Author: Tish Harrison Warren
Publishing Date: January 26, 2021
Pages: 208 (Hardcover)
The darkness of the cosmos is the backdrop of the Scriptures, from the deep upon which the Spirit moves to the night which is banished in the eternal city of Revelation: to be a creature of God is to be aware that the darkness is always being kept at bay. As God’s first word in Scripture is to banish the dark, so the final words are to institute the light and all of its goodness as the eternal backdrop of the new heavens and new earth. It is not so much that the darkness is a problem itself (though darkness obscures and blinds), but rather, what comes to us in the dark.
It is sobering to consider that for the bulk of history, humanity has been keenly aware that there are, indeed, things in the dark that are not there in the daylight, despite modern skepticism. Our bodies attune themselves hormonally to the difference; our senses sharpen with the passing light. And our prayers change as well, changing from themes of aspiration and hope in the daytime to themes of prayer for God’s preservation as the night approaches. But the darkness described in Scripture is not simply that of midnight and moonless evenings, but of confusion, despair, and pain—the spiritual darkness which is never far from us.
Whereas her first book centered on the order of the Christian life in the small places of the daytime, Tish Harrison Warren’s new book takes us into the underside of the Christian life and into the vulnerability of the darkness. Compline, the liturgical prayers offered at night, are a Christian practice which invites us to ask for God’s care even while we sleep, and for God’s presence if we are those who must be awake in this time. The prayers of Compline, though offered at the time of physical darkness, illuminate this important dimension of the ordinary Christian life: that in physical light, there is profound darkness which troubles and complicates our devotion. The Christian life is not all whimsy and meaning-making in the daytime, but bearing witness in the vulnerability of our souls. Taking the concerns of the Compline prayer as the starting point, Warren offers us a book about God’s presence in the darkness which comes to us even in the daylight, of God’s presence in the midst of vulnerability.
Vulnerability, it is important to note, is not a bad thing, nor is it somehow a facet of human life to overcome. If we approach our lives assuming that prayers in faith will undo this, it is because we are approaching vulnerability as a liability instead of as a capacity, a great grace which allows humanity to know, receive, and be healed by its openness to the work of God. Far from being a deficit, vulnerability is bound up with being human, to the degree that being God’s creature and being vulnerable entail one another: to be a creature of God is to embrace our finitude, our weakness, our need for lament and restoration.
The headings of “those who weep, watch, and work” in Compline, provide an entry to these discussions, as Warren works deeply from pastoral experience and her own sufferings with miscarriage in these dimensions. What emerges is meditative prose which is best lingered with and prayed through rather than consumed, for vulnerability is not a problem to be solved so much as a mystery to be embraced. Our healing comes as we weep and as we fret about our jobs and as we attend endlessly to the sufferings of others, not after the darkness is put away, but in its midst.
If, in fact, the vulnerability of being human is indexed to God’s own presence, our temptation is to emphasize our suffering, to make more of it than is there or to perhaps even invite suffering that God’s own presence might be known. But this is to misunderstand vulnerability: the point is not that we need to amplify our vulnerability, but to tend carefully to the vulnerability which is always coming. We do not know what suffering life will bring, or what dangers and darkness will befall our lives, and the Christian life entails letting go of that comparison: there is no Olympics of suffering which can evoke God’s presence any more clearly. In the third movement of the book, Warren unpacks this taxonomy of vulnerability as Compline lays it out, displaying the ways in which our vulnerability appears: in the body, in weakness, in death, and in the silences of sleep, among other forms.
A laser-like focus on our suffering can tempt us toward a mortified vision of the Christian life, that only austerity is appropriate for the Christian, facing our death with sobriety. And so, the most surprising addition here was the vulnerability not of sickness, but of joy. For in joy—as in grief—we are living into our vulnerability; in joy, we celebrate in an unguarded way, giving ourselves to the unexpected gift and lowering our defenses to receive it. By treating joy as a moment of vulnerability alongside suffering, death, and sickness, we are invited to see vulnerability not as an extraordinary circumstance, but as deeply ordinary and, again, part of what we are constitutionally as humans. It is in being so constituted that we are compelled to trust, to learn over and over again our contingency as creatures, and to yearn for God’s presence in the ever-present darkness.
There are a number of books which speak to the question of suffering, pain, and vulnerability. But Warren’s book threads that elusive needle of the reality of pain coupled with the presence of Christ to our manifold vulnerabilities, neither wallowing in grief nor overcoming pain with hollow affirmations. The great gift of Warren’s previous book is that it opened up the ordinary circumstances of our living to being occasions of God’s grace. It is the gift of this new book that those vicissitudes of life, which we think of as extraordinary, are rather ordinary and everywhere, the constant occasions of the comfort and calling of God. There is great darkness, the Scriptures remind us, for night follows every day. But in that persistent darkness—present even in the shadows of daytime—we know that our vulnerability is not something to excuse, but to welcome God’s effusive presence into.