Start voluntarily sleeping on the ground at night.
Now this is obviously a practice that not all of us are called to. If you’re a young child, a married couple, elderly, or not at an adequate health level then you probably don’t want to try this at home. This is, however, a great penance for healthy young people to consider taking up. Here are three reasons why you should give it a shot (other than the potential health benefits):
1. Sleeping on the ground reminds us of where and who we are.
When I would sleep over at a friend’s house as a kid I’d wake up the next morning, roll up my sleeping bag, and be reminded that where I had just spent the night was only a temporary home. Turn on the news tonight and you’ll get an update on ISIS’ rising death toll, the shooting that happened just a few states away, an ignorant and deceitful politician’s latest outburst, and, if you’re lucky, the fascinating life of a Kardashian. Sleeping on the ground reminds us that we’re just pilgrims on this earth; this place is only a temporary home. In addition, a literal closeness to the ground reminds us of the spiritual reality that “From dust we were created and to dust we shall return” (cf. Genesis 3:19).
2. Sleeping on the ground gives us a chance to “offer up” our sufferings.
Like any penance, sleeping on the ground can be an opportunity to “offer it up”. In virtue of our baptism, we can offer up our sufferings in union with the sufferings of Christ on the Cross as a form of prayer. Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “Prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history.” Every night before bed you can think of someone to pray for and offer up your night of sleep on the ground for them. If you have no one in particular to pray for, you can offer up your sufferings for all those who don’t have a bed of their own.
3. Jesus and many of the saints slept on the ground.
When Jesus, the King of the Universe, the Son of God, came into the world he was not born to rich parents in a fancy palace. He was born into a poor family in a cave in Bethlehem and spent his first night on earth sleeping in a feeding trough for animals. In his three years of public ministry with his apostles he probably had to sleep on the ground often. You may recall the verse “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
Many saints throughout history have also taken up this humbling practice. When St. Bellarmine was a cardinal he sold the mattress from his bed and gave the money to the poor. St. Francis Xavier slept on the ground in a hut while a missionary in Japan. St. Casimir, a prince of Poland in the 15th century, slept on the floor instead of the nice bed in his royal palace. Pope Saint John Paul II often slept on the cold, hard ground and would sometimes scatter the covers of his bed to make it look like he had slept in it.
Final note: Like all penances, sleeping on the ground is a useless practice if it is not done out of love and if it does not propel us forward in love. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians “And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” St. John Chrysostom wrote “…no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor…if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” Sleeping on the floor gives us a chance to encounter our own poverty, which in turn allows us to encounter Our Lord in a fascinating way. How we are changed by that encounter will be evident by our love for others.