Did the Lord like to be “comfy?” This seems like a trivial, mundane question. However, it is Christologically deep and, in fact, exposes some real tensions within the Orthodox tradition and ascetic orthopraxy.
The Scriptures speak of the Lord attending parties, eating, and drinking. (cf Matt 11:9) After all, Jesus Christ knew what truly good wine tastes like. (cf John 2:10) Disciples of Saint John the Forerunner (i.e. John the Baptist) were scandalized that His disciples did not fast, (cf Matt 9:14) though fasting would come in the future. Nevertheless, all the preceding indicate that the Lord permitted Himself and his disciples creature comforts.
Perhaps the most explicit statement to this effect is Mark 4:38:
He was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake Him, and say unto Him, “Master, carest thou not that we perish?”
The Lord could have slept without a pillow, so the preceding passage indicates that He purposely chose to make His sleep more comfortable with this item. After all, there was always the option of sleeping on the floor (as is done today in places such as Cambodia) and sleeping uncomfortably on purpose. For example, there are ascetics who sleep on planks of wood turned sideways (though this is less common in modern times, but it was still common at monasteries like Saint Tikhon’s a few decades ago). Jacob himself used a stone as a pillow. (Gen 28:11)
And so, why did the Lord opt for comfort? First, one must ask the sincere question: did He? The Greek term used for “pillow” in the passage (“προσκεφάλαιον“) in its ancient usages definitely refers to an item used to make the head more comfortable. However, Saint John Chrysostom seems to infer that this was an indication of the Lord embracing discomfort:
[W]hat did He do? The Son of Man, He says, has not where to lay His head. This do thou also aim after. He needed the use of food, and He fared upon barley loaves. He had occasion to travel, and there were no horses or beast of burden anywhere, but He walked so far as even to be weary. He had need of sleep, and He lay asleep upon the pillow in the fore (πρύμνῃ, here πρώρας) part of the ship. There was occasion for sitting down to meat, and He bade them lie down upon the grass. And His garments were cheap; and often He stayed alone, with no train after Him. And what He did on the Cross, and what amidst the insults, and all, in a word, that He did, do thou learn by heart (καταμαθὼν) and imitate. And so will you have put on Christ, if you make no provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof. (Homily 24 on Romans)
Saint Theophylact concurs: “He was sleeping upon the pillow of the ship, that is, on a wooden one.” And so, it appears that just as those in the desert were accustomed to using stones as pillows (better than nothing I suppose), so did people on boats make use of wooden objects or literal parts of the ship for the same purpose (probably because plush pillows would have been a waste of space). The fact that two Greek writers seem to take it for granted that Christ’s pillow was not comfortable indicates that such an interpretation was natural to the Greek speaker of that time–even though if one simply consulted lexicons, it would be very hard to square the usage of the term προσκεφάλαιον with such an understanding, as it always refers to a plush pillow in its secular usages. Perhaps, the term was used ironically or it had a well understood meaning when it pertained to boats (just like if one were to sleep on a pillow flying coach, this likewise would not have comfortable connotations).
In any event, I do not think the preceding entirely resolves the disconnect between alleged comfort and the ascetic ideal. This is because even if the pillow was in fact not all that comfortable, it surely beat having nothing. Even a stone to rest one’s head is better than nada. So, how does one compare Christ opting for some level of comfort when compared to saints who slept on planks, on the ground (Saint Savva of Storozhevsk and Zvenigorodsk), standing up (Saint Joseph the Hesychast), or prostrating on the floor (Saint John Maximovitch)? Are the saints exhibiting what Saint Paul warned about: “self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23)?
This is a complicated question without an easy answer, so I will simply venture the beginning of an answer without getting thorough. In short, one must properly contextualize the ascetic disciplines and how they were employed according to the hagiographies. For example, Saint Joseph the Hesychast actually stopped sleeping standing up because he was requested to by nuns who were showing him hospitality. After a better night’s sleep, he realized his prayers were much more focused, so he stopped sleeping standing up.
Therefore, it appears that ascetic disciplines are employed to the extent they improve prayer and the spiritual life in general. The example of the saints is to discard some ascetic work if it in fact runs contrary to this. So clearly, the Lord (who was capable of growing weary, John 4:6) needed His rest to do what He needed to do. He had basic, human limitations.
