The Liturgy Will Pray for You: A Journey Through Grief with the Book of Common Prayer

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I did not become a Christian in a liturgical tradition, but I was introduced to liturgical prayer and worship early in my walk. I found liturgy especially helpful in giving me words and phrases to cling to when my own prayers felt “stuck.” After 21 years as a Christian, shifting into the Anglican tradition, and being ordained within it, this is still true.

The Daily Office became a regular fixture in my devotions a full 12 years before I became an Anglican. Shortly after discovering the Book of Common Prayer, I read a passage on liturgical prayer by Lauren Winner that was so compelling I still revisit it. Before she converted to Christianity from Judaism, Winner had asked her Rabbi why they used previously written prayers in worship. He responded, “A day will come when you will not be able to pray in your own strength; on that day the liturgy will pray for you.”[1]

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There have been many times when I’ve lost my “strength” to pray. At times, my words have caught in my throat, refusing to come forth. In many of these moments, I’ve turned to the liturgies and prayers of the historical Church. They have carried me along, praying for me when I could not.

However, it wasn’t until June 2022 that my “prayer strength” failed so palpably that I was at an utter loss for words. This was the month my mom died, and when I first prayed the Ministry to the Dying.

Ministries for the Sick and the Dying

Care for the sick and dying is part of the vocation of the whole church. God calls us all—priests, deacons, and laity—called to “grieve with those who grieve” in the same inspired breath that calls us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). Such is part of our rightly ordered[2] ministry as the Church (Romans 12:1).

Along with this general ministry of “whole-Church” care, ordained ministers are graciously called to care for the sick and dying in pastoral ways. The Prayer Book tradition encapsulates this responsibility in the pastoral rites called “Ministry to the Sick” and “Ministry to the Dying” (pgs. 225-226 and 237-242 in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer).

Grief and the Sting of Death

In introducing the Ministry to the Dying, the Book of Common Prayer reminds us that “death is a defeated enemy. In Christ, death has become the gateway to everlasting life” (pg. 236). It goes on to quote St. Paul’s famous passage from 1 Corinthians 15:54-57, which itself begins with a combined quote from Isaiah 25:7 and Hosea 13:14:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

We often reach for this beautiful passage for comfort, and rightly so. But the sting of death is only truly removed for the dying Christian, whose death becomes “the gateway to everlasting life.” Death’s head has been crushed in Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension—but its body still convulses until Jesus returns. For those of us who experience the loss of a loved one, death’s sting remains in the form of grief.

The Best of Times; The Worst of Times

My family and I moved from Louisville, Kentucky, to Morgantown, West Virginia—where my wife and I first met—on June 5th, 2022. We closed on our new house on June 6th. I had been ordained as a deacon nine months earlier, and we moved to join a group of believers interested in starting a new Anglican mission. Providentially, the move also decreased the travel time to our families from six hours to three. Everyone was excited about what the future held in store.

On Tuesday the 14th, however, my mom went to the emergency room with complications from Congestive Heart Failure—a condition she had lived with for ten years.

The morning of Saturday the 18th, she suffered a cardiac arrest. In God’s providence, they airlifted her to a hospital in Morgantown. A few days later, to a hospital in Pittsburgh.

Saturday the 25th, my mom breathed her last in this life and awoke to the face of her Lord and Savior.

On Tuesday, the 28th, my wife and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary.

On Thursday, the 30th, I committed my mom’s body to the ground and her soul to Jesus in the hope of resurrection.

Carried by the Prayer Book

Mom’s final weeks were an intense mixture of anxiety, grief, and hope for me. I found myself with no prayers of my own to offer—just a deep, impenetrable silence.

Now, I fully believe that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). If the Holy Spirit works through our fumbling prayers, how much more does he intercede when we lack the words to fumble through?

As Anglicans, we often lean into the objective work of God when our subjective experience feels all over the place. The Holy Spirit’s intercession is an objective reality even when we do not feel a connection to God. At the same time, we celebrate the tangibility of our faith. We feel the splash of water, taste and smell the bread and wine, and hear the proclaimed absolution. The liturgies and collects of the Prayer Book offer us this tangibility while carrying us along when we cannot pray ourselves. In my grief, I had over 2,000 years’ worth of grief-tested prayer. And as I spoke the words of these prayers to God, they were proclaiming the hope and comfort of the Gospel to me.

The Bedside Offices

Visits to my mom’s bedside fell into a rhythm. I would hold her hand, kiss her forehead, tell her I love her, and then pray the Morning, Midday, Evening, or Compline offices out loud, depending on the time of my visit. When the rubrics invited me to offer intercessory prayers, I reached for the collects for the sick (BCP 2019, pgs. 231-235). Since Mom spent her final weeks unresponsive or sedated, I don’t know if any of these prayers registered with her. Yet, I prayed they would bury themselves deeply beyond the veil and into her heart, mind, and affections.

On the day the machines were turned off, I held Mom’s hand, kissed her forehead, and told her I loved her as I often had. Then, over my mom, I prayed the Ministry to the Dying for the first time as a minister in the Anglican Church.

I’d like to tell you that, by praying with the Book of Common Prayer, I would go home each night during those weeks with peace beyond understanding. I didn’t. They occasionally gave me a sense of peace, hope, and comfort, and I am thankful for those moments. However, the Book of Common Prayer did not remove the sting of Mom’s suffering and death or the following grief. It did carry me through it. The liturgy prayed for me when my own strength failed—just as it is meant to do in such moments.

Grieving, But Not Alone

I don’t want readers to walk away thinking that grief should be tackled as a “me and Jesus” project. Our individual disciplines and piety are necessary but insufficient to face difficult times. Christianity is a personal faith but not an individualistic one. The beauty of common prayer is that it is common. Through prayer and worship, we join with both the Church on earth and in God’s presence.

A temptation of grief is to isolate ourselves and pull away from community. While periods of solitude might be helpful or necessary, Scripture teaches that God has created us to be in community, even in grief. When my grief was most acute, the Daily Office grounded me in the ordinary, regular means of grace found in confession, repentance, forgiveness, Scripture reading, and prayer. Engaging these offices