Author: Tish Harrison Warren –
It was a dark year in every sense. It started with a move from my sunny hometown, Austin, Texas, to Pittsburgh in early January. A week later, my dad, who had returned to Texas, died in the middle of the night. Always tall and safe as a mountain on the horizon, he suddenly disappeared.A month later, I had an abortion and was bleeding. We reached the hospital. I wanted to be fine, but I needed surgery. They lined up for a blood transfusion and told me to lie still. Then I shouted to Jonathan, lost among the nurses, “Calm down! I want to pray Compline. It is not normal – not even for me – to loudly demand liturgical prayers in a crowded room in the midst of a crisis. But at that moment I needed it, as much as IV.
Freed from direct command, Jonathan pulled the Book of Common Prayer to his phone and warned the nurses, “We are both priests and we will pray now.” And then he launched, “The Lord has given us a peaceful night and a perfect ending.”
Through the metronome of my heart monitor we prayed the whole night prayer. “Defend us, Lord, from danger and danger tonight.” We concluded: “Almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, bless us and keep us. Amen. ”
“It’s wonderful,” said one of the nurses. “I’ve never heard that before.”
Dark season. The grief intensified. I was nostalgic. The pain of losing his father was seismic, still rattling like aftershocks. The following month, we learned that we were pregnant again. It felt like a miracle. Eventually, however, at the beginning of my second trimester, we lost another baby, a son.
During that long year, as autumn brought dark days and frost formed, I was a priest who could not pray.
I no longer knew how to approach God. There were too many things to say, too many unanswered questions. 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 periods of destruction of faith, when all naive confidence in God’s goodness withers. Then we encounter what Luther calls the “left hand of God.” God becomes foreign to us, confusing, perhaps even frightening. Floating in a stream of my own doubt and sorrow, I thrashed.
If you ask my husband about 2017, he simply says, “What has kept us alive is Compline.” The Anglicization of the completorium, or “completion,” is the last prayer office given in the Book of Common Prayer. It is a prayer intended for the night.
Imagine a world without electric light, a world dimly lit by torches or candles, a world full of shadows lurking from unseen horrors, a world where no one could be called when a thief broke in and an ambulance could not be called, a world where wild animals hid were in the dark, where demons and ghosts and other nocturnal creatures were life opportunities for all. This is the context in which the Christian practice of night prayers originated and shapes the emotional character of these prayers.
The night is also a pregnant symbol in the Christian tradition. God created the night. Wisely, God has made things such that we face a time of darkness every day. However, Revelation tells us that in the end of all things “there shall be no more night” (Revelation 22: 5; cf. Isaiah 60:19). And Jesus himself is called light in darkness. He is a light that darkness cannot overcome.
St. John of the Cross from the sixteenth century coined the expression “dark night of the soul” to refer to a time of sorrow, doubt and spiritual crisis, when God seems shadowy and distant.
And in such complete darkness that it is hard for us to imagine, Christians got out of bed and prayed the vigil at night. Long after the night vigils ceased to be a regular practice among families, the monks continued to pray through the small hours, rising in the middle of the night to sing psalms together, rejecting the threat of darkness. For centuries, Christians have faced fears of unknown dangers and have acknowledged their vulnerability every night, using the reliable words the church has given them to pray.
Of course, we don’t all feel fear at night. I have friends who enjoy the night – its sharp beauty, contemplative silence, space for reflection and prayer. Yet, each of us begins to feel vulnerable if the darkness is too deep or lasts too long. Largely due to the presence of light we can walk at night without fear. With a single press of the switch we can see as if we were in daylight. But go out into the woods or away from civilization, we still feel the almost primordial sense of danger and helplessness that night brings.
Compline. I don’t remember when I started praying Compline. It didn’t start dramatically. Many times I have heard the Compline sung in the darkened shrines where I snuck in late and sat in silence, listening to the prayers sung in perfect harmony.
In a house 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 took her and prayed to Compline.
And then I kept doing it. I started praying Compline more often, I barely registered it as any new practice. It was something I did, not every day, but a few nights a week, because I liked it. It was nice and comforting to me.
For most of my life I didn’t know there were different types of prayer. Prayer meant only one thing: to talk to God with the words I came up with. The prayer was complex, unwritten, self-expressing, spontaneous and original. And I still pray this way, every day. Free-form prayer is a good and necessary way of praying.
