By Elizabeth Glass Turner –
There is a point when dog-earing a book becomes an exercise in futility. My copy of Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep is accordioned with an absurdly unhelpful number of dog-eared pages.
The Anglican priest and author constructed a kind of catechism of grief just before the world slipped into isolated chaos in 2020. Borne in on the wake of her own annus horribilis – in 2017, she moved halfway across the country, lost her father suddenly, and lost two sons to miscarriage – Prayer in the Night is fashioned from an entry in the Book of Common Prayer that sustained her in the wreckage.
If you are shipwrecked, the book is a first-aid kit, an emergency ration box, and Warren patiently tutors the reader in the usefulness of each component with the clear-eyed pathos of someone who has hungered through long nights waiting for a rescue plane that might or might not come. She is unflinching.
Some might wonder if a book with the word “weep” in the subtitle can find a place on shelves just as likely to be lined with resources on church growth, self-improvement, leadership, vision, or other ways to optimize potential and stay ahead of everyone else. For several decades, faith-based publishing has been nothing if not optimistic. Do most people really want to read about those who work and watch and weep?
A couple of things are noteworthy. It is rare for a faith-based author on social media to receive comments from multiple readers sharing that they’d personally purchased boxes of copies to distribute to colleagues, friends, and family members, as Warren has received. Further, Prayers in the Night might normally be a valuable book likely to fly under the radar. (The human instinct to plug our ears in denial of mortality runs deep.) However, Warren happened to finish it just weeks into a nascent pandemic; it was released as the global toll of that pandemic continued to rage. What the author could not know when she began writing was that the world was about to be hit with a once-in-a-generation occurrence, with many people about to lose the luxury of putting mortality on mute.
By the Eucharistic grace of God, Warren had offered up what she had on hand: her tragedy, like a child holding up some bread and fish. She wrote what she found to be true and useful during her long, dark night of the soul. In the economy of God’s grace, what she gave freely is feeding more people than she could have anticipated. Her own words speak to what loss requires: “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.”
In part a primer on prayer, in part a primer on what it means to be human, the chapters are organized as a steady unpacking of the phrases of a Compline prayer, part of the bedtime reading of the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer:
“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.”
Warren unloads these phrases with pragmatic depth, rendering a resource that is sure to be used in study (as the discussion questions at the back provide for). But it is not first and foremost a study, unless it is a study of loss and the nature of a God who allows it. Sometimes in the shellshock of grief, we don’t know how to talk to a God we’re angry at; we don’t have energy to form our own words. But at the outset, the author shares her experience of learning the value of the practices and prayers of the ancient church in times of crisis and catastrophe.
“I’ve come to believe that … to sustain faith over a lifetime, we need to learn different ways of praying,” she writes. “Inherited prayers and practices of the church tether us to belief, far more securely than our own vacillating perspective or self-expression.” For seasons of profoundly disorienting loss, she compares the prayers of the church to cairns marking a foggy mountain path. “When I could not pray, the church said, ‘here are prayers.’ When I could not believe, the church said, ‘come to the table and be fed.’ When I could not worship, the church sang over me the language of faith.”
The prayers to which the author calls us are not just life rafts or escape hatches; regularly, she reminds the reader that prayer shapes and forms us. “Faith is more craft than feeling. And prayer is our chief practice in the craft. We are given means of grace that we can practice, whether we feel like it or not, and these carry us. Craftsmen – writers, brewers, dancers, potters – show up and work, and they participate in a mystery. In our deepest moments of darkness, we enter into this craft of prayer. Patterns of prayer draw us into the long story of Christ’s work in and through his people over time.”
As Warren unfolds the Compline prayer phrase by phrase, the path of grief is illuminated as spiritual formation. She scoots among the commonplace and the ancient, quoting “Almost Famous” then unpacking apophatic theology with approachable ease. Not everyone can briefly sketch theodicy or apophatic theology with simplicity. Yet she manages to do so, deftly demonstrating how idea and practice merge, revealing the value of theological treasures left in the dusty attic of church history. Her voice is like an Antiques Roadshow appraiser, surprising us with the hidden value of what we unknowingly pass by – only the worth is not only convenient, it’s life-saving. The reader is shown with pressing clarity how and why this prayer matters for you, today, and how it can shape the worst moments of the worst days of your life. There is no sugar-coating; no prosperity gospel; no platitudes. But there is honesty, joy, and hope.
