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Book review: Prayer in the Night

Behold Prayer
Behold Prayer

A review of Prayer In The Night, by Tish Harrison Warren

Reviewed by Ope Bukola

“Faith, I’ve come to believe, is more craft than feeling. And prayer is our chief practice in the craft”

Over the past few years, I’ve grown more afraid of the dark literally and figuratively. After three decades of relative ease, I started to face the first truly difficult chapters of my life, for which my prosperity-gospelled upbringing had not prepared me. From chronic joint pain to loneliness and anxiety, I experienced real moments of darkness which got literally worse at night. As a nation and a world, it’s probably fair to say the last 12 months has been one long, dark night. It was with this backdrop that I picked up Tish Harrison Warren’s new book Prayer In The Night. Warren is one of my favorite Christian teachers and writers, and I’ve long admired her ability to help us point to God in the mundane, especially since reading her first book Liturgy of the Ordinary. This book continues in that tradition beautifully.

Prayer In The Night is based on The Compline, or Night Prayer, which is the final prayer of the day in church traditions that pray through a daily office. Warren describes turning to this prayer during an especially harrowing episode, and the difficult months that followed. Praying the Compline became a tangible practice for grieving the big losses, and the ordinary inevitable sufferings. I resonated strongly with the impulse to turn to a liturgical prayer. I’ve had my own moments of being so frustrated, dejected, defeated that I truly could not come up with the words. In these moments, rather than turn inward and silent as is my default, I’ve found myself turning to passed down prayers. I remember one episode last January. I was getting an experimental blood treatment for joint pain. I’m something of an expert at blood draws but even for me, the high amount of draw required was a bit disconcerting. It got even more so when the nurse made an error and, for just a few seconds I saw blood spilling out. I closed my eyes to pray and had no words. What came out were the words of the Psalms. As Warren describes, it isn’t that our own words in prayers aren’t holy or sophisticated enough. But, in moments of crisis, when we cannot “conjure up spontaneous and ardent faith,” the inherited prayers of the church help us to remember and hold on to a reality beyond our present feelings.

What I loved most about this book is the exploration of each part of The Compline: the commonplace nature of grief, the hard work of those who labor in the night, the anguish of the sick and dying, and the good gifts we graciously receive even in the midst of the dark. Each part of the prayer helps us to face the reality of our own frailty, and the surety of our God’s love and goodness. This is an especially timely literary liturgy for the season of Lent. It’s a season that uncomfortably invites us into the darkness. Graciously, we are not alone and we have a high priest that has set the path for us. As Warren writes: “Jesus responded to darkness by working, watching and weeping - and we join with him by taking up the same.”