Reeds Spring, MO. In the sixth chapter of her new book, Prayer in the Night, Tish Harrison Warren considers angels. Not just as theoretical, vague spiritual forces, nor as Precious Moments figurines, but as living and present agents in the world. Elaborating upon the historic church’s angelology, she quotes Hilary of Poitiers’ stunning claim that “everything that seems empty is filled with the angels of God, and there is no place that is not inhabited by them as they go about their ministry.” This belief in ever-present spiritual beings, which Warren admits she herself struggles to accept, means that each night we “sleep in a crowded room in our crowded cosmos,” flanked and born up by unimaginable wonders.
Publisher’s categories, those blunt instruments, assign Warren’s book to “Christian Living.” This is a category typically dominated by evangelicalism’s relentless pragmatism and therapeutic orientation—faith, family, and finances. In an America where so many are desperate to know how to live, I cannot fault those who purchase and read such practical books; yet a religion of self-improvement, while it may offer us strategies for coping with our place in the hyper-mediated, chaotic, wearisome modern world, can never save us from it.
I think of this evangelical pragmatism in light of Charles Taylor’s concept of “the immanent frame,” the subconscious modern assumption that reality begins and ends with the material world. For Taylor, even religious people in the modern industrial West tend to operate in terms of the immanent frame: we go about our days thinking mainly in terms of the material realities identified by science. We understand our commute in terms of physics and engineering, our daily run in light of biomedical science; if we think of these mundane activities as spiritually inflected at all, it is only metaphorically or at a safe distance. We do not envision ourselves as guarded by angels or threatened by demons.
With this shrinking of our spiritual imagination, our immanent actions swell in importance. We are the only ones who can ensure justice, repair broken social systems, lift the weight of the world. Modern evangelical Christianity derives in no small part from this shift toward direct social action, arising in the 19th century as a faith committed to evangelistic work in the world, a faith that stripped away the obscure and numinous rites of the established church and went out into the streets. If this move to the immanent can be life-giving, it may also grow oppressive. A religious life cut off from mystery is simply moralism.
Warren’s invocation of a manifestly impractical spiritual reality is thus very welcome. We are free, in reading Prayer in the Night, from the weight of the practical, the expectation that we should do something with the book. Rather, Warren’s ruminations on prayer offer an invitation to rest in the unmerited grace of God, and to do so through the contemplation of some of his deepest mysteries. In an ultimate sense, nothing could be more practical; and yet nothing could better free us from the weight of our own labors.
Warren structures the book around a collect from the Book of Common Prayer and the order of Compline, the night prayer service. Her chosen prayer is one of the most lovely texts in the BCP, that overwhelmingly beautiful book, and reads 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.
This prayer, which enumerates what Warren calls “a taxonomy of vulnerability,” epitomizes how, far from being irrelevant or obscure, the mysteries of God fill the hardest parts of life. Contemplation of the angels is not an abstruse theological topic, but a daily comfort as we lay down to the uncertainties of the night. Meditation upon God’s healing powers is not a task best left to Christian apologists, but a present help in sickness and in pain—not because it will magically make everything all right, still less because it has therapeutic properties. Rather, contemplation of the deep things of God matters in the midst of suffering because it puts us in our proper place and helps us perceive the depths of reality, which is a posture that above all things we desperately need.
Warren models this truth herself, recounting in the book’s introduction how praying Compline bore her up as she underwent a miscarriage that put her in the hospital:
It isn’t that “Help! Make the bleeding stop!” wasn’t holy or sophisticated enough. I was in a paper-thin hospital gown soaked with blood. This was not the time for formality. I wanted healing—but I needed more than just healing. I needed this moment of crisis to find its place in something greater: the prayers of the church, yes, but more, the vast mystery of God, the surety of God’s power, the reassurance of God’s goodness.
Confronting the death of her unborn child and a threat to her life, Warren did not need biblical advice on family life or well-intentioned platitudes about faith—she needed an encounter with “truth that was large enough to hold [her] own frailty.” Such an encounter can only occur if we forsake our obsession with the practical and instead plunge ourselves into language and doctrines that bring us face to face with God. Such language will not answer all of our questions about the ways of God, but it might turn us toward his abiding yet transcendent presence.
To speak of that transcendence to a church whose imagination has all too often been captured by the immanent frame is to risk being accused of intellectualism, irrelevance, nostalgia, or hipster pretension. Too often these accusations are true: the intellectual daring necessary to break out of the immanent frame also threatens to propel these thinkers into the subjective and abstruse. The too-frequent problem with how highbrow Christians engage with God’s mystery is that we likewise accede to the immanent frame ourselves. Our praise of doctrine and mystery becomes an exercise in intellectual history or philosophical speculation. If we speak of the spiritual reality that exceeds our intellectual systems, we offer merely a more intellectualized version of the typical “Christian Living” fare. Warren does not make this mistake, for she insists that “God promises us simply himself. He refuses to be an end to any other means.” Contemplation of his mysteries thus serves no purpose, practical or intellectual, beyond bringing us into the presence of the living God himself.
And, paradoxically, such a non-instrumental encounter with God may serve to help us negotiate our immanent problems as well—our work, watching, and weeping; our sickness, weariness, and affliction. Warren moves ably from spiritual and theological reflection to our daily trials and suffering. For instance, she relates how praying Compline bore her up during a year devastated by two miscarriages (including the one referenced above) and chronic complications of her pregnancies, as well as a move away from family and the death of her father. In that year of darkness, praying Compline was her “lifeline.” Warren insists, “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.” Compline, like other practices of the church, helps us not because it provides a form of therapy, but because it brings us into contact with spiritual reality. Warren’s ability to speak to the importance of mystery for daily life is a rare gift, making transcendence thinkable—even palpable—for those marooned in the immanent frame.
Though Warren’s preface clarifies that this book was completed before COVID-19 spread to pandemic status, few things could be more timely than this reflection on prayer in the darkness. The collect around which Warren structures her book enumerates our situation today with exactitude: we are sick, weary, and dying; we are suffering and afflicted; and some of us may even still be joyous. In all these trials, night prayer offers us rest from our labors. May we follow Warren into its practice, away from our frenzied efforts in the immanent frame and into the spiritual care of the one who alone gives true rest.