I am excited to return to our small group from our Christmas vacation and to begin our study of Rev. Tish Harrison Warren’s book Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep. For tonight, please read the Prologue and Chapter 1: “Finding Compline: Nightfall.” If possible, try to be still and quiet the mind before beginning the reading.
The Left Hand of God:
Chapter one opens with Rev. Warren’s life growing darker. In January her father died (she writes about her relationship with her father in her Christmas Day column) and she miscarried a pregnancy. The next month she was pregnant again, but soon began bleeding and was put on bed rest. As she writes, in the “house sitting in bed each day, my mind grew dimmer and darker.” p.11. In late July, she miscarried this child early in the second trimester. It was a boy. As autumn approached, and the days grew darker (literally and spiritually) she became a priest who could not pray.
She cites Martin Luther’s description about the “left hand of God.” (This is not to be confused with the left-hand power of God we looked at with Fr. Robert Capon.) In times of darkness, “God becomes foreign to us, perplexing, even terrifying.” p.12. It is here that our “naive confidence in the goodness of God withers.” p.12 But here in the darkness of God’s left hand, it is not the goodness of God that withers, but our shallow explanation of it. (If you want to dig deeper into Luther’s “left-hand of God” read proof 7 “Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits” of the Heidelberg Disputation).
In this chapter, Rev. Warren invites us to think about the night. For almost all of human history, nighttime was a time of fear. Without electric lights and security systems, nighttime was never safe. Human beings are diurnal and therefore at night we are at a disadvantage to other animals. In pre-modern times, nighttime was when witches met and supernatural assaults from the devil occurred. Today, most of our horror movies take place at night and why they are to be watched in the dark. There is still something deeply embedded in the human psyche about the night being a place of uncertainty and spiritual danger.
She invites us to think about our own experiences during the night. “How many of us lie awake at night, unable to fall back asleep, worrying over the day ahead, thinking of that could go wrong, counting our sorrows.” p.14. How many of us can identify with her words that “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.” p.14. During the day we can hide from our deepest fears and vulnerability through work, television, human interaction, or other distractions. At night, we are alone with our vulnerabilities without a means of escape short of drugging ourselves with alcohol, Ambien, or narcotics.
Particularly when we are experiencing a dark night of the soul – a time of grief, doubt, and spiritual crises – nighttime only serves to amplify the darkness. If we are experiencing the absence or the distance of God, at night the distance is greater and the absence is stronger. As she points out, the spiritual condition is called the “dark night” (not the “hard day” or “gray morning”) because the darkness of the night conspires with the spiritual crises.
At the very depths of the dark night of the soul, particularly in the darkness of the actual night, prayer becomes impossible. Rev. Warren relates that growing up in Texas (Baptist, I assume) that “prayer meant one thing only: talking to God with words I came up with. Prayer was wordy, unscripted, self-expressive, spontaneous, and original.” p.16. In the darkness, however, this type of prayer cannot exist. How can we talk to someone (God) when we believe that the person is not there or is simply not listening?
In the liturgical prayer of Compline, Rev. Warren found a way to pray into the darkness. “Inherited prayers and practices of the church tether us to belief, far more securely than our own vacillating perspective or self-expression.” p.16. “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 ourselves.” p.17. For both Rev. Warren and me, the liturgical prayers teach us how to believe again. When we can no longer believe, the liturgical prayers believe for us and carry us across the darkness. In these prayers, we come to rely not on ourselves, but on two millennia of church tradition. In these liturgical prayers, particularly in the final prayer of the night which is Compline, God works within us and will become fully known by us.
Questions to Consider:
In the back of the book (pp.176-87), Rev. Warren gives us specific discussion questions and suggested practices. The questions for the prologue are as follows:
1. What is nighttime like for you? Is it a time of anxiety, peace, grief, distraction, or something else? How do you feel when you are in the dark?
2. Has there been a time in your life when prayer was difficult? Why?
3. Did you grow up around people who prayed? What was your “default” way of thinking about prayer growing up? Did you pray “other people’s prayers”?
4. What are the advantages or disadvantages of praying “other people’s prayers”?
Dinner begins at 6. The menu is Pennsylvania Dutch New Year (pork and sauerkraut). Discussion about 6:45. Compline at 8. Hope to see everyone here.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or1979 BCP 134
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.