The night time service of Compline from the Book of Common Prayer carried Tish Harrison Warren in a time of doubt and loss.
Here are some excerpts on prayer taken from her book, Prayer in the Night – including the prayer that gives shape and content to the book.
For most of my life, I didn’t know there were different kinds of prayer. Prayer meant one thing only: talking to God with words I came up with. Prayer was wordy, unscripted, self-expressive, spontaneous, and original. And I still pray this way, every day. “Free form” prayer is a good and indispensable way to pray.
But I’ve come to believe that in order to sustain faith over a lifetime, we need to learn different ways of praying. Prayer is a vast territory, with room for silence and shouting, for creativity and repetition, for original and received prayers, for imagination and reason. (p. 16)
I turned to Compline when I didn’t have anything else to say, when I was so bone-tired and soul-spent that I could only receive prayer as a gift. … I also leaned on other ancient ways of praying that rely less on cognitive and verbal ability.
In particular I found refuge in prayers of silence.
Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox priest, describes the work of silent prayer: “You must descend from your head to your heart…. Whilst you are still in your head, thoughts will easily be subdued but will always be whirling about, like snow in winter or clouds of mosquitoes in the summer.”1 These clouds of mosquitoes – my anger and neurosis, my fears and doubts, my unanswerable questions and exhaustion – buzz around me. Sitting wordlessly before God allows space for the real work to begin in my heart.
It’s not that “Help” or “Lord, I’m weary” aren’t good enough prayers. God hears and loves even prayers like these. We don’t need to experiment with the prayers of the church or ancient prayer practices to impress God. But when we are weary, it can help to throw ourselves onto what has come before us, the steady practices of prayer that the church has handed down for safe keeping, for this very moment when we come to the end of ourselves. (p. 110)
Scripted prayers – the prayers of Compline, the Psalms, or any other received prayers – are not static. As we pray them, we read our own lives back into the words we pray. Our own biographies shape our understanding of these prayers as much as these prayers shape us and our own stories. (p. 125)
We pray to endure the mystery of suffering, and the mystery of suffering teaches us to pray. And the end of all of it is the love of God. (p. 130)
God’s love and devotion to us, not ours to him, is the source of prayer. He is the first mover in prayer, the one who has been calling to us before we could ever call to him. And he will not stop calling, no matter how dark the night becomes. Light, not darkness, is the constant. (p. 166)
1 quoted in Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land, 2006, p. 27
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.
~ from BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER
Tish Harrison Warren interview (podcast)
An Order for Compline (liturgy)
Compline service (video)