But I began to believe that in order to maintain faith throughout life, we must learn different ways of praying. Prayer is a huge area, with space 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 believed that prayer should be an original expression of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and needs. But over the course of a lifetime the fervor of our belief will fade and disappear. It is a normal part of the Christian life. Inherited church prayers and actions bind us to belief, far more secure than our own wavering perspective or self-expression.
Prayer shapes us. And different ways of praying help us just as different kinds of colors, canvases, colors and lights help a painter.
When I was a priest who could not pray, the prayer offices in the church were an ancient tool with which God taught me to pray again. … When we pray the prayers the church has given us — the prayers of the psalmist and the saints, the Lord’s Supper, the daily service — we pray beyond what we can know, believe, or drum in ourselves. “Other people’s prayers” taught me; they taught me again how to believe. The momentum of church history is screaming The law of prayer is the law of belief, that the law of prayer is the law of belief. We come to God with our little faith, however fleeting and weak, and in prayer we are taught to step deeper into the truth.
When my own dark soul night came in 2017, the night was terrifying. The silence of the night intensified my feeling of loneliness and weakness. The unlit hours brought an empty space in which there was nothing before me but my own fears and whispering doubts.
So I would fill long hours of darkness with glowing screens, consuming massive amounts of articles and social media, enjoying watching Netflix, and swallowing thought-provoking parts until I fell asleep. When I tried to get up, I would instead sit naked at night, overwhelmed and scared. Eventually I would start crying and, feeling miserable, go back to the screens and distracted – because it was better than sadness. Either way, it was easier. Less difficult.
I started seeing a counselor. When I told her about my sadness and anxiety at night, she challenged me to turn off my digital devices and accept what she called “comfortable activities” every night – a long bath, a book, a glass of wine, prayer, silence, maybe keeping a diary.
But slowly I started coming back to Compline. I needed words to control my sadness and fear. I needed comfort, but I needed comfort that doesn’t pretend things are great, safe, or real in the world. I needed comfort that stared unwaveringly at loss and death. And Compline turns to death.
It begins “The Lord Almighty gives us a peaceful night and a perfect end.” The perfect end to what? I would think – day, week? My life? We pray, “Into your hands, Lord, I entrust my spirit” – the words that Jesus uttered on his deathbed. We pray, “Be our light in darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all dangers and dangers tonight,” for we acknowledge the matter of, being left alone, endeavoring to avoid confrontation: at night there are dangers and dangers. We end the completion with a prayer: “Let us watch awake with Christ, and rest in peace in our sleep.” Rest in peace. REST IN PEACE.
Compline talks to God in the dark. And I had to learn to do that – to pray in the darkness of anxiety and vulnerability, in doubt and disappointment. Compline gave words to my anxiety and sorrow and allowed me to face the church doctrines again not as a sorted little antidote to pain, but as a light in the dark, as good news.
There is one prayer in particular, near the end of Compline, which restrained my longing, pain, and hope. It’s a prayer I loved, it became part of my own body, a prayer we prayed so often as a family that my eight-year-old can literally discover it:
“Beware, dear God, with those who work, watch or weep tonight, and let your angels rule those who sleep. Nurture the sick, Lord Christ; to rest the weary, to bless the dying, to appease suffering, to pity troubles, to protect the joyful; and all because of your love. Amen. ”
This prayer is widely attributed to St. Augustine, but he almost certainly did not write it. He seems to have appeared suddenly centuries after Augustine’s death. The gift, which has silently become a tradition, has enabled one family to endure this glorious, heartbreaking mystery of faith for at least a little longer.
As I said this prayer every night, I saw faces. I would say “bless the dying” and imagine the last moments of the life of my father, or my lost sons. I would pray that God would bless those who work and remember the busy nurses who surrounded me in the hospital. I would say “protect the joyful” and think about how my daughters are safely sleeping in their room, hugged with a stuffed owl and a flamingo. I would say “calm the suffering” and I would see my mother, just a widow mourning on the other side of the country. I would say “give a break to the tired” and follow the lines of concern on my husband’s sleeping face. And I would think of the collective sorrow of the world that we all carry in big and small ways – of the horrors that take our breath away and of the usual, ordinary losses of all our lives.
Like a botanist enumerating different types of oak along the path, this prayer lists special categories of human vulnerability. Instead of praying for the weak or needy in general, we stop at certain living realities, unique examples of mortality and weakness, and call on God in each.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest at the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of the book Ordinary liturgy: sacred practices in everyday life. This article is adapted from Prayer at night: For those who work, watch or cry by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright © 2021 Tish Harrison Warren. Used with permission from InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. (IVPress.com)