“’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.
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?
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.