In 2017, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My diagnosis left me stunned and numb as a newly divorced single mom. I knew my children and I needed God desperately, but I also felt betrayed by him. How could he allow this illness in our lives when we were only just beginning to get our feet under us after the devastating season of the divorce?
I couldn’t form prayers without feeling like my questions and fears betrayed my faith. During this time, the laments of Scripture became sweet friends, giving me words that articulated my complicated emotions. These laments, inspired by the Holy Spirit and preserved for eternity, comforted me. I was not the first to form such questions for God. In his love for his children, he had left me a roadmap of prayers to articulate my questions.
During that same year, Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren suffered the deaths of two babies in pregnancy, along with her beloved father. She lost her ability to see her way through to God as well, overwhelmed by questions of theodicy, God’s providence in it all. As she lost her second baby late in pregnancy, her spiritual formation as an Anglican priest led her to cry out a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer’s service of compline. This prayer forms the structure of her second book, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep:
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. (ACNA BCP 2019)
Liturgy as Well-Trodden Paths
Though I now worship in a denomination that practices liturgy, I was raised independent Baptist. As I grew up, liturgy was foreign to me, associated with liberal Christianity that valued manmade religious structure over a personal relationship with the God of the Bible. Or so I thought.
As I read Warren’s Prayer in the Night, in which she recounts the spiritual formation God used to sustain her through that dark year of her life, I was completely unfamiliar with compline, the informal service of evening prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. I did some basic research on compline and bought a prayer book. I am glad I did.
Through Warren’s story and the practices embraced in my denomination of the last decade, I’ve come to value the testimony of both the saints of Scripture and the martyrs of the Middle Ages. As I sit under the authority of Scripture as God’s inspired Word, I’ve learned to value the creeds and confessions that summarize the essence of the faith handed down.
But I’m still a new student of church history. I’m still being discipled in the faith of our fathers and mothers. Through the book, compline formed a helpful structure to examine prayer in the night, our cries of despair and dependence when we can’t see our future.
I have learned to value the creeds and confessions that summarize the essence of the faith handed down.
Warren’s descriptions of her dark night of the soul are as rich as they are raw. I saw layers of my agony in her descriptions. I saw too my coping mechanisms for avoiding the pain. When we can’t see the way ahead, we need markers in close proximity along our path. Warren offers the inherited prayers and liturgical practices of the church as cairns to follow, manmade stone structures that point us in the right direction when the fog of suffering obscures our way.
While I perceived liturgy in my youth as dead practices that distracted from God’s living Word, Warren instead sees in it the testimony of saints who have gone before us. They point us to the truths of Scripture when we can’t find them on our own. Her words are poignant; at times painful. I wept. But I was also left with great hope. God’s light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.
Building the Habit of Faith
As Warren was releasing her book on the prayer of compline, Jen Pollock Michel published what, at first, seems an entirely different book. Released the day before Lent began, Michel’s A Habit Called Faith is a 40-day devotional reading through Deuteronomy and John, designed for individuals or groups. Habits change into character, wrote the Roman poet Ovid. The philosopher Buddha is quoted as saying, “Drop by drop, a bucket is filled.” What we pay attention to habitually forms our soul.
Solomon pleads this case in Proverbs 4:20–22:
My son, be attentive to my words;
incline your ear to my sayings.
Let them not escape from your sight;
keep them within your heart.
For they are life to those who find them,
and healing to all their flesh.
Michel—lead editor for Imprint magazine published by Grace Center for the Arts, and host of the Englewood Review of Books podcast—pleads this case as well, encouraging the reader to stick with faithful Bible reading for 40 days. If you occasionally fall off the wagon, she escorts you back and makes the task of persevering seem attainable.
What we pay attention to habitually forms our soul.
Michel uses the first weeks studying Deuteronomy to build the tension in the long story of Scripture that, in the last weeks, Christ resolves: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Interspersed throughout the book are the stories of individuals from a variety of backgrounds seeing their need for Jesus for the first time. Through their testimonies and the daily Bible readings, Michel walks with readers to build a habit of faithful Scripture reading and application. She gives readers a structure for spiritual formation: habits start as cobwebs, but end as cables.
Sustenance in the Dark Night
Both Warren and Michel write winsomely about connected aspects of what’s commonly called spiritual formation. It’s a crusty-sounding phrase, alluding to bricks, concrete, and two-by-fours. But Warren and Michel aren’t writing about building drab concrete structures, but the care and nurture of the human soul.