I praise you because you are artist and scientist in one. When I am somewhat fearful of your power, your ability to work miracles with a set-square, I hear you murmuring to yourself in a notation Beethoven dreamed of but never achieved. You run off your scales of rain water and sea water, play the chords of the morning and evening light, sculpture with shadow, join together leaf by leaf, when spring comes, the stanzas of an immense poem. You speak all languages and none, answering our most complex prayers with the simplicity of a flower, confronting us, when we would domesticate you to our uses, with the rioting viruses under our lens.
— R. S. Thomas, “Praise”
* * *
When COVID came for us it came in the season of Lent, and for many of us, neither COVID nor Lent is finished. Covidtide some have called it: an exception or emergency in the church’s calendar, a sustained and seemingly endless period of isolation, confusion, and loss. The darkness of a plague descended like a shroud over the globe, and Christians, no less than others, have been unsure of what to say or do, of which way to turn in the sudden and disorienting gloam.
One Lent bleeds into another, the virus stitching the two together. Here we are again. Lent is a penitential season, but it is not a matter of masochism or dwelling on what is sad for its own sake. Lent carves out time for hard but necessary work on our souls. We fast from needs of the body to remember needs of the spirit. We meditate on our sins not to fixate on them but to confess them before God. We fix our eyes on Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Word made flesh, the light of the world who shines in the darkness — for the darkness has not overcome it.
The penultimate act of Lent is the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday. Likewise Lent strips the baptized bare. It strips us of every artifice of our supposed autonomy, every plausible claim to self-mastery, every pitiful attempt to protest that something of our lives is not a gift from another. “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor 4:7) is the Lenten interrogative, and it will not leave us alone until we surrender. Our lives are a gift, and everything in them. It falls to us only to receive and be grateful.
Such is Lent in ordinary times, at least. The broken and contrite heart that God will not despise must arise, finally, from within; it cannot be imposed from without. Yet the long Lent of the past year — the Lent of lockdowns and layoffs, foreclosures and funerals, births without grandparents and holidays without family — was indeed forced on us. We did not choose it and never would have.
The question is not whether it, too, has work to do on our souls. It does. The question, not least as we face a horizon dawning with good news (proximately, mass vaccination; ultimately, Easter Sunday), is what work that will be, and whether we will welcome or resist it.
* * *
Tish Harrison Warren wrote her new book, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep, before Covidtide. But it reads as if she knew what was coming. It is a work of sacred melancholy. It was borne of suffering, pain, and death: the unexpected loss of her father as well as two unborn sons. It does not propose rules for life. It does not provide a plan for success. It does not dare you to be fierce, or disabuse you of your guilt, or advise you to lean in. In short, it contains no techniques and makes no guarantees.
What it offers is a prayer.
The prayer comes from the Book of Common Prayer, in the service of Compline. It is a prayer that not only Warren, who is a priest in the Anglican Church of North America, but her whole family began to recite together every evening in their time of hardship. Like all prayers from the BCP, this one is spare in its elegance:
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.
These words became a mantra as evening fell. And as the words seeped into the wounds of her grief, they took on a life of their own. They opened up whole new vistas in Warren’s practice of the faith. In Prayer in the Night, whose chapters are structured by each successive phrase of the prayer, she shares what she’s learned.
The result is a wise, moving, and masterful exercise in contemplative theology written for ordinary believers. Such an achievement is rare in popular Christian writing today, which usually comes in one of three forms: deep but parochial, shallow but accessible, or positively sub-Christian. Warren’s avoidance of these traps — above all through spiritual sobriety, clarity of prose, and intellectual seriousness — will come as no surprise to readers of her past work. In 2016’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, Warren managed to synthesize half a century’s scholarship on community, habits, disciplines, and worship for a readership that clearly was hungry for it. A short passage from that book has never left me, and it serves as connective tissue to her new book:
When Jesus died for his people, he knew me by name in the particularity of this day. Christ didn’t redeem my life theoretically or abstractly — the life I dreamed of living or the life I think I ideally should be living. He knew I’d be in today as it is, in my home where it stands, in my relationships with their specific beauty and brokenness, in my particular sins and struggles.
