our lives and helpful! I feel I want to add that this "witching hour" is also when we've run out of willpower. After "putting our best foot forward" for a full day, we put some weight on our other foot and see how well it supports us. Truly a good time to offer to God spiritual practices, that the Spirit might transform the uncurated depths of our being.

    • Megan Prather

      This was especially helpful for me to apply to Sabbath. It rarely works out the way I hoped for, thus it can too easily become a pattern of disappointment, instead of a flexible, creative, joyous communion with God. The balancing act between too much rigid thinking and structure and letting too much go was so beautifully addressed in this article.

    • Shirley Cooke

      What a really helpful reflection Kathleen. Thank you. I will be re-evaluating my evening spiritual praxis on the back of this. Peace be with you.

    • Susie Crall

      Thank you for the wonderful insight your writing has provided! I have been struggling with a “ what comes next” mind set… embracing one small change felt like a breath of fresh air to me. Blessings to you!

    • Nicole

      A beautiful and gentle article of encouragement. Love the image of your children drawing near to you. How true. I believe a lot of it has to do with feeling isolated. The evening can really stretch on especially if the relationships within the home are strained or the day hasn't gone as we hoped or needed. Darkness comes and as you say- shadows become dark and sharp. I find a crockpot helps alleviate the strain of the evening. Leaves more time for fellowship and spiritual practices.

    • William Staffieri

      Than you, as one who has suffered from anxiety and depression.Much therapy, book reading, talks with friends, some doctors, nurse, therapist. I have read about the word lunatic, it's origin. I worked in Amsterdam with friends in the Red Light District. You could feel a heaviness when entering and lightness when leaving. I remind myself and others that there is a spiritual world around us also. I say remember when the angel told Daniel his prayer was answered but they were in battle three weeks to bring the answer. Something to think upon with all our prayers, request, and desires.

    • Donna Reimer

      Thank you for this reminder of how we close our doors at the end of the day against the outside as a kind of TGIF. This has been bugging me for some time so I am, tonight, starting to pick up a couple of your helpful suggestions and make them a part of my every evening. I needed this…very timely! Thank you!

    • Nancy Keziah

      Insightful thoughts and creative ways to look at the "witching hours" in our busy lives. Thanks for this article.

    • Michael Nacrelli

      I wouldn't necessarily deny that spiritual discipline takes work. My problem is that I lose sight of the rewards, because they're in fact unseen. By contrast, if I neglect regular physical exercise, I start feeling it pretty soon.

    • Teddy Galloway

      Your piece was a wonderful reminder of a favorite book. Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence caused a revolution in my spirit. Blessings to you and yours.

    • George Marsh

      Scripture says, "God loves a cheerful giver." If I consider spiritual reading, meditation, examens and other ways of acting spiritually as free, joyous gifts to the Spirit who has given me and others immeasurable blessings, I would not feel duress or assuaging guilt in so doing.

    • Carol Larson

      I so enjoyed the “ease” with which you lead your reader into “make just one small change”. I easily fall into the group that embraces a mini TGIF at days end. I invest in my work wholeheartedly each day while managing to recall Christi’s presence prayerfully. Now baby steps to extend that practice into the “witching hours”!!!!! Thank you! Great post!

    • Susan

      The picture of your children swirling around you, needing you more. You were going to feed them and tuck them. What an inviting picture to see ourselves swirling around Jesus and needing Him more! He too feeds us and tucks us in, bidden or not. You’ve given us a delightful and relatable moment to bring into our every day, I mean night, routine Dr. Mulhern Thank you

    • Marsha Young

      Thank you for this excellent article. It particularly meshes well with a book I just finished entitled, Sensible Shoes, by Sharon Garlough Brown, about incorporating spiritual practices into our every day living.

    • John Irwin

      Thanks Kathleen. I loved the article and it resonates. I see this in my life - starting off like gangbusters and then slowly “losing Jesus” over the course of the day. For me, being tired is a huge influence. So TV medication. I’ve been testing tiny versions of the daily office and that’s hopeful, and I get in a trough less when I work with my hands in some way. Grateful for your thoughts — thank you!

