From Issue 21: Praying in the Night

Our Q&A with Tish Harrison Warren

Mockingbird / 10.26.22

From the Sleep issue of The Mockingbird, here’s our interview with Tish Harrison Warren: Mbird Tyler conference speaker, newsletter writer for the New York Times, columnist for Christianity Today, and author of the book, Prayer in the Night.


The book begins in darkness — under the fluorescent lights of a hospital room. Enduring a brutal miscarriage, Tish Harrison Warren enters what she refers to as her “dark night of the soul,” a term coined by the sixteenth-century Spanish priest and mystic Saint John of the Cross to describe a time of spiritual crisis, when God seems absent. Prayer in the Night details Warren’s journey through that night, and serves as a guide for others in the midst of it. Written in direct, accessible prose, Warren’s honesty about suffering is matched only by her enduring faithfulness through it all.

Of the weeks following her miscarriage, Warren writes, “Unlit hours brought a vacant space where there was nothing before me but my own fears and whispering doubts.” At such a time, especially if you’ve been raised to believe you have to come up with it on your own, prayer can seem taxing and absurd — a kind of one-sided conversation in which the person praying does all the work. In such a case, following a script written by someone else might be helpful. Warren explains: “When my strength waned and my words ran dry, I needed to fall into a way of belief that carried me. I needed other people’s prayers.” Specifically, she means Compline, an age-old service of evening prayers, a portion of which goes like this:

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.

In Prayer in the Night Warren meditates on each line of this remarkable invocation. “Reaching for this old prayer,” she writes, “was an act of hope that would put me under the knife, work in me like surgery, set things right in my own heart.” While nighttime prayer may not solve the mystery of suffering, it can still be a tool to help us endure it. More than anything, prayer reminds us of the God who watches, weeps, and works for his beloved children, no matter what time it is. Warren puts it this way, early on in her book:

When we’re drowning we need a lifeline, and our lifeline in grief cannot be mere optimism that maybe our circumstances will improve, because we know that may not be true. We need practices that don’t simply palliate our fears or pain, but that teach us to walk with God in the crucible of our own fragility. During that difficult year, I didn’t know how to hold to both God and the awful reality of human vulnerability. What I found was that it was the prayers and practices of the church that allowed me to hold to — or rather to be held by — God when little else seemed sturdy, to hold to the Christian story even when I found no satisfying answers.

Prayer in the Night is Warren’s second book, following her best-selling Liturgy of the Ordinary, in which she identifies sleep as one of the key “liturgies” in which we participate daily. Sleep, she says, is an inevitable ritual whereby we acknowledge our limitations before a limitless God: “In recalling our frailty we get to practice, in the gentlest of ways, relying on God’s mercy and care for us.” Warren is also an Anglican priest and writes a weekly newsletter for the New York Times; her writing appears as well in Christianity Today, Comment, The Point, and many other publications. This summer we were lucky to catch her between her work and a much-deserved vacation. What follows is an emailed exchange about sleep, prayer routines, and Prayer in the Night.


Julia Lacey, Ornate Tiger Moths and Bats, 2021.

So … how are you sleeping these days?

It really depends on the night. In general, I sleep pretty well. But if any one of my three kids has a cough or a nightmare, the night is long and hard, and I end up awake a lot.

Two nights ago, I couldn’t go to sleep. My brain was buzzing and I was thinking over my life, which honestly is never very generative after midnight.

Any tips for getting a good nights’ rest, or things you stay away from?

Anything I say here will just sound like normal, boring CDC recommendations. Go to bed at the same time every night, no screens or work in the bedroom, blah blah blah.

That said, sleep is a gift and a holy activity, and a lack of sleep is an epidemic in the United States, especially among teens, so we should actually fight for it. A lot of times when I just feel sad and depressed, I can over-spiritualize those feelings. Life can just seem too difficult. I’m barely holding on here. Where are you, God? And then I have a good nap or a good night’s sleep and am like, “Oh wait, I’m okay. God is good.” What I mean is that, at times what I take as a spiritual crisis is actually a need for sleep. The body and the soul are so wrapped up together that taking care of one helps the other.

Sleep is so important that the lack of it can look like this emotional and spiritual crisis. In reality, we just need rest. So to the extent that you’re able, follow the boring old doctor’s recommendations.

In Prayer in the Night, you write powerfully about “theodicy” — the question of God’s goodness in a world where suffering is commonplace. Beyond getting a good night’s rest, how do you handle that?

Haha, well, that’s a big question and the answer is: It took me around 50,000 words to answer it in my book. But in general, I would say that I don’t think theodicy is primarily a philosophical or theological question (though it is that). It is a longing for God to take action. It is a deep, almost primordial ache for a world that is whole and good. So theodicy can’t be answered or solved like a math problem. It is a mystery to be endured. I talk a lot more about how to endure it in the book.

How has your understanding of prayer evolved over time, and how does your definition of prayer differ from what many people might have in mind?

Until well into my adult life, I primarily thought of prayer as “talking to God.” It was extemporaneous and wordy. I still think that this is a valid way to pray, but I’ve discovered many other ways of prayer. Silent prayer, imaginative prayer, contemplation, written or received prayer, and others. So I understand prayer much more as communion with God. Prayer seems to be a way of opening ourselves up to the always- there presence of God. Prayer in this sense feels less like something I do and more of an invitation into a reality much larger than me.