If, in other words, the object of Christ’s redemption is me and not an Insta-Curated version of me, then it is my actual life, and all the quotidian plainness of it, that Christ is interested in. It’s his business. Cooking dinner and changing diapers, commuting to work and scrolling on my smartphone: it’s mundane, no doubt, even boring. And yet it is the stuff of redemption. It is the site of grace. It is the place where, if I will but let myself see it, the risen Christ meets me and calls me to take up my cross and follow him. And just as the cross is unglamorous in the extreme, so is most of what counts as discipleship. Signs and wonders are the exception, not the rule. Or perhaps better to say, with Jesus, that the kingdom of God does not come “with signs to be observed . . . for behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21).
If discipleship is an unspectacular affair, then it is reasonable to expect our life in the church to be similarly lacking in fireworks. And so it is. Either, Warren argues, we can kick against the goads, and demand the life of faith provide us an endless series of extraordinary experiences, the subjective quality of which cannot be matched or disproven; or we can accept the routine nature of following Jesus, and accordingly seek out the well-worn tracks of sanctifying habits. The first option is a quick ticket to spiritual burnout — though its many after-lives in the fecund religiosity of American evangelicalism do suggest a kind of staying power. In any case, Warren opts for the second, which happens also to be the way of the church down through the centuries.
For this mainstream tradition, the liturgy and the sacraments function as a kind of anchor or tether for the faithful, securing our relationship to Christ by means of our bodily presence to one another and the real presence of his own body to and among us. Through repetition of the rituals of worship the Spirit binds us one to another and to our head, the Lord Jesus; and it is precisely the repetition that enacts our fellowship. For we need not depend on our unsteady feelings, much less our spontaneity or talent, to facilitate the Spirit’s presence. The communion of saints has provided the script, well-worn as it is. This script is a record of God’s life with his people; more than a record, it is a map: how to get from here to there. Trusting God and trusting God’s people, therefore, we keep to the liturgical script, in season and out. In doing so, we find ourselves slipping into its grooves, following the saints as they followed Christ. We even say their prayers after them. After all, the Spirit promises to furnish us with words when ours fail. One way he does so is by giving us the words of the faithful departed.
It makes sense, then, that when Warren found herself in an emergency room, covered in blood and unsure of what was happening, she yelled to her husband, over the bedlam of nurses and machines: “Compline! I want to pray Compline.”
* * *
Three themes, or commitments, underlie and inform Prayer in the Night. The first is that God does not stop bad things from happening. The second is that we are all implicit adherents of the prosperity gospel. The third is that God is love.
Early in the book Warren recalls a line from a sermon she heard years ago: “you cannot trust God to keep bad things from happening to you.” It left her, in her words, dumbstruck. She knew bad things happen in the world. And God certainly does prevent every manner of bad thing from assaulting us, every second of every day. But, she realized, to place our trust in God is not to trust that he will always do so. Nor, more perilously, should we trust God to the extent that he protects us from harm. Bad things — terrible, tragic things — will happen to us. That is a fact. And our trust in God is not indexed to that fact. The two are related, but not in that way.
Our propensity to make one a function of the other is, however, a tell. The way we live reveals our most deeply seated beliefs. By that measure, all of us at some level believe in the gospel of health and wealth. For “in some silent place in our hearts, we sense God’s pleasure when things go well for us and his disapproval—if not outright absence—in our disappointments.”
We cannot make heads or tails of true affliction, the sort of suffering that has no respite or conclusion in this life, “when the road is long and there will likely be no happy ending. . . . We want suffering to have a clear beginning, middle, and end, something we can get through, a story with a tidy resolution. We buck against a vision of Christianity with no immediate results, no clear payoff.”
