A Feature Review of
Prayer in the Night:
For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep
Tish Harrison Warren
Reviewed by Mark Bair
I first encountered Tish Harrison Warren’s work in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary. As one who comes from a tradition that had only a negative connotation for the word “liturgy,” I was struck by how Warren can describe features of her Anglicanism in a way that does not demand a conversion but offers a winsome invitation into those practices. She leans more toward describing more than prescribing, and her humble self-disclosure lowers my defenses.
Though written before COVID-19, Prayer in the Night is incredibly relevant and prophetic, providing a way to convey our heartbreak, fears, and many sighs in this inexplicable year. The fruit of an extended time of pain and suffering for Warren that began in 2017, the book gifts us with an “inherited” prayer associated with Compline, the last prayer office of the day in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Compline is a prayer designed for nighttime when we typically feel most vulnerable.
One particular Compline prayer tethered Warren to God when she felt like “a priest who could not pray.” It verbalizes the full range of vulnerable emotions that Christians often repress: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give thine 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 thy love’s sake. Amen.” From the dying to the joyous, this prayer forms the structure of the book. As Warren writes, “[This book is] about how to continue to walk the way of faith without denying the darkness.”
Most Christian responses to suffering attempt to make sense of suffering philosophically and theologically. They offer a “theodicy” (a vindication of God). But for all the noble endeavors to explain the presence of evil in a world made by a good God, most people remain unsatisfied. When we’re hurting, we are not comforted by these rational arguments. An “answer” is not what we want anyway. We want God to notice and make things right.
Prayer in the Night has the bold aim of wading into theodicy wholeheartedly. Warren presents the prayer of Compline as a radical relational response to the “problem of pain.” She asks us to follow God into the darkness risking the loss of comfort and control:
Theodicy is not a cosmic algebra equation. It is almost primordial. A scream. An ache. A protest from the depths of the human heart. Where are you, oh God? Is anyone watching out for us? Why this evil, this heartbreak, this suffering? I have come to see theodicy as an existential knife-fight, a wrestling match, between the reality of our own quaking vulnerability and our hope for a God who can be trusted. (25)
The way through darkness, pain, and suffering is not by detaching into a merely cognitive solution. Confident faith comes from taking the risk of entering grief and sorrow prayerfully. The prayer of Compline gives us the language of lament and a nuanced interplay of grief, beauty, work, joy, and love. A vulnerable road. Warren points out that the term vulnerable is from the Latin word meaning “to wound.” We are subject to hurt every day. The kind of prayer this book commends gives us a chance to embrace our fragile frame each night.
As I thought this through, it occurred to me that vulnerability is a way to know God—a sort of epistemology. Lamenting can be a form of learning. Because when we lament, we experience a unique closeness to God. After all, God did not send an explanation for the problem of pain but entered the darkness itself, allowing himself to be broken by evil before overcoming it.
Rather than seeking joy directly and escaping pain, Warren counsels us to enter the darkness with God, crying and praying our way through it rather than around it. She names and urges the reader to enter into uncomfortable realities like grief, fear, sickness, and death.
This advice at first seems counterintuitive—especially this year. 2020 has been the year that we “just want to be over.” You may say, “I’ve had enough of that already.” I understand that reaction, but reading the book helped me see that I’ve avoided grief even with all the pain this year and defaulted to worrying and numbing.
Praying Compline has been challenging for me as I tend to reduce my vulnerability, not to widen its surface. I “cork” uncomfortable feelings with theology, a faulty theology of “victory over negative emotions,” which is just a sophisticated form of denial.
There’s an opportunity for the readers of Prayer in the Night that could be easily lost by avoiding our sorrows. Vulnerability can be traumatic. It feels like you’re risking the loss of all joy, that you’ll be overwhelmed by grief and fear. But in time, if you keep your heart open, you’ll experience joy with both eyes open, knowing you are loved. This real-world notion of joy and love was another unexpected treasure of Prayer in the Night: a sense of the interplay of weeping, working, and watching for God’s beauty in the brokenness. Work that arises from the willingness to mourn yet defy despair is generous and compassionate work—not driven by fear and anger.
As I alluded to above, Compline is “an inherited way of approaching God, a way to wade into the ongoing stream of the church’s communion with God.” A helpful subtheme of Prayer in the Night is Warren’s rationale for taking up the practices of the church, the liturgy of the hours. “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.” And because prayer often precedes rather than follows faith, Warren writes, “Reaching for this old prayer service was an act of hope that it would put me under the knife, work in me like surgery, set things right in my own heart” (9). Warren does not argue against spontaneous free-prayer, just that we should not limit ourselves to it.
Learning Compline, this “prayer of others” has been beneficial to me in this troubled year of sickness, shutdowns, and racial tensions. I realized I lacked a language to respond to the nightly news, so I mostly got angry at politicians. Tish Harrison Warren has given us a gift that can help us “groan” more meaningfully as we “eagerly wait for the creation to be set free from bondage” (Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 8:19-26).
I urge you to get this book and pause to really consider the heavy load each of us carries under our stoic front. And then to pray Compline again and again.
Prayer in the Night should be read by every person who aims to bear the burdens of others—every pastor and counselor, every husband and wife, every mother and father, and every adult child who never considered their parents’ wounds and worries. However, I should warn you that this may not be the book for you if you are looking for an escape. This work requires participation and is not for the faint of heart.
Mark Bair lives in Columbus Ohio. He writes about finding beauty in the brokenness. He is currently working on a novel about the longing for Eden. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook (@markjbair on both) or subscribe to his blog: www.markjbair.com