When You Don’t Know What to Pray
by Tish Harrison Warren
“Compline! I want to pray Compline.”
“The Lord grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.”
“Keep us as the apple of your eye.”
“Hide us under the shadow of your wing.”
“Lord have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”
“Defend us, Lord, from the perils and dangers of this night.”
“The almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless us and keep us. Amen.”
Why did I suddenly and desperately want to pray Compline underneath the fluorescent lights of a hospital room, as I was experiencing a miscarriage?
Because I wanted to pray but couldn’t drum up words.
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.
I had to decide again, in that moment, when I didn’t know how things would turn out, with my baby dead and my body broken, whether these things I preached about God loving me and being for me were true. Yet I was bone-weary. I was heartbroken. I could not conjure up spontaneous and ardent faith.
My decision about whether to trust God wasn’t merely an exercise of cognition. I wasn’t trying to pass some Sunday School pop quiz. I was trying to enter into truth that was large enough to hold my own frailty, vulnerability, and weak faith—a truth as deniable as it is definite. But how, worn out with tears and blood, in a place without words and without certainty, could I reach for that truth?
That night, I held to the reality of God’s goodness and love by taking up the practices of the church. Specifically by taking up prayer, the liturgy of the hours.
For most of church history, Christians understood prayer not primarily as a means of self-expression or an individual conversation with the divine, but as an inherited way of approaching God, a way to wade into the ongoing stream of the church’s communion with him. In that moment in the hospital, I was not trying to “express my faith,” to announce my wavering devotion to a room full of busy nurses. Nor was I trying to call down (in the words of Richard Dawkins) my “sky fairy” to come save me. Through prayer I dared to believe that God was in the midst of my chaos and pain, whatever was to come. I was reaching for a reality that was larger and more enduring than what I felt in the moment.