Praying in the Night

Keep Watch, Dear Lord, with Those who Work, or Watch, or Weep this Night

Growing up, I thought everyone’s family only prayed prayers that rhymed. My family’s rhyming prayer roster included “Before We Eat” (for when a child hadn’t already wolfed down several slices of bread), “Evening Has Come” (for when a child had wolfed down several slices of bread), and “Thank You for the World So Sweet” (for when the weather was nice). It wasn’t until my older brother invited a college friend over for dinner and he made a remark about our “family chants” that I realized that not everyone’s family had rhyming dinner prayers.

When I went to college, I stopped saying the rhyming prayers of my childhood, instead pivoting to the “freestyle” prayers of my peers. They impressed me with their praying prowess, and I was often too intimidated to pray out loud in front of them, nervous that they’d find out I had spent my childhood repeating rhymes and that they’d subsequently label my prayers (and me) as weird or, even worse, “inauthentic.” I’m embarrassed to admit that I was embarrassed of the old prayers my parents taught me, the ones I’d enthusiastically repeated for eighteen years. That was until one cold, winter night when I found myself in my English professor’s living room, squinting at a crumpled paper copy of something he called “Compline.”

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.

The first night I prayed Compline, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d heard these prayers before. It wasn’t until I took that crumpled paper back to my dorm that I solved the mystery; I was reminded of yet another rhyming prayer of my childhood — an 18th-century children’s prayer titled “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray dear Lord, thy child to keep.
Thy love guard me thru the night,
And wake me with the morning light.

“Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” was not the same as praying Compline, but a few things stuck out from both nighttime prayers:

  1. I would never pray these words “freestyle.”
  2. They both begin by telling God, “Hey! I’m going to sleep now!”

Wouldn’t an omniscient God already know that I’m hoping he’ll “keep me” and “guard me” while I am SLEEPING?! It’s true that God is all-knowing and all-powerful, able to protect me without my asking. But praying the words of “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” as a child and of Compline as a young adult point the way towards the same truth: even in adulthood, I am a still a child in need of a loving God to guard, sustain, and keep me and my loved ones through the night until the morning light wakes me again.

Prayer in the Night is the second book from Tish Harrison Warren: a priest, writer, and pray-er of Compline. During a time of doubt and loss, Warren names Compline as the prayer that grounded her: “Reaching for this old prayer service was an act of hope that would put me under the knife, work in me like surgery, set things right in my own heart.” Warren helpfully reminds the reader that, until recently, Christians knew prayer “not primarily as a means of self-expression” (à la freestyle) “but as an inherited way of approaching God,” (e.g., family chants) and “a way to wade into the ongoing stream of the church’s communion with him.” Compline is one such way.

Each chapter of Prayer in the Night is centered around a different line from Compline, exploring “themes of human vulnerability, suffering, and God’s seeming absence,” and asking, “Where do we find comfort when we lie awake worrying or weeping in the night?” Reading it these last few days in January has been a gift. This is a dark month in Ohio; the sun is a stranger lost amongst seemingly endless cloudy days and dark skies. And it’s obvious what is happening this particular January. Compline’s lines — “Tend the sick,” “give rest to the weary,” “bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted,” and “shield the joyous” — may be old words, but they certainly do not feel outdated or ill-timed in January 2021. “Amen,” we say. “Amen,” we plead.

But do not be mistaken: Warren is no overzealous Anglican with a “Book of Common Prayer or Bust!” bumper sticker who wants to force people to pray a particular nighttime liturgy (rhyming or not) by repeatedly chanting, “This is the way!” Instead, Prayer in the Night is a challenging, moving, and meaningful book about the “dear Lord” we encounter through the means of old prayers: a God who watches, weeps, and works for his beloved children. Warren uses Compline to wade into discussions around theodicy, but in doing so, acknowledges the great mysteries within our beliefs. Regular prayer, Warren writes, is one way to help us “learn to watch for what is around us every minute — mercy, beauty, mystery, and a God who never ceases to wait and watch with us.” Prayer, in this case, Compline, may not solve the mystery of theodicy, but it helps us to endure it.

Prayer in the Night does not gloss over grief, nor does it wallow in despair. The book is full of heartbreaking and beautiful moments, like the passage when Warren looks out at her congregation in the months following a devastating miscarriage, writing:

In church on a Sunday, [I] look at each face and think of the hundreds of things that had to go just right for us all to be alive in the world, together on an ordinary day. The quotidian glory of all our lives is a gift. I lapped up wonder, attentive to any sign of life, of comfort. The wonder didn’t diminish the pain one bit. But it did beget gratitude, which is just as real as grief. But beauty and wonder were not only comforting. They were also a high-dose of reality. The tenacity of glory and goodness, even in this shadowed world of tears, trains my eye to pay attention, to stay alert not only to the darkness of our story, but to the light as well.

Prayer in the Night, to use Warren’s own words, is “a high-dose of reality.” Warren stares directly into the black of night, and admittedly, I’m still quite afraid of the dark. Death, disease, divorce, depression — this book does not quake under the covers from things that go bump in the night. Warren’s deeply personal and affecting words made me cry on my couch and then repent to God about cracking too many dark jokes about death. But there is more to Prayer in the Night than the shadows it shared and crying it caused; Warren’s writing makes me feel like I’ve joined her at the dinner table where she teaches me an old, wise prayer. As we join hands and bow our heads, the prayer we now pray together must definitely sound weird to others, but as Warren says, we Christians “still believe in a lot of weird stuff.” But we pray it anyway. We pray words handed down to us from family who have long been asleep, and we are not embarrassed of them.

We pray that as we keep watch, we may see the light of Christ and the beauty of the quotidian. We pray that those who work may push back the dark, and that those who weep this night and the nights to come may know they are not alone. We pray for the sick, the weary, the dying, the suffering, and the afflicted, and ask that God would grant them rest, blessing, soothing, and pity. Finally, we pray for the joyous, joining hands and participating in this mysterious practice of prayer.  

“And all for your love’s sake. Amen.”