Editor's note:

After read­ing this excerpt we think you’ll under­stand why Tish Har­ri­son War­ren’s Prayer in the Night is a Ren­o­varé Book Club selec­tion. With­out pre­tense or plat­i­tudes, she lights the can­dle of night­time prayer to help us find a path for­ward in the dark­ness of doubt and grief. 

Read­ing begins Feb 8, 2021. Join us in Ren­o­varé Book Club.

—Renovaré Team

Excerpt from Prayer in the Night

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, and we prayed Com­pline in the ER.

Grief had com­pound­ed. I was home­sick. The pain of los­ing my dad was seis­mic, still rat­tling like after­shocks. It was a bleak sea­son — we named it, as a grim joke, the Pitts-of-despair-burgh.” The next month we found out we were preg­nant again. It felt like a mir­a­cle. But ear­ly on I began bleed­ing, and the preg­nan­cy became com­pli­cat­ed. I was put on med­ical­ly restrict­ed activ­i­ty.” I couldn’t stand for long peri­ods, walk more than a cou­ple blocks, or lift any­thing above ten pounds, which meant I couldn’t lift my then four-year-old. As I spent hours sit­ting in bed each day, my mind grew dim­mer and dark­er. The bleed­ing con­tin­ued near con­stant­ly for two months, with week­ly trips to the hos­pi­tal when it picked up so much that we wor­ried I was mis­car­ry­ing or in dan­ger of anoth­er hem­or­rhage. In the end, in late July, 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. 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.

For much of his­to­ry, night was sim­ply terrifying.

Roger Ekirch begins his fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry of night­time by say­ing, It would be dif­fi­cult to exag­ger­ate the sus­pi­cion and inse­cu­ri­ty bred by dark­ness.” In the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, Edmund Burke said there was no oth­er idea so uni­ver­sal­ly ter­ri­ble in all times, and in all coun­tries, as dark­ness.” Shakespeare’s Lucrece famous­ly laments the com­fort-killing night, image of hell.”

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. The rea­son this res­onates with us is because night typ­i­fies our fears and doubts — the hard day of the soul” or the gray morn­ing of the soul” would nev­er have had the same stay­ing power.

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. The third-cen­tu­ry North African the­olo­gian Ter­tul­lian refers to assem­blies at night” in which fam­i­lies would rise from their sleep to pray togeth­er. In the East, Basil the Great instruct­ed Chris­tians that at the begin­ning of the night we ask that our rest be with­out offense … and at this hour also Psalm [91] must be recited.” 

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. Anne Bron­të begins her poem Night” declar­ing, I love the silent hour of night.”

There is much to love about the night. Nightin­gale song and can­dle­light, the sparkling city or the crack­ling of a fire as stars slow­ly creep across the sky, the sun descend­ing into the hori­zon sil­hou­et­ting a red­dened sky. 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.

In deep dark­ness, even the strongest among us are small and defenseless.

Despite modernity’s buzzing light bulbs and twen­ty-four-hour dri­ve-throughs, we nonethe­less face our vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in a unique way as dark­ness falls. There’s a rea­son hor­ror movies are usu­al­ly set at night. We still speak of the witch­ing hour.” And poet John Rives, the cura­tor of The Muse­um of Four in the Morn­ing, a web­site that archives lit­er­ary and pop cul­ture ref­er­ences to 4 a.m., calls it the worst pos­si­ble hour of the day.” These wee hours, he says, are a pop­u­lar short­hand infused with mean­ing across gen­res, cul­tures, and centuries.

Night is not just hours on the clock. How many of us lie awake at night, unable to fall back asleep, wor­ry­ing over the day ahead, think­ing of all that could go wrong, count­ing our sorrows?

Our very bod­ies con­front dark­ness each night. So each night we prac­tice fac­ing our truest state: we are exposed, we can­not con­trol our lives, we will die.

In the day­light, I’m dis­tract­ed. At moments, even pro­duc­tive. At night I feel alone, even in a house full of sleep­ing bodies.

I feel small and mortal.

The dark­ness of night­time ampli­fies grief and anx­i­ety. I’m remind­ed with the set­ting of the sun that our days are num­bered, and full of big and lit­tle losses.

We are all so very, very vulnerable.