    • Pam Craig

      Thanks for this Kathleen - it so speaks to my condition!! I appreciate the gentleness of your counsel -

    • Teresa Hyrkas

      Beautiful and helpful! Thank you!

    “’Tis now the very witching time of night,” Hamlet declared, even as he was well on his way to the madness of vengeance. This “witching time” empowered him, he said, to “do such bitter business as the day would quake to look on.” Shakespeare here drew on medieval ideas about the power of darkness and the blurring of boundaries between the physical and the supernatural that happens at certain times of the night. For ancients, these hours usually fell after midnight, well before dawn. Then, it was said, the fairies and imps, goblins and demons would roam freely, doing their witchy works. The natural slept; the supernatural woke and began to prowl.

    Some, associating evil with the absolute inversion of good, believed that 3:00 a.m., twelve hours apart from the time at which Jesus died on the cross, was the apex of the witching hours. Some called it “the devil’s hour.”

    I was never taught any of the medieval ways when I was young, but I well remember being told as a young mother that those cranky hours of the early evening when our children, hungry and tired out from the day, ramped up a fussiness that perfectly converged with our own hungers and fatigues, were part of “the witching hour.” Dinner, bath, and bedtime were one long battle for patience on everyone’s part.

    painting of apartment windows lit up at night

    Carol Aust, Shadows, acrylics on wood panel, 2018. All artwork used by permission.

    Since those years, I’ve learned the term comes in handy for a variety of colloquial situations. The Economist calls the “witching hour” those afterschool hours when juvenile crime actually surges. Healthcare observers suggest that perhaps there is a “witching hour” for the operating rooms in hospitals, during the critical turnover times between surgeries. Stock traders recognize witching hours as well, calling the market instability of certain quarterly periods triple-witching days.

    Even in our ultramodern scientific world, there’s some sense that greater volatility eddies around us at times, a subliminal precariousness to the order we maintain at other times. We’ve banished the idea of roaming trolls, but those evening hours, that liminal time between day and night, between work and sleep, between order and chaos remains fraught with a sense of anarchy.

    Oddly enough, this “witching hour” construct has recently begun to pop up in the spiritual formation sessions I lead. As we work on such things as developing a rule of life, or consider our personal weaknesses and vices, or explore the rhythms and rituals of spiritual health, I’ve repeatedly had people point specifically to the evening hours as a greater challenge to their best intentions. “Such bitter business as the day would quake to look on” seems quite accurate. All bets are off after five o’clock.

    Five o’clock is a mini-TGIF, no matter the day, and any sense of spiritual discipline vaporizes into the desperate desire for quiet, a scotch and soda, and some banal Netflix series.

    Seasons and life stages may differ, but the undergirding sense of evening disruption is common. So, yes, young parents find the hours of five to ten a gauntlet-running experience, rife with cranky children, snippy spouses, dinner preparation and clean-up, baths, bedtime rituals, and exhaustion. But I’ve also had single adults identify the evening with their frequent inability to keep focused on the presence of Christ, distracted as they are by home chores, the latest basketball series, catching up with email, doomscrolling on their smartphones, watching TikTok videos. I have older students, many of whom are single through loss of a spouse to death or divorce and whose children are long gone from home, who dread the evening hours’ long stretches of loneliness and boredom. There are a million good things they could do, but they have no desire to do any of them.

    There are the businessmen and women who, after a long day of productivity and focus and dealing with people, come home and feel that the workday is done. Now it’s “me” time; five o’clock is a mini-TGIF, no matter the day, and any sense of spiritual discipline or Christ-centeredness vaporizes into the desperate desire for quiet, a scotch and soda, and some banal Netflix series. Happy hour is the off-switch of work and the on-switch of leisure. “I’ve done well today. I’ve worked hard. I’ve given my max … and now I’m tapped. I’m done. I’m out.”