However, why did the Lord need a “decent” night’s sleep (whatever that meant for Him) when we have stories of saints that neglected sleep days on end (Saint Joseph the Hesychast did this in the beginning of his asceticism) and kept to rules such as only one hour a sleep in the evening? One may say that God gave special graces to these men to not feel tired. Well, would not the dispenser of grace Himself have all the grace He needs to not be tired?
This is when we start swimming in the Chirstological deep-end. It is absolutely necessary to understand that Christ accepted things like tiredness, hungriness, pain, and sleepiness as a matter of volunteerism. This doctrine of, in the words of the sentence of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, “economic conversation” (or more literally in the Greek “discretionary manner of living,” οἰκονομκῆς ἀναστροφῆς), has been covered in modern times in Father Emmanuel Hatzidakis’ Jesus Fallen and my own video Traditional Christology From the 5th to 7th Centuries. And so, it is important to keep in mind Christ did not need to be tired at all. He was completely sinless in His humanity and weariness has only entered into the human experience after Adam’s sin. Nevertheless, He voluntarily permitted Himself to feel weariness and, in some respects, by His discretion allowed Himself to feel more tired and need more sleep than certain saints who operated with only an hour of sleep.
This begs the question: why? Wouldn’t the humanity of the Lord be given the most manifest grace in every respect? Well clearly, this would not be true as the Lord took on great physical pains and deprivations that, by His grace, most are prevented from experiencing. Additionally, the Lord would have had a practical reason for doing so. If the Lord in His manner of living never showed tiredness, hunger, and other basic blameless human experiences He potentially could have confused people so that they would think that He was not actually corruptible in His human nature.
In other words, the heresies of docetism and apthartodocetism may have engulfed the Church entirely and completely snuffed out the Christian religion. The former is the idea that Jesus only appeared human/corruptible and He was not physically present, and the latter is the same but He was in fact physically present. The former is the oldest Christological heresy in existence, condemned by Saint John in 1 John 4:2-3. And so, by Christ accepting human limitations He made clear His humanity, an absolutely necessary theological tenet of the Orthodox Christian faith.
Additionally, by accepting our infirmities, the Lord empathized with us. The Fathers are unanimous that even when the Lord cried (such as when He heard that Lazarus was dead), He did so not out of actual grief. Rather, such tears were shed and groans were made in order to show sympathy for their edification. (cf John 11:33-35) The specific theological reason for this is because mental disorders, such as grief and depression, did not exist before the Fall and they are not blameless (unlike joy and contentment, even the Lord endured the cross for the joy set before Him; Heb 12:2). To quote Saint Cyril of Alexandria, “He was entirely free from the stains and emotions natural to our bodies, and from that inclination which leads us to what is not lawful.” (Sermon II on the Gospel of Luke) And so, in short, the Lord permitted Himself weariness so that He can empathize with the weary so they may understand that He had compassion for them. His whole life, in a sense, was a consoling of mankind.
And so, if one wanted to delve further, then why did not the Lord sleep without a pillow, but permit Himself better sleep so He can both show sympathetic weariness, but the denial of creature comforts? One must consider another important factor, that is, mundane things bring glory to God when done for His glory. According to his wife, New Martyr Daniel Sysoev (a saint who is not yet canonized) would watch trivial television shows. To quote her, “He permitted himself this.”
From that interview, one can gather that Father Daniel literally had God on his mind all the time and that included in his permission of creature comforts. One must remember that the deprivation of worldly goods is not for its own sake, but for the sake of becoming dispassionate. When one is dispassionate, creature comforts can be enjoyed, not for passionate reasons, but rather in a God glorifying way. This is how the saints can glorify God in all circumstances. Saint Paul explains:
I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil 4:11-13)
We can both enjoy plenty and want, experiencing all things, because it is Christ who strengthens us. This being the case, then clearly Christ can do both by default because His strength resides within Himself.
And so, though it may not seem so, Saint Mark included the “insignificant” detail of Christ sleeping on a pillow because by including this event, it demonstrated who Christ was–and in effect, in the spiritual life Who we strive to be.
As a side note, the Gospel of Mark may seem redundant to the reader, as it merely contains information from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but the topic of this article shows how it also contains subtle details that those Gospels missed. For example, it also speaks of how Christ loved the rich young ruler, an important detail missing from the other Gospels. One can see why God ordained the inclusion of this Gospel in the Canon, as such crucial details needed to be preserved for posterity.