Tish Harrison Warren is a priest with the Anglican Church and has a campus ministry with InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries. Her book, Prayer in the Night: For those who Work or Watch or Weep (Intervarsity Press, 2021) begins with a traumatic story about her miscarriage. During it, she prayed relentlessly and states that “Faith, I’ve come to believe, is more craft than feeling. And prayer is our chief practice in the craft.”
Warren’s emphasis on prayer centers on “finding Compline,” a prayer of “completion,” the last prayer of the day, and the service surrounding it is designed for nighttime. It is the silent hours of the night when we are more aware of ourselves and of God. She found the Psalms “staving off the threat of darkness” because “every twenty-four hours, nighttime gives us a chance to practice embracing our own vulnerability.” Warren needed a prayer that would give her comfort “that looked unflinchingly at loss and death.”
The matter of trust is paramount when thinking about the way God doesn’t keep bad things from happening to us. We have pain and must contemplate what its redemptive meaning might be because “belief in a transcendent God means we are stuck with the problem of pain.” We have to examine what we think God is like by looking at the life of Jesus. Two things stand out: 1) we are always in the shadow of death and 2) we must learn to weep. We must make space for grief. Warren encourages us to pray with the Psalms, which “call us back into the dramatic depths of reality.” These include psalms of “lament” in which we learn how to weep. In our culture, we often assume that we know better than God, but we need to “weep with the One who alone is able to permanently wipe away our tears.”
Part Three of the book begins with the prayer “Give your angels charge over those who sleep,” because the “historic church imagined a universe jam-packed with angels.” In other words, “prayer expands our imagination about the nature of reality.”
The prayer “Tend the Sick, Lord Christ” is relevant because our bodies begin to fall apart. Sickness is “death’s handmaid” and “we don’t choose our preferred crosses or our resurrections.” Health is a gift and “our bodies will be made eternal.” When our health fails “it cuts us to the core, reveals our truest, most fragile selves.” In such situations, sometimes we need to have prayers of silence, which “is an exercise in tolerating mystery.” God makes no promises of our safety and comfort, but he assures us of his love.
I agree that “the Christian faith never asks us to be okay with death” and that is not the way it is supposed to be (117). Death is an enemy and is the last one to be defeated. Christ taught us how to die, which was certainly what Joice believed. She meditated on her mortality—not something that our culture (or many Christians) will ever get used to.
Another prayer of the Compline is to “Soothe the Suffering” providing comfort. Suffering, as the author notes, “ebbs and flows,” and we do not know when healing will come. However, in our prayers, we can “join him [Jesus] in the torment of Gethsemane, the torture of the cross, and the darkness of his own grave.” It follows that “we have to feel the things we hate to feel—sadness, loss, loneliness,” about which there are no shortcuts. Healing always takes longer than we would like or than we think it should but, we should “trust in the slow work of God.”
Warren states, “I don’t know why God allows affliction, but I do know this: he is found among the afflicted.” She notes that prosperity seems to render more doubt than the affliction found in the afflicted and that “the shape of our prayers determines the shape of our life” and in the darkness, we await the dawn.
We should also “Shield the Joyous,” showing both gratitude and indifference as we do so. This is because, “in this fallen world, joy is risky,” and takes courage. It can be maddening to those who suffer, but Christians should embrace the good and what is joyful, which will remain if we choose it. “To choose joy is to see all existence as a gift,” and we learn through our prayers that “love and loss are a double helix this side of heaven.”
We should “honor ambiguity” because there is a lot we cannot know about God. However, “we weep because we can lament to one who cares about our sorrow” and this is good news to people like me. I know that “in the end, the only way to endure the mystery is to put the whole weight of our [my] life on the love of God.” God does not extinguish sorrow and the darkness is not explained, but it is defeated.
I find the exposition and personal notes on the Compline prayer contain new and helpful thoughts. Put together, the chapter headings inform me of one variation of the Compline prayer:
Keep watch, Dear Lord, over
Those who weep
Those who watch
Those who work
Give your angels charge over those who sleep
Tend the sick, Lord Jesus
Give rest to the weary
Bless the dying
Soothe the suffering
Pity the afflicted
Shield the joyous
And all for your Love’s sake