When Christ meets us in affliction, our own or others’, he “exposes the empty promise of a consumer culture, and indeed a consumer faith—that ease, prosperity, health, and present fulfillment are true abundance.” They are not. They are instead the props and masks in our daily dramas of denial, pretending to ourselves and our neighbors that, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, we will make it out of life alive.
The gospel is not a fairy tale. Far from engendering a denial of death, it sets us face to face with our own mortality—indeed, with what Warren, following Thomas Long, calls “capital-D Death.” Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when we are marked by the sign of Christ’s death and told we are dust and to dust we shall return. Warren’s book is about darkness, which is only another way of saying it is about death. She won’t let us look away from it. To live in the truth means recognizing that you and I and everyone we love will, one day, die.
To which one might say: a dose of hard reality, perhaps, but hardly good news. If everything is bound for death and we cannot trust God to keep us from its reach (or its many encroaching shadows), then of what use is God? Why should we trust him at all? The answer, if it is an answer, runs like a bright thread through the whole book: because God is love (1 John 4:8). That is to say, the God revealed in Jesus Christ is himself the love that moves the sun and the other stars. It is thus a mistake to trust him to make us invulnerable in this life. For the movement runs in the other direction: he, though invulnerable by nature, became vulnerable for our sake. “Jesus left a place where there is no night,” writes Warren, “to enter into our darkness.” So while it remains true that God does not keep bad things from happening to us, it is also true that “God did not keep bad things from happening to God himself.”
God, in short, does not answer our grief with a lecture; he throws in his lot with us, and makes our grief his own. To be sure, his grief is healing; the God who weeps with St. Mary of Bethany (John 11:32-35) does not suffer to no end: “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24). But the Lord’s grief does not put a stop to ours so much as enclose it with his mercy and suffuse it with his presence. We groan for the day when he will “destroy the shroud cast over all peoples, the veil spread over all nations,” when “he will swallow up death forever, and wipe away tears from all faces” (Isa 25:7-8). “But,” says Warren, “not until we have one last, long cry. [For redemption] itself does not skip over the darkness, but demands that every last tear run.” Per crucem ad lucem: we arrive at the light by the cross. Or rather: the light of the Lord reaches us only in the dark.
That is the good news of the gospel, even if it is unlikely to ensure victory in what Warren dubs the “existential knife-fight” of theodicy. It gives us God; it does not give us an explanation. It permits and even encourages lament, but it rebukes the complaint of the unhappy customer, as though Jesus is “an underperforming God” failing to keep up his side of the bargain. A transactional view of this sort reflects a fundamental failure to grasp the nature of the incarnation. On the eve of his passion, in the middle of the night, Jesus himself prayed to the Father with tears and blood in Gethsemane — even as his closest friends dozed nearby. He kept watch then and he keeps watch now: “he does not fall asleep.” In our own distraught and lonely nights, therefore, “God is with us, he knows our frailty and vulnerability as certainly as he knows the skin on his own hands.” When we keep watch with him, praying in the night, “our pupils dilate to let in more light, to see more than we first thought we could.” In time such “prayer adjusts our eyes to see God in the darkness,” where he always was and never left us.
Like the griefs and losses of our ordinary lives, the collective darkness of the last year was unforeseen and unchosen. Many of us have been fortunate enough, all things considered, but the burden is nonetheless widely shared. Might that burden be an occasion for spying God’s presence among us? Might this darkness by a means of beholding the light of Christ? We think, Warren writes,
of spiritual practices as things we take up, like reading the Scriptures, prayer, or church attendance. These are the straightforwardly spiritual parts of our day. The rest of life is just what we get through, the inert stuff of time, chance, and biography. But often the most foundational and shaping spiritual practices of our lives are things we’d never have chosen. The most profound ways that we encounter God are often in affliction.
Lent is drawing to a close. We have had our fill of the bread of affliction, and then some. The light is dawning. Easter is coming. But the truth is that we don’t have to wait. Jesus is already here, with us in the valley of the shadow. He always was. And he always will be, come what may.