This week we are in Chapter 4 “Those Who Watch: Attention” of the Rev. Tish Harrison Warren’s book Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep. If possible, please give yourself time to read the chapter slowly and to think and pray through her message.
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.
1979 BCP 134
This section of the prayer – work, watch, and weep – speaks to us at our most vulnerable. In last week’s chapter, we discussed weeping and our need to learn to grieve loss, sorrow, and pain from which we all suffer. In praying for those who weep, we pray for those (and ourselves) over present sufferings caused by past harms. This week, in praying for those who watch, we pray for those (and ourselves) over present sufferings caused by (perceived) future harms. Learning to grieve is learning to manage the past. Learning to watch is learning to manage the future.
Fear and Anxiety:
Rev. Warren observes that “the losses I’ve sustained make me afraid of what’s ahead.” p.54. Just as God does not promise that he will not keep bad things from happening, he also does not promise that he will not keep bad things from happening again. In the darkness of the night, we simply cannot know when the morning will break and what will happen in the interim. As she points out, the night watchman does not know what will come first – a criminal or the dawn.
In the uncertainty of the night is where fear and anxiety arise. It is during this time that our imagination runs rampant and often in the wrong direction. We imagine harms that are not there and fail to imagine the grace that is. In the depth of our anxiety, “we assume that there will not be grace enough for what lies ahead. Fear tells us that no one with us can be trusted on this dark road.” p.55.
The Craft of Watching:
In the Prologue, Rev. Warren writes that “faith . . . is more craft than feeling.” p.8. Watching is a craft to develop. To watch is to wait, patiently. Watching implies “attention, yearning, and hope.” p.55. If the fear in the night tells us that grace will not be enough, then in watching we must be attentive to the grace that is there. We do not simply wait on God to act as we might wait in line for our number to be called. Rather, we wait in expectation of God to act not unlike waiting on a spouse to return from a business trip or a mother in labor waiting on the birth of her child.
Of course, in watching expectantly for the dawn and for God to set all things right, our fears may be realized. Sometimes the watchman sees the dawn and sometimes he sees the watch fires of a hundred circling camps of the enemy. But, as she writes, our expectation and God’s promise is that everything will be put right in the end. And therefore we know if everything is not right, then it’s not the end, and our watching must continue.
The key aspect of watching is to be attentive. She writes: “Christian discipleship is a lifetime of training in how to pay attention to the right things, to notice God’s work in our lives and in the world.” p.59. Think about those practices of being attentive to the simple things of this world. If you are bird watching or deer hunting or simply shelling on the beach, what is required? Being attentive to a bird or a deer or a shark’s tooth requires a relaxed concentration, silence, and stillness. It requires us to know where to look and to perceive indirect signs of that which is being sought. Attentiveness requires our attention.
“The church’s task is to learn to keep our eyes peeled for how God is at work.” p.60. To be attentive to the grace of God at work in this world require the same discipline. It requires silence and stillness. It requires us to know where to look and the signs to look for. Through prayer, gathered worship, the scriptures, the sacraments, and Tuesday nights we can train ourselves to see the light in the darkness. And in being attentive to God’s grace in the world, we allow that grace to relieve our fear and anxiety of the night.
(In this section she draws heavily from Chapter 1 of Abp. Rowan Williams’ book Being Disciples that we read during Lent 2020. I would encourage you to re-read this chapter for Tuesday.)
Grace in All Things:
A final point that Rev. Warren makes in this chapter, is that “keeping watch” is not another spiritual burden that we must take on to assure ourselves of our salvation. We are vulnerable, we are human, and we will fall short – as did his first disciples.
The gospels tell us that after the Passover meal, Jesus led his disciples out of Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane. Matt. 26:36. There, Jesus told his disciples to keep watch as he went off to pray. v.38 But they fell asleep. v.40. Again, Jesus returned and told them to “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” v.41. He exhorted them to prayer, to spiritual alertness, and to pay attention to what was occurring. But, again, they fell asleep. v.43. When Jesus returned a second time, he saw them in their weakness and mercifully let them stay asleep until they needed to arise. v.44.
Prayer and spiritual disciple, learning to grieve, being watchful, and all of the other instructions given to us are there so that we might have eyes that see. But seeing or not or weeping or not or watching or not does not change God’s attitude and grace towards us. For nothing, not even our own negligence, can separate us from the love of God. Rom. 8:39.
Questions and Practises:
I. How does eschatological hope, that all shall be well, change how we watch and wait in the present? How does the hope of the resurrection inform the particular struggles in your life right now?
2. Can you think of a time when you kept watch at night? What was that like? What did this experience teach you about waiting and watching as a metaphor for the whole Christian life?
3. How do you “stay awake” to God? What sorts of experiences wake you up to God’s presence or activity in your life?
This Thursday, February 2, is the Feast of Presentation. Under Jewish law, a mother was to be ritually purified after giving birth (Lev. 12:6) and the firstborn child was to be ritually redeemed (Num. 18:15). Luke tells us of their presentation at the Temple for these rituals. Luke 2:22-38. It is in this passage that we find the Song of Simeon that we say each night in Compline. In the early medieval church, this also became the day to bless the candles that would be used throughout the year. Because our study this epiphany is about prayer in the night, we thought it most appropriate to have a short Candlemas service this Tuesday. Fr. George has agreed to celebrate. Please bring candles if you wish them blessed.
Dinner is at 6. The menu is Pork and Ricotta Meatballs over Polenta. Discussion about 6:45. Compline at 8. Hope to see everyone here.
Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;Psalm 130
Lord, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?
For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.
I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, wait for the Lord, *
for with the Lord there is mercy;
With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
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