The first night I prayed Compline was the day a friend’s child had died. When we arrived at the prayer of St. Augustine, I felt as if it’d been written expressly for that balmy night in 2009:
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.
As the now-familiar words tripped over my tongue, I easily named off in my head those I knew who were working, watching, and weeping. My heart lifted up those who were near death, those suffering, and those who would find sleep and rest that night. Even the first time I prayed them, I chewed the words up in my head and my soul, falling in love again with the timelessness and precision of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer.
Last week, my colleague, Fr. Mac Stewart, offered a persuasive and an articulate argument for the memorization of prayers and of the psalms in particular. As a way of offering an “amen” to his well-crafted piece, I give this witness of what happened on the way back from my parish’s retreat this past weekend.
My grandfather’s health has been a struggle for the last six years or so — heart attacks, rehabilitation, setbacks, joint issues, sleep problems — many typical but painful slip-ups for those in their seventies and eighties. He’s spent most of 2015 in the hospital, and I went to see him for a week in January. While my parish and I retreated to Kanuga and Grandpa went back into the hospital, it became clear that his body was simply deteriorating, that, at 79, he was very much living into the Psalm’s proclamation, “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty” (90:10).
Our gloriously raucous Eucharist ended at camp on Sunday, and I’d driven into town where I planned to spend the afternoon enjoying the quiet and scenery before heading home. I got a text from my step-mom, who told me that hospice care was coming, and there was at best a few months left.
Like many “eldest” grandchildren, I spent a lot of time alone with my grandparents when I was growing up. They were still working and in their prime when I came along, and they babysat as well as taking me on adventures and indulging me with treats. Part of me still thinks of my grandpa as young and spry — his humor encourages this perception — and to realize he won’t be around anymore is truly inconceivable.
I didn’t last long at the coffeeshop; I kept dissolving into tears. Grateful that I know well the highway from the mountains to home, longing for the comfort of my husband and my dog (and longing for the privacy of my car), I packed up my books and set off. Once I got on the Interstate, I sobbed. I cried so hard that I started coughing, and I felt somehow relieved just to keep crying. Half an hour later, face sticky with tears, throat raw, and stomach tight from the body-wracking, cleansing flood, a verse from a psalm started to materialize in my mind.
“My eye is wasted with grief.” The phrase marched across my consciousness. Then I thought, “Isn’t there something about ‘my throat and my belly’?” Psalm 31 had become startlingly immediate. I’d never cried like that before, but the psalmist had. Grief hadn’t reached into my flesh with such force in my tender twenty-nine years, but my forebear, that great poet of pain and companion of sorrow who wrote psalms thousands of years ago, knew exactly what I was suffering. He’d gone so far as to write it down, and by God’s grace, those words had been passed down for millennia. Through prayers, the Psalms speak the truth of human existence — despairing, joyful, fickle, angry, loving.
I’d been reading those words according to the system of the Daily Office for years, as if preparing for the moment when I’d find them burrowed into my soul, describing (in words far better than I could hope to concoct) exactly what it was I was experiencing. Committing these words to memory, as Fr. Mac argues, makes available to us an entire language, that when we come up against huge chasms of grief, walls of death, and floods of despair, we are armed with the truth of God to defend us from enemy and to remind us that we are never alone.
The photos were provided by the author.