The first year of our marriage, I found a full pill case pushed behind some bottles of shampoo under the bathroom sink. They belonged to my husband’s first wife, Danielle, from years earlier, before her fight with cancer ended in death. My husband, Evan, apologized—not because he had done anything wrong but because he could not prevent these reminders of grief from occasionally falling out of closets and drawers. This is where they had lived together. Where she baked, laughed, and lost her hair.
Since then we have moved into a house of our own, one with high ceilings, a creaky old staircase, and lots of “character.” From time to time, I post pictures of our home and our joy—usually when Evan is wearing his tan, thrift-store blazer and I have taken the time to put on lipstick. Each time, someone inevitably comments, “You two look so happy,” or “I hope to have a love like that someday.” And we are so happy. This love is a gift, one of the kindest God has ever given me.
But what Instagram and Twitter don’t show is something that author and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren expresses in her new book Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep: that “our bright and shining lives, our explosions of joy, good work, and love, are always silhouetted by the shadow of death.”
As she began writing, Warren couldn’t have known how much we would need her book in these pandemic times. Now, almost a year in, a nurse friend of mine tells me about performing last rites for COVID patients who would otherwise die alone. I give “air hugs” to the widows at church instead of holding them close. Christians tear one another apart on social media over pandemic procedures, politics, and everything else under the sun. We are collectively lonely, frustrated, and sad.
And Warren invites us to enter that sadness. “Jesus,” she reminds us, “wept as one with hope, but his hope did not diminish his weeping.” Too often, the church’s approach to suffering feels like being shushed in a movie theater. We feel the pressure to stifle our sobs and move on before ever getting the chance to lament. Warren doesn’t shy away from the presence of pain. She acknowledges it, both personally and theologically, describing theodicy—the belief that human suffering and God’s goodness coexist—as a “scream” and an “ache that cannot be shaken.” We long “for a God who notices our suffering,” she writes, “who cares enough to act, and who will make all things new.”
A Priest Who Couldn’t Pray
We lost our baby this year. The day I was supposed to hear a heartbeat, I found out instead that I was miscarrying. Evan was waiting in the car, due to COVID restrictions, and when he drove to the entrance of the hospital to pick me up, instead of handing him a picture of our growing child, I had to tell him the news. In that moment, I didn’t have any words. I knew God still loved us. We still loved him. But I didn’t know how to pray.
After a series of devastating losses, Warren describes herself as “a priest who couldn’t pray.” “In some wordless place deep within,” she admits, “I had hoped that God would keep bad things from happening to me.” Warren brings up something we are reluctant to admit: that we often condemn the prosperity gospel as unbiblical while secretly holding on to the hope that we will get good things in return for our good behavior. I know God didn’t owe Evan and me a child, but giving us that burst of joy only to deflate it confused me. I had no words. My faith flickered.
When Warren was walking through her own valley of the shadow of death, she reached for ancient liturgy. In a particularly devastating moment, she and her husband turned to a prayer known as Compline, one usually reserved for evening services and nighttime. They recited the prayer together, holding on to the words for dear life. Warren’s book is a meditation on this prayer, but more than a mere celebration of liturgy, it is about “how to continue to walk the way of faith without denying the darkness.” One way we fight for faith in the dark is through prayer.
As a Bible church kid, I didn’t grow up with much liturgy. I learned the Lord’s Prayer and the doxology, but prayer was usually “free form,” as Warren calls it—“unscripted” and “original.” This lent itself to beautiful, intimate prayer times when I was alert and clearheaded, but in moments when I was too terrified to think straight or too grieved for words, it was difficult to create my own prayers. Warren acknowledges free-form prayer as important and needed, but she points to liturgy—the prayers that have been handed down to us—as an essential gift for when we need to “pray beyond what we can know, believe, or drum up in ourselves.”
Warren believes that “prayer often precedes belief.” This flips a cherished spiritual practice on its head. Instead of waiting to pray until we have enough faith, we can borrow the prayers of saints before us, leaning into their words, preaching them to our hearts, and offering them back to God as an act of surrender. When I pray, “Thy will be done,” during the Lord’s Prayer, I do so with open hands. It is such a hard prayer to pray because we know from Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane that God’s will often involves suffering. To pray those words, I have to physically demonstrate surrender in order to get my heart to follow. “Thy will be done” is a prayer I borrow and pray out of obedience—not because I don’t mean it but because I’d never have the courage to create such a prayer myself.
Warren believes that “prayer actually shapes our inner life. And if we pray the prayers we’ve been given, regardless of how we feel about them or God at the time, we sometimes find, to our surprise, that they teach us how to believe.” This idea reminds me of the debate Christians have about Bible reading. Do we read the Bible only when we desire it, or do we read the Bible as a spiritual discipline? Some have argued that forcing ourselves to read the Bible makes it an obligation, more guided by guilt than love. Others point out that when we don’t desire Scripture is actually when we need it most. They believe reading the Word out of obedience can thaw our hearts and renew our desire to draw near to God.
It is the psalms we have memorized and the prayers we recite at church and scribble into our journals, the books of liturgy spread throughout our homes, that will be there when words fail us. When we wonder if God has failed us. When we know we need to pray but can’t do so on our own. Liturgy can train the muscle memory of our hearts.
Blooming in the Dark
“If we are to discover the things that only bloom in the dark,” Warren says, “we must cooperate with the work that suffering does in us.” Liturgy might make prayer more accessible, but lament is an uncomfortable practice. It requires facing our pain head-on, and as Warren points out, “we will do almost anything to avoid it.” I remember binge-watching the entire Gilmore Girls series during my divorce. It was God’s grace to escape into the fictional town of Stars Hollow for a time, but eventually I had to return to my own life and face what was crumbling. This involved crying out to God through ugly tears, struggling to sleep, and refusing to distract myself from the pain. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but God met me there.
Without sugarcoating suffering, Warren points out that it is in spaces of deep grief that we learn “the depths of the love of God.” Those in the fellowship of the suffering understand that God’s presence in grief is an intimacy like no other. When our faith is flickering from an onslaught of suffering, says theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book Lament for a Son, our only answer is the “sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.”
We may never understand the reasons why we suffer, but we do know that God suffers with us. “God did not keep bad things from happening to God himself,” Warren powerfully writes, and “there is no darkness into which he has not descended. He knows the texture and taste of everything I most fear.”
After the year we have had, there isn’t a person I know who doesn’t need this book. We may not have asked for the kind of refining we have collectively endured, but not all spiritual practices are taken up by choice. The most “shaping spiritual practices of our lives,” Warren says, “are things we’d never have chosen.”
Rachel Joy Welcher is an artist, poet, and editor at Fathommagazine. She is the author of Talking Back to Purity Culture: Rediscovering Faithful Christian Sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @racheljwelcher.