Right Book, Right Time

Sometimes the right book comes into your life at the right time.

And sometimes the right time is actually a terrible, horrible, generally unpleasant time.

The Wrong Time

OK, background: I have been in pain since May 2. It’s been diagnosed as cervical radiculopathy, otherwise known as a pinched nerve in my neck. This radiates pain down to my elbow in my right (dominant) arm.

It has varied from excruciating, can’t get out of bed pain to somewhat dull, can do most normal life things while still constantly aware that my arm hurts. But it has not gone away.

So in the past month I have seen two doctors and one physical therapist (multiple visits with the therapist). I have taken muscle relaxers and steroids and various over the counter painkillers. (Newsflash: tylenol and ibuprofen do basically nothing to this kind of pain. I resist taking anything stronger because of the obvious dangers related to most painkillers. Don’t think I’m trying to be noble. I’m trying to avoid trading one problem for another.)

I have used heating pads and ice packs, and hot baths with epsom salts. And then there are the teas with anti-inflammatory herbs and the bone broths that I have consumed.

As previously mentioned, sometimes the pain has eased, but it’s still present. (I am typing this with an ice pack on my neck and one on my arm. Typing is…not fun. But I really want to tell you about this book. So we push on.)

May is always a busy month, but this time around I missed out on most of it, although sometimes I was able to be present for whatever was going on even if I felt miserable (Mother’s Day) or diminished (my birthday).

The Right Book

You might think that giving up on other activities means more time for reading but the strange, sad fact is that when you are in pain and unable to get comfortable reading is not usually particularly comfortable either.

During the worst of the pain I found myself in bed watching a lot of YouTube. (History videos, mysteries, full length movies at times).

But when I started coming out of the fog of what I optimistically assume was “the worst of it,” I discovered that several e-books I’d ordered from my library’s digital services were available to me. Some of these were the easy comfort reading I always gravitate toward (Georgette Heyer / Agatha Christie / etc.) and one was Tish Harrison Warren’s latest book Prayer in the Night.

Those Who Work or Watch or Weep

This book is an extended mediation on one of the services known as Compline, particularly focusing on one of the ending prayers.

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.

(you can find other versions of Compline at her website – Prayer in the Night)

Though I was raised with an inherent mistrust of “written prayers” I have come, as an adult, to greatly appreciate them in my spiritual practice. (You can find a list of my favorite prayer resources here.)

And this prayer and the author’s examination of it, was exactly what I needed right now.

And maybe this quote (from Chapter 1) helps explain why:

…I’ve come to believe that in order to sustain faith over a lifetime, we need to learn different ways of praying. Prayer is a vast territory, with room for silence and shouting, for creativity and repetition, for original and received prayers, for imagination and reason.

Visions of Virtue

I think chapter seven is one of my favorites (although I appreciate them all), because my own circumstances were teaching me a similar lesson to this one:

Our illusions of piety can be undone with one toothache. […]A lot of what appears as kindness or patience or holiness in my life is fueled by good health, energy, and simple pleasures. When these are taken away, it’s clear that I am no that kind or patient after all, I just didn’t have back pain.

She points out:

The historic church has called sickness an occasion –however uninvited — to grow in repentance and virtue.

Because if virtuous character means actually doing and saying the right thing no matter who is watching us (or not), it also means doing the right thing and choosing the right attitude when we don’t feel well.

How easy I have sometimes found it to be kind, to be patient, to be generous, when everything is going well in my life. (Although, obviously, sometimes even then it’s woefully easy to be unkind, impatient, and stingy.)

Now, I find myself dealing with something that is not easily fixed, even by modern medicine. And yet, life is going on and people need me and I have obligations and things I want to do.

And sometimes some people are not patient or understanding with me which occasionally annoys me, honestly. I know I don’t look particularly ill (most of the time). Some days I can almost ignore what’s going on with my arm. But I think they should be understanding and accommodating anyway.

And I wonder how many times I do that to other people? How many times am I not aware of the things under the surface of their lives? Chronic pain or grief or pressing concerns are not always evident on our faces.

Which doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

The Power of Prayer

Which brings me again to the power in prayer. By this I do not mean that prayer manipulates God to do something.

Warren says in chapter 9:

Prayer is not an incantation to wake a sleeping God. We pray as an act of hope in God’s goodness. […]We pray because our lives are part of the big story of God’s work of redemption.

This prayer reminds us, even when things are A-OK in our own lives, that there are those who are working or watching or weeping tonight.

The sick, the weary, the dying, the suffering, the afflicted, and even the joyous, all need God’s care. Maybe we can help in a tangible way, maybe not. But we certainly will not if we go around forgetting that other people and their needs exist.

This Compline Prayer reminds me:

  • The people I meet probably fit into at least one of those categories.
  • Other Christians have prayed this prayer before me and will pray it again after I am gone.
  • Prayer itself is an act of faith.
  • I hope to remember this even after the pain in my arm fades (she said, optimistically). The pages and pages I filled in my spiritual commonplace book with notes from this book will probably help.

    In conclusion: I highly recommend Prayers in the Night to you. And if you pray compline tonight, know that you have a friend who is praying it with you.

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