In Prayer in the Night, there is little that is casual, much that is accessible. Loss can clarify voice (eventually); the frank, easy tones found in Warren’s previous book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, are familiar yet carry a new sense of urgency, as though the matter is life and death: because it is.
“Compline,” writes Warren, “speaks to God in the dark. That’s what I had to learn to do – to pray in the darkness. When we’re drowning we need a lifeline, and our lifeline in grief cannot be mere optimism that maybe our circumstances will improve because we know that may not be true. We need practices that don’t simply palliate our fears or pain, but that teach us to walk with God in the crucible of our own fragility.”
Instinctively, whatever circumstances the reader currently finds themselves in, it is easy to recognize that our world does not crave “mere optimism.” If, as Warren outlines in chapter three, we allow ourselves to grieve and lament individually and together as a church, we may travel through to substantive hope on the other side; but grief must come first. On the value of praying the Psalms, she notes, “If our gathered worship expresses only unadulterated trust, confidence, victory, and renewal, we are learning to be less honest with God than the Scriptures themselves are.”
Warren’s potent phrasing is scattered throughout, unlikely as an inspirational slogan slapped on overpriced merchandise, but more likely to help preserve your faith in the dark night of the soul. (There are always trade-offs in life.) Exploring the phrase, “tend the sick, Lord Christ,” Warren wryly plumbs the human discomfort with frustration and physical frailty. “A lot of what appears as kindness or patience or holiness in my life is fueled by good health, energy, and simple pleasures. When these are taken away, it’s clear that I am not that kind or patient after all. I just didn’t have back pain.” Sanctification stings.
But there is no use mincing words when you’re in the crucible. When Warren swats away common theological and philosophical insufficiencies (she gives readers the dignity of engaging hard questions), she does so with vivid insistence. “I have come to see theodicy as an existential knife-fight between the reality of our own quaking vulnerability and our hope for a God who can be trusted.” Warren points the heartbroken reader to the tender heart of God. “The church has always proclaimed that if we want to see what God is like, we look to Jesus – a man ‘acquainted with sorrow,’ no stranger to grief, a peasant craftsman who knew suffering, big and small, and died a criminal, mostly alone. Mysteriously, God does not take away our vulnerability. He enters into it. Jesus left a place where there is no night to enter into our darkness.”
After sitting in the darkness with each group called out in the Compline prayer – exploring what it means to work, watch, or weep; unfolding the reality of those who sleep, the sick, the weary, the dying, the suffering, the afflicted, the joyous – where is the reader led? “And all for your love’s sake.” Alluding to the speed of light in a vacuum as a universal constant, Warren proclaims, “we enter the practice of prayer in response to the steady fact that we are already loved. God’s love and devotion to us, not ours to him, is the source of prayer. He is the first mover in prayer, the one who has been calling to us before we could ever call to him. And he will not stop calling, no matter how dark the night becomes. Light, not darkness, is the constant.”
Warren continues the shift from gutted lament to battle-worn, hoarse doxology: “Our love is more akin to day and night. God’s love is a constant … the speed of light. His love is the center of all things and there is no darkness in it. The love of God – not sickness or weariness or death or suffering or affliction or joy – is the fixed center of our lives and eternity.”
In Madeleine L’Engle’s coming-of-age story on death and grief, A Ring of Endless Light, the teenaged Vicky Austin, shaken by a traumatic experience, talks with her dying grandfather.
“You have to give the darkness permission,” he tells her. “It cannot take over otherwise. … Vicky, do not add to the darkness.”
There at the hospital bed, she both heard him and did not hear him.
“Vicky, this is my charge to you,” her grandfather continued. “You are to be a light bearer. You are to choose the light.”
“I can’t…” Vicky whispered.
“You already have,” he said. “But it is a choice which you must renew now.”
She couldn’t speak.
“I will say it for you,” her grandfather said. “You will bear the light.”
In her loss, Warren, a priest, has chosen the role of acolyte, choosing to be a lightbearer. Like Vicky’s grandfather, the Compline prayer tells the crumpled believer, “I will say it for you,” when the darkness has stolen our words. In hollow contrast to the arrival of spring, the darkness of loss threatens to suffocate many in our nation and our churches, and Prayer in the Night comes at a critical moment, naming the darkness, bringing the light near, and showing us how to be light-bearers.
Elizabeth Glass Turner is a frequent and valued contributor to Good News. She is the managing editor of Wesleyan Accent (wesleyanaccent.com).