All Through The Night
Fr. Joseph K. Horn
11 May 1986
St. Norbert's, Orange CA
[Warning! This one turned out to be a little longer than 7 minutes, since I didn’t have a text. A kindly soul recorded it on tape, and that’s how it came to be here, just the way it was given. -jkh-]
It’s Mother’s Day, and all throughout this great land of ours, preachers are talking about one of two things: either Motherhood in general, or some particular thing that mothers all do. But as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I like to do things differently from everybody else, so instead I’m going to talk about something that mothers don’t do... and what that thing is will become clear as we go along.
But first some background. When I was a kid, I mean a little kid, growing up Pennsylvania, my mother used to put my two older brothers and me to bed the same way every night. There was a little ritual that we went through. It involved all kinds of stuff. First Mother would read a section of a book by Jack London, and then we’d say some prayers together: Our Father, Hail Mary. And then we’d say some prayers that kind of went back and forth, like she’d say, “Sacred Heart of Jesus,” and we’d say, “We trust in thee.” And she’d say, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” and we’d say, “I give you my heart and my soul.”
Oh, by the way, I have to throw this in: that one line, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul,” made such an impression on me that I thought about it often while getting older, and I think it’s what’s responsible for my realization of having a priestly vocation. That’s why I had that line put on my ordination card, at the bottom: Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul. And I used to think as a kid, wouldn’t it be wonderful if those were my last words? You know how kids have active imaginations; I used to picture it vividly in my mind, okay, here I am, grown up, driving a car down a mountain road, when all of a sudden something goes wrong with the car and it leaps off the cliff, and as I’m flying through the air, plunging towards my death, calmly in my heart I say, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul,” WHAM and the car is demolished and I go straight to heaven! That’s how I pictured it as a child. Matter of fact I pictured it that way up until two days ago. But I digress. Back to the good-night ritual.
So after the prayers, Mother would say a few more silly things that I’m sure you’ve all heard, like “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite,” and all those things that mothers say. And then she went over to the light switch and said, “Happy dreams!” and turned off the light and then went to the door and waited for a moment. We could see her silhouette in the doorway. And then she would sing a lullaby. Which lullaby she sang depended on her mood, I guess; sometimes it was “Good Night, Sweet Jesus”, but my favorite, the one she did most often, was the song called “All Through The Night.” You know that song? All Through The Night? Yes? A few people. The cultured ones have heard of it before.
Sound familiar? No? Not the way I sing it anyway...
Guardian angels God will send thee
All through the night.
And she sang it real quietly. It was such a nice lullaby we’d start falling asleep right away. I liked it so much that over the years every time I found a record by anybody that had that song on it, I bought it. I have about 15 different versions of it, none of course as good as Mother used to do...
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and dale in slumber steeping
I, my loved ones, watch am keeping
All through the night.
And that conjured up visions in our sleepy heads of us sound asleep and my mother staying awake all through the night, keeping watch over us.
And then, way off in the living room, we could hear Dad joining in on his harmonica: Hmmm, hmmm hmmm, hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm hmmm... And Mother would sing the second verse, “all through the night.” And Dad would accompany her, Hmmm, hmmm hmmm... but I don’t remember the words of the second verse; I don’t think I ever heard all of the second verse, it was so good at putting us to sleep! I see it’s already put some of you to sleep...
Later on, getting to be bigger kids, we weren’t allowed to stay out late at night. I used to complain about that but it didn’t do any good. But my friends would tell me in school stuff like, “My mother is such a pain, whenever I come home late, she’s always staying up, she’s sitting there in the living room, and she says, ‘Why are you late? Where have you been?’ You know, if she’d just go to bed, then she wouldn’t know what time I came home and everybody would be happy!” And I thought, well, that sounds logical. But about that time somebody gave me as a gift a collection of the poems of Edgar Guest. He wrote a lot of verse. He didn’t write excellent poetry, but he wrote good poetry, and this one I read at that time and it made a deep impression on me and I’d like to share it with you. It’s called “The Mother Watch”.
She never closed her eyes in sleep till we were all in bed.
On party nights, till we came home, she often sat and read.
We little thought about it then, when we were out at play,
How much our mother worried when we children were away.
We only knew she never slept when we were out at night,
And that she waited, just to know that we’d come home alright.
Why, sometimes, when we’d stay away till one, or two, or three,
It seemed to us that Mother heard the turning of the key.
For always, when we stepped inside, she’d call, and we’d reply,
But we were all too young back then to understand just why.
Until the last one had returned, she always kept a light,
For Mother couldn’t sleep until she kissed us all good-night.
She had to know that we were safe before she went to rest.
She seemed to fear the world might harm the ones she loved the best.
And once she said, “When you are grown to women and to men,
Perhaps I’ll sleep all through the night; I might get some sleep then.”
And so it seemed that night and day we knew a mother’s care
But always, when we got back home, we’d find her waiting there.
Then came the night that we were called to gather round her bed
“The children are all with you now,” the kindly doctor said.
And in her eyes there gleamed again the old-time tender light
That told she had been waiting just to know we were alright.
She smiled the old familiar smile, and prayed to God to keep
Us safe from harm all through the night, and then she went to sleep.
Well, when I read that, it landed on me like a ton of bricks. My friends were complaining about their mothers, but what their mothers were doing was a fantastic act of love: keeping vigil all through the night, just for them. And then it reminded me: that’s what Mother had been doing all along, keeping watch all through the night!
I started off saying that there’s something that mother’s don’t do, and this is it: mothers don’t sleep! When we’re little infants, right? you want something, no problem, you just go whaaa! and who comes running? Does Dad get up out of bed? Right! Who gets up? It’s Mother gets up out of bed, gets baby whatever baby wants. And later on, when you’re a child, right after singing to you that she’ll keep watch all through the night, sure enough you wake up in the middle of some night terror, some horrible nightmare with monsters in it, you wake up shaking and sweating, or you hear something go bump in the night, and you cry out, “Mother! Mother!” and sure enough, right there, right away, with a loving hand on your forehead, and that calm, reassuring voice saying, “Don’t worry, it’s alright, I’m here; go to sleep, go to sleep.”
Mothers are saints. And my wish for mothers everywhere is that somehow they can make up for all the sleep we deprived them of when we were kids! They kept vigil for us all through the night for so many years; now that we’re grown and out of the house, now perhaps for the first time,
Sleep, Mother, and peace attend thee all through the night.
By the way, I mentioned that up until two days ago my dream was to have my parting words from this world be, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul.” Well, while practicing this homily, I thought, maybe that won’t be the way it happens. Maybe I’ll go like most people go, after a long, debilitating disease, or cancer, or through a lot of pain that robs me of my senses. Do you think Jesus would be angry with me if my last thoughts were not of Him, but were instead of the one who taught me most about Him? I believe to the depths of my soul that if the last cry from my lips is, “Mother! Mother!”, then somehow, from somewhere, I will again feel her loving hand on my fevered brow, and hear her voice saying, “Don’t worry, it’s alright, I’m here; go to sleep.” And then I will rest in peace.