In your Liturgy of the Ordinary, you write, “The holiness of rest and the blessedness of unproductivity is a foreign idea to many of us.” How did you discover the association between sleep and God’s grace?

Like many evangelicals, I grew up a tad gnostic without ever knowing what that is or what that meant. My spiritual formation never really addressed how we treat our bodies (beyond not having sex before marriage). I never thought about bodily needs theologically. A huge shift happened when I started attending an Anglican church. All of a sudden, we did a lot with our bodies. We sat, kneeled, stood; we waved branches on Palm Sunday, we crossed ourselves, we ate bread and drank wine, we shared in the Eucharist — the body of Christ. Bodies mattered in worship in a way I hadn’t known before. It was one of the chief things that drew me to more traditional liturgy.

As I came to see bodies as places of formation and worship, that came to affect how I saw all that the body does: eating, sleeping, even going to the bathroom. I began to kind of imaginatively expand how I understood worship and formation to include all that we do, not just what we cognitively believe or proclaim. And then, once my imagination was expanded to think of the body as a holy instrument, then all of a sudden you start to notice that sleep and rest are all over the Bible. Psalm 127: “He grants sleep to those he loves.” How kind that God doesn’t just give us ‘spiritual things’ like prayer and faith, but sleep.

I also am just someone who loves sleep. I love naps. I love my bed. I love sleeping in. So it’s one of those places where I feel like, “Oooohhhh, this is so lovely.” And as C. S. Lewis says, my mind “runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”

I also just want to say that I’ve come to see Jesus napping in the boat in Mark 4 really differently. I never thought much about this moment, his nap, but now I see his sleep, in the middle of the storm, as so very  human and vulnerable — he really was tired and needed to rest — but also as an act of faith. Everyone is freaking out, and Jesus is asleep. I can’t sleep on planes, because I’m irrationally afraid, and obviously the second I fall asleep the plane will drop thousands of feet. I sleep when I feel safe, when I relinquish control. I love that this story is about how Jesus calms the winds and waves, yet in the same story, he relinquishes control and shows this utter faith in God by sleeping. So sleep is this way of connecting to the faith of Jesus, his deep trust in the Father. And also be it known that it is biblical to nap — haha. So that is a biblical vision I can really embrace. WWJD? Nap!

Looking at our cultural landscape broadly, you write with characteristic grace that we “cannot condemn outrage in favor of some pure form of enlightened logic that denies emotion … There is, truly, plenty to be upset about.” This is an increasingly pressing topic, especially as we seem to encounter more bad news than ever online. Can you say more about this?

I think in the context of the quote I was writing on the need for mourning and lament. Part of the reason we have an “outrage culture” in the church and in broader society is that rage tends to be a “strong” emotion that comes from the more vulnerable emotions of sadness or fear. We have to descend into these deeper places of grief and truly lament, or the only option is outrage or apathy. Sometimes in the face of justified outrage, people — maybe especially male intellectual types — can say “Oh simmer down,  don’t be so dramatic,” as if the answer to outrage is for everyone to deny that things are all that bad. But a place of denial or outrage is not a particularly good or true place to live. The truer way to respond to the brokenness of the world is lament, which can of course involve expressing anger, but doesn’t stop there. Grief can be healed. It can be generative.

In your work, you also detail some of your experiences as a female priest. What are some words of wisdom you would share with women in or pursuing a life in ministry?

Have a crew of people who really love you, who you trust, and who will tell you when you are wrong or being foolish. And listen to those people, deeply and vulnerably. Then, don’t listen to people who don’t love you.

Also, don’t try to prove yourself to people. You’ll feel like you need to in order to “prove” that women should be in ministry or something. But that ends in madness.

Lastly, trust that the callings of God are sturdy. You don’t have to make them happen or treat them as fragile. What God calls us to, God will make happen. We don’t have to handle our life with kid gloves, like we will screw it up. We will screw it up, to be clear — haha. But God’s call is really durable.

How do you teach your kids about prayer without it coming across as boring or forceful?

My kids probably think it is boring and forceful, which isn’t all bad. But mostly we just pray a lot about everything, and they see us grown-ups praying. We have used imaginative prayer with our kids often — a way of reading passages of scripture and imagining yourself in the story or a way of imagining yourself before Jesus — and they seem to genuinely love that. If you want to learn more about this way of prayer or contemplation, I’d recommend Jared Boyd’s Imaginative Prayer. We walked through it with our kids, and they really liked it and want to do it again. It is made for children but it also great for adults.

Also, we do all the cheesy kid-friendly stuff. We sing prayers at meals. They get into that. We do Advent calendars and wreaths and prayers, and bedtime prayers, and we pray over them at their birthday parties.


Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, which was a Christianity Today Book of the Year, and Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work, or Watch, or Weep. Currently, Tish writes a weekly newsletter for The New York Times, and she is a columnist for Christianity Today.

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2 responses to “From Issue 21: Praying in the Night”

  1. Pierre says:

    I’ve always loved Psalm 127. If I could go back in time and choose a confirmation verse that *really* speaks to how my life has been lived since then, it would be Psalm 127:2.

    “In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
    toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.”

  2. […] I think it’s about time we revisit the evergreen balm of Tish Harrison Warren’s Prayer in the Night, which Natasha Moore at ABC Religion and Ethics reflected upon this […]

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