    I’m not denying the need for genuine rest or “recharging your batteries” or “letting your hair down.” But the challenge of living with the Spirit is real in both the workplace (the morning and afternoon business of your life) and the home (the space after the door closes on the world). We needn’t believe that demons roam our kitchens and living rooms to recognize that many of us struggle to maintain our spiritual disciplines by the end of the day.

    Part of the diagnosis must lie in the fact that we think of spiritual discipline as work, a sort of spiritual productivity, not as the avenue of spiritual rest. Spiritual disciplines are used as self-management techniques, achievement markers, or DIY transformation tools rather than as openings for the Spirit. Meanwhile, “leisure” has morphed from a gift of the Spirit for our renewal into merely entertainment and pleasure. The spiritual life is hard work, right? We all need “time off.” The home space, then, creates a freedom and privacy that allows us to embrace our carnal selves without anyone else seeing. After all, who can sustain twenty-four-hour godliness?

    painting of a woman protecting a lit candle under a dark sky

    Carol Aust, Single Candle, acrylic on panel, 2022.

    Even that has problems. We’re real people with real limitations, some of which include the chasm between our genuine spiritual desire and our best efforts. And none of us who live the “mixed life,” as medieval writers called a life that wasn’t cloistered, can bridge that gap. That leaves us peering into the crevices of our crisscrossed lives and pondering the murky shadows. Many of those shadows sharpen and darken once the sun begins to set.

    So those of us who guide others in pursuing spiritual formation should consider the “witching hours” a particular challenge and opportunity. We often encourage intentional mornings, advising people to set the trajectory of their day with morning prayers and quiet times. And it’s common to promote one-line “arrow prayers” that redirect our attention to God in situations throughout the workday. But seizing these diminishing hours of the day might be a new focus, even more countercultural.

    Part of the diagnosis lies in the fact that we think of spiritual discipline as work, a sort of spiritual productivity, not as the avenue of spiritual rest.

    There’s no need to turn “the witching hour” into a nightly occasion of self-flagellation and shame. Rather, it’s an opportunity to explore different ways of formation, recognizing that what “works” from nine to five might not toward the end of the day. Any spiritual formation practice is, essentially, a way of interrupting the daily rhythms that keep us too busy to remember God. So we may need to look for ways to interrupt evening distractions as well. These interruptions can be smaller than we think. We’re not trying to transform our evenings into five-hour prayer sessions; we’re just trying to remain mindful of God’s presence.

    Many have found some of the monastic rhythms readily adaptable to their evening hours. Vespers (evening prayer around sunset) and compline (just before bed) can bookend the hours with moments of awareness that defuse the disorder we may feel. Others find that the Ignatian spiritual practice of examen, a brief examination of conscience, offers renewal no matter what has happened during the evening hours.

    I encourage people to start small. Do one little thing, and do it until it’s a regular little thing: light a candle at twilight and give thanks to God for the day; kneel beside your bed in silence before God for five minutes before you get in; say the Lord’s Prayer each night – with your spouse or children; sing the doxology before dinner; choose one evening a week to forgo regular habits and dedicate an hour to spiritual reading. Do that little thing that you’re most capable of doing. No heroics necessary. Parents of young children will quickly realize that the little rituals are the most meaningful ones – that might last a lifetime.

    When my children were young, I found that the nature of their play changed toward evening. From making blanket forts or Hot Wheel racing lanes in the living room, they would begin to bring their play into the kitchen. Stuffed animals and Legos moved under the kitchen table and then into the center of the kitchen floor. I realized at some point that they were simply moving closer to me. As I prepared dinner and twilight fell and they anticipated their dad getting home, they swirled around me, closer and closer until they were right underfoot. They simply knew the day was nearly done and they needed me more. I was going to feed them and tuck them in.

    In the same way, we, like little children, need to recognize these evening hours as opportunities to creep closer to Christ, knowing our weaknesses and our hungers, and trusting him to care for us.

    Contributed By KathleenAMulhern Kathleen A. Mulhern

    Kathleen A. Mulhern is a writer, speaker, and historian.

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