Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren. Downers Grove: IVP Formatio, 2021.
Summary: Both an introduction to Compline and a phrase by phrase reflection using one of the loveliest of Compline prayers.
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
Over the last year of the pandemic, I’ve posted on Facebook prayers, morning and evening, (“Collects”) from The Book of Common Prayer. The prayer above, from of the office of Compline, is one of my favorites, and often I think of particular people as I pray each phrase. During the pandemic this has included the working and weary medical personnel, the people keeping vigil for those in ICUs, the sick and sometimes the dying, those afflicted with long-COVID, and others who struggle with chronic pain and illness. Amid this all I think of the joyous including new parents, graduates, and all of us who have received vaccines. I think of angels watching over and guarding us in the vulnerable moments of our nightly rest. I rest in the care of the Lord who watches for love’s sake.
Thus it was with great delight that I discovered on opening Prayer in the Night that it is organized around this loved prayer. Tish Harrison Warren takes us through her own journey of praying compline, most notably one night with her husband in an emergency room as she hemorrhaged severely during a miscarriage. She introduces us to Compline, the last of the prayers of the hours or offices, to be prayed at night before retiring. She writes of how Compline helped her at a time of loss of a baby and of her father:
“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.”Tish Harrison Warren, p. 19.
In succeeding chapters, Warren offers reflections on each phrase of this prayer that come out of her lived experience with praying it. She begins by discussing the God to whom we pray in the dark, and how the prayers operate as cairns, rock structures, that help us keep on the path when we can only feel our way along in fog or the dark. She then turns to the way of the vulnerable–those who weep or watch or work, taking the phrases in reverse order. She concludes:
“Taken together, working and watching and weeping are a way to endure the mystery of theodicy. They are a faithful response to our shared human tragedy–but only when we hold all three together, giving space and energy to each, both as individuals and as the church.”Tish Harrison Warren, p. 75.
From this she turns to what she calls “a taxonomy of vulnerability.” She describes her renewed understanding of the care of the angels in our sleep as she prayed for her first child each night. Her reflection on sickness includes insights into the wonders of our bodies that we often take for granted until illness. In weariness we are offered rest, one to learn from, and one who intercedes for us. Prayer for the dying reminds us of our own death and how we are taught to live in light of it and our resurrection hope. Suffering and affliction take us into new places of dependence upon God in our weakness, and call the church into depths we are reluctant to go. Then there is the risk of disappointment in joy and our need to be shielded here as well.
Finally, Warren concludes by exploring how God invites us into a deeper encounter with his love. In the night. When we doubt. In our illness and vulnerability. In suffering and affliction. The love of God, revealed in Christ, is the last word of this prayer.
The writing about goodness, truth, and beauty one finds in Warren’s prose is humbling. All I can say is what is found in this book is so much better and richer than my summary. Warren helps me pray a prayer I’ve loved with deeper meaning and consciousness of my vulnerability and the depths of God’s care. She offers good direction for all of us facing “night” in our lives.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.