Book Review: Prayer in the Night
By Carol Floch McColl
Liturgical worship, ancient rhythms and richly scripted prayers are a beautiful landscape of territory I have been exploring the last eight years. I arrived late to Anglicanism, having grown up in Christ in other Christian traditions—as did Tish Harrison Warren, an Anglican priest, award-winning author and the author of Prayer in the Night (Intervarsity Press, 2021).
From the time we are children, the “dark” can be a scary place; and the night can be riddled with anxiety and uncertainty as shadows loom large, distorting reality. As adults, we experience other kinds of darkness that are equally unsettling. In 2017, due to a series of life events that left her in the terrifying, vulnerable space of emotional and spiritual darkness, Warren hit a “wall”; she was “a priest who couldn’t pray.” In the middle of one of many dark, sleepless nights, Warren read Compline, the last prayer office of the day in The Book of Common Prayer. The words of this prayer, scripted by another, gave her comfort:
“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 Book of Common Prayer.)
Thus began her practice of praying Compline, line by line, holding on to God while being held by God.
With raw emotional honesty, pithy phrases and humorous twists of words, Prayer in the Night explores “theodicy”—the interface of a good, all-powerful God with the problem of pain—in our daily, ordinary lives. The depth and beauty of each line of this prayer, parsed out chapter by chapter, exposes the vulnerability of those who work, watch, weep, sleep and contend with illness, weariness, dying and suffering.
These are anxiety-ridden experiences, void of our control, where God can seem obscure or entirely absent. They raise theological questions that the author unashamedly articulates: “Where is God?” “Can he be trusted?” “Does he love me?” “How can a good God permit what is not good?” “Why does He allow suffering to continue?” Warren digs deep for understanding from Scripture and the likes of C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, St. John of the Cross and Henri Nouwen, to name a few.
Does God merely “keep watch” at a disinterested distance, or does He enter into these experiences and meet us in profound, mysterious and loving ways? Warren doesn’t offer trite spiritual Band-Aids and platitudes, but instead wrestles God to the mat much like Jacob wrestled with God, desperate for his blessing in the dark. Ultimately, “the way to the light runs smack dab through darkness. … God’s raging and unbounded love gives worth and purpose to all our vulnerability, but it’ll still hurt like hell to get through the day sometimes. … In the end, darkness is not explained; it is defeated.” (p. 170-171)
Warren is a wordsmith and turns phrases so skillfully that I found myself reading them again (or out loud to whomever was in the room) just to absorb them.
This is the kind of book that can only be written by someone who has spent so much time in the darkness of “night” that the substance of her words drips with authenticity. As someone who has spent long seasons of life praying in the night, I resonated deeply with this author; her book was like a long refreshing drink of living water. I found myself turning down the corners of page after page. I highly recommend this book to those who find they cannot pray, who contend with the anxiety of vulnerability, who love excellent writing or who are learning to embrace the value of praying a prayer scripted by another in another century. You will not be disappointed on any front.
Carol Floch McColl spent decades in ministry to youth and women before becoming a licensed professional counselor at Haven Counseling in Addison, Texas, where she has specialized in betrayal trauma recovery since 2008. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her husband, Angus, her 91-year-old father, Don, and her mini-goldendoodle, Barney. Carol and Angus are members of All Saints Dallas. She has three adult daughters, five stepdaughters and seven grandchildren. Carol has a Bachelor of Arts in Christian education from Wheaton College (IL) and a Master of Arts in counseling from Dallas Baptist University. Carol is the author of The Single Mom’s Devotional (Revell, 2009).