Prayers When Things Are Dark

“Jesus himself is called a light in the darkness. He is the light that darkness cannot overcome,” writes Tish Harrison Warren. (Shutterstock).

By Tish Harrison Warren – 

It was a dark year in every sense. It began with the move from my sunny hometown, Austin, Texas, to Pittsburgh in early January. One week later, my dad, back in Texas, died in the middle of the night. Always towering and certain as a mountain on the horizon, he was suddenly gone.A month later, I miscarried and hemorrhaged. We made it to the hospital. I was going to be okay, but I needed surgery. They put in a line for a blood transfusion, and told me to lie still. Then, I yelled to Jonathan, lost amidst the nurses, “Compline! I want to pray Compline.” It isn’t normal – even for me – to loudly demand liturgical prayers in a crowded room in the midst of crisis. But in that moment, I needed it, as much as I needed the IV.

Relieved to have a direct command, Jonathan pulled up the Book of Common Prayer on his phone and warned the nurses, “We are both priests, and we’re going to pray now.” And then he launched in: “The Lord grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.”

Over the metronome beat of my heart monitor, we prayed the entire nighttime prayer service. “Defend us, Lord, from the perils and dangers of this night.” We finished: “The almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless us and keep us. Amen.”

“That’s beautiful,” one of the nurses said. “I’ve never heard that before.”

Bleak season. Grief had compounded. I was homesick. The pain of losing my dad was seismic, still rattling like aftershocks. The next month we found out we were pregnant again. It felt like a miracle. In the end, however, early in my second trimester, we lost another baby, a son.

During that long year, as autumn brought darkening days and frost settled in, I was a priest who couldn’t pray.

I didn’t know how to approach God anymore. There were too many things to say, too many questions without answers. My depth of pain overshadowed my ability with words. And, more painfully, I couldn’t pray because I wasn’t sure how to trust God. Martin Luther wrote about seasons of devastation of faith, when any naïve confidence in the goodness of God withers. It’s then that we meet what Luther calls “the left hand of God.” God becomes foreign to us, perplexing, perhaps even terrifying. Adrift in the current of my own doubt and grief, I was flailing.

If you ask my husband about 2017, he says simply, ”What kept us alive was Compline.” An Anglicization of completorium, or “completion,” Compline is the last prayer office of the day in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s a prayer service designed for nighttime.

Imagine a world without electric light, a world lit dimly by torch or candle, a world full of shadows lurking with unseen terrors, a world in which no one could be summoned when a thief broke in and no ambulance could be called, a world where wild animals hid in the darkness, where demons and ghosts and other creatures of the night were living possibilities for everyone. This is the context in which the Christian practice of nighttime prayers arose, and it shapes the emotional tenor of these prayers.

Nighttime is also a pregnant symbol in the Christian tradition. God made the night. In wisdom, God made things such that every day we face a time of darkness. Yet in Revelation we’re told that at the end of all things, “night will be no more” (Revelation 22:5; cf. Isaiah 60:19). And Jesus himself is called a light in the darkness. He is the light that darkness cannot overcome.

The sixteenth-century Saint John of the Cross coined the phrase “the dark night of the soul” to refer to a time of grief, doubt, and spiritual crisis, when God seems shadowy and distant. 

And in a darkness so complete that it’s hard for us to now imagine, Christians rose from their beds and prayed vigils in the night. Long after night vigils ceased to be a regular practice among families, monks continued to pray through the small hours, rising in the middle of the night to sing Psalms together, staving off the threat of darkness. Centuries of Christians have faced their fears of unknown dangers and confessed their own vulnerability each night, using the dependable words the church gave them to pray.

Of course, not all of us feel afraid at night. I have friends who relish nighttime – its stark beauty, its contemplative quiet, its space to think and pray. Yet each of us begins to feel vulnerable if the darkness is too deep or lasts too long. It is in large part due to the presence of light that we can walk around without fear at night. With the flick of a switch, we can see as well as if we were in daylight. But go out into the woods or far from civilization, and we still feel the almost primordial sense of danger and helplessness that nighttime brings. 

Compline. I don’t remember when I began praying Compline. It didn’t begin dramatically. I’d heard Compline sung many times in darkened sanctuaries where I’d sneak in late and sit in silence, listening to prayers sung in perfect harmony.

In a home with two priests, copies of the Book of Common Prayer are everywhere, lying around like spare coasters. So one night, lost in the annals of forgotten nights, I picked it up and prayed Compline.

And then I kept doing it. I began praying Compline more often, barely registering it as any kind of new practice. It was just something I did, not every day, but a few nights a week, because I liked it. I found it beautiful and comforting.