We can speak of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty as some­thing we choose. We decide whether to let our­selves” be vul­ner­a­ble through shar­ing or with­hold­ing our truest selves — our sto­ries, opin­ions, or feel­ings. In this sense, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty means emo­tion­al expo­sure or hon­esty. But this isn’t the kind of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty I mean. Instead, I mean the uncho­sen vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that we all car­ry, whether we admit it or not. The term vul­ner­a­ble comes from a Latin word mean­ing to wound.” We are wound-able. We can be hurt and destroyed, in body, mind, and soul. All of us, every last man, woman, and child, bear this kind of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty till our dying day.

And every twen­ty-four hours, night­time gives us a chance to prac­tice embrac­ing our own vulnerability.

* * *

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.

A pat­tern of monas­tic prayer was large­ly set by Bene­dict and his monks in the sixth cen­tu­ry. They prayed eight times a day: Matins (before dawn), Lauds (at sun­rise), then Prime, Ter­ce, Sext, None, and Ves­pers through­out the day (each about three hours apart). Final­ly, at bed­time, Compline.

The Angli­can Book of Com­mon Prayer con­densed these eight canon­i­cal hours into two prayer offices,” morn­ing and

evening prayer. But some Angli­cans (as well as lay Roman Catholics, Luther­ans, and oth­ers) con­tin­ued to have fixed night prayers. Even­tu­al­ly, in Angli­can prayer books these two prayer offices were expand­ed to four, adding ves­pers and a Com­pline service.

Like most prayer offices, Com­pline includes a con­fes­sion, a read­ing from the Psalms and oth­er Scrip­tures, writ­ten and respon­sive prayers, and a time for silence or extem­po­ra­ne­ous prayer.

* * *

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. Stan­ley Hauer­was explains his love for pray­ing oth­er people’s prayers”: Evan­gel­i­cal­ism,” he says, is con­stant­ly under

the bur­den of re-invent­ing the wheel and you just get tired.” He calls him­self an advo­cate for prac­tic­ing prayer offices because,

We don’t have to make it up. We know we’re going to say these prayers. We know we’re going to join in read­ing of the psalm. We’re going to have these Scrip­ture read­ings.

… There’s much to be said for Chris­tian­i­ty as rep­e­ti­tion and I think evan­gel­i­cal­ism doesn’t have enough rep­e­ti­tion in a way that will form Chris­tians to sur­vive in a world that con­stant­ly tempts us to always think we have to do some­thing new.

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 strength waned and my words ran dry, I need­ed to fall into a way of belief that car­ried me. I need­ed oth­er people’s prayers.

* * *

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. I’d stare at the hard, unde­ni­able facts that any­one I loved could die that night, and that every­one I love will die some­day — facts we most often ignore so we can make it through the day intact.

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.

The mechan­ics of my night­ly inter­net con­sump­tion were the same as those of the addict: faced with grief and fear, I turned to some­thing to numb myself. When I com­pul­sive­ly opened up my com­put­er, I’d go for hours with­out think­ing about death or my dad or mis­car­riages or home­sick­ness or my con­fu­sion about God’s pres­ence in the midst of suffering.

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. No screens. I fell off the wag­on prob­a­bly a hun­dred times in as many days.

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.

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. Dur­ing that dif­fi­cult year, I didn’t know how to hold to both God and the awful real­i­ty of human vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. What I found was that it was the prayers and prac­tices of the church that allowed me to hold to — or rather to be held by — God when lit­tle else seemed stur­dy, to hold to the Chris­t­ian sto­ry even when I found no sat­is­fy­ing answers.

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.

Prayer in the Night is a med­i­ta­tion on this beloved prayer. It’s about how to con­tin­ue to walk the way of faith with­out deny­ing the dark­ness. It’s about the ter­ri­ble yet com­mon suf­fer­ing we each shoul­der, and what trust­ing God might mean in the midst of it.

Related Podcast

Tak­en from Prayer in the Night by Tish Har­ri­son War­ren. Copy­right © 2021 by Tish Har­ri­son War­ren. Pub­lished by Inter­Var­si­ty Press, Down­ers Grove, IL. www​.ivpress​.com

Pho­to by Ian on Unsplash

Originally published January 2021

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