For most of my life, I didn’t know there were different kinds of prayer. Prayer meant one thing only: talking to God with words I came up with. Prayer was wordy, unscripted, self-expressive, spontaneous, and original. And I still pray this way, every day. ”Free form” prayer is a good and indispensable way to pray.

But I’ve come to believe that in order to sustain faith over a lifetime, we need to learn different ways of praying. Prayer is a vast territory, with room for silence and shouting, for creativity and repetition, for original and received prayers, for imagination and reason.

I brought a friend to my Anglican church and she objected to how our liturgy contained (in her words) ”other people’s prayers.” She felt that prayer should be an original expression of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and needs. But over a lifetime the ardor of our belief will wax and wane. This is a normal part of the Christian life. Inherited prayers and practices of the church tether us to belief, far more securely than our own vacillating perspective or self-expression.

Prayer forms us. And different ways of prayer aid us just as different types of paint, canvas, color, and light aid a painter.

When I was a priest who could not pray, the prayer offices of the church were the ancient tool God used to teach me to pray again. … When we pray the prayers we’ve been given by the church – the prayers of the psalmist and the saints, the Lord’s Prayer, the Daily Office – we pray beyond what we can know, believe, or drum up in ourselves. ”Other people’s prayers” discipled me; they taught me how to believe again. The sweep of church history exclaims lex orandi, lex credendi, that the law of prayer is the law of belief. We come to God with our little belief, however fleeting and feeble, and in prayer we are taught to walk more deeply into truth.

When my own dark night of the soul came in 2017, nighttime was terrifying. The stillness of night heightened my own sense of loneliness and weakness. Unlit hours brought a vacant space where there was nothing before me but my own fears and whispering doubts. 

So I’d fill the long hours of darkness with glowing screens, consuming mass amounts of articles and social media, binge watching Netflix, and guzzling think pieces till I collapsed into a fitful sleep. When I tried to stop, I’d sit instead in the bare night, overwhelmed and afraid. Eventually I’d begin to cry and, feeling miserable, return to screens and distraction – because it was better than sadness. It felt easier, anyway. Less heavy.

I began seeing a counselor. When I told her about my sadness and anxiety at night, she challenged me to turn off digital devices and embrace what she called ”comfort activities” each night – a long bath, a book, a glass of wine, prayer, silence, journaling maybe. 

But slowly I started to return to Compline. I needed words to contain my sadness and fear. I needed comfort, but I needed the sort of comfort that doesn’t pretend that things are shiny or safe or right in the world. I needed a comfort that looked unflinchingly at loss and death. And Compline is rung round with death.

It begins ”The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.” A perfect end of what? I’d think – the day, the week? My life? We pray, ”Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit” – the words Jesus spoke as he was dying. We pray, ”Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night,” because we are admitting the thing that, left on my own, I go to great lengths to avoid facing: there are perils and dangers in the night. We end Compline by praying, “That awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.” Requiescat in pace. RIP.

Compline speaks to God in the dark. And that’s what I had to learn to do – to pray in the darkness of anxiety and vulnerability, in doubt and disillusionment. It was Compline that gave words to my anxiety and grief and allowed me to reencounter the doctrines of the church not as tidy little antidotes for pain, but as a light in darkness, as good news.

There is one prayer in particular, toward the end of Compline, that came to contain my longing, pain, and hope. It’s a prayer I’ve grown to love, that has come to feel somehow like part of my own body, a prayer we’ve prayed so often now as a family that my eight-year-old can rattle it off verbatim:

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”

This prayer is widely attributed to St. Augustine, but he almost certainly did not write it. It seems to suddenly appear centuries after Augustine’s death. A gift, silently passed into tradition, that allowed one family at least to endure this glorious, heartbreaking mystery of faith for a little longer.

As I said this prayer each night, I saw faces. I would say ”bless the dying” and imagine the final moments of my father’s life, or my lost sons. I would pray that God would bless those who work and remember the busy nurses who had surrounded me in the hospital. I would say ”shield the joyous” and think of my daughters sleeping safely in their room, cuddled up with their stuffed owl and flamingo. I’d say ”soothe the suffering” and see my mom, newly widowed and adrift in grief on the other side of the country. I’d say ”give rest to the weary” and trace the worry lines on my husband’s sleeping face. And I would think of the collective sorrow of the world, which we all carry in big and small ways – the horrors that take away our breath, and the common, ordinary losses of all our lives.

Like a botanist listing different oak species along a trail, this prayer lists specific categories of human vulnerability. Instead of praying in general for the weak or needy, we pause before particular lived realities, unique instances of mortality and weakness, and invite God into each.

Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. This article is adapted from Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright © 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. (IVPress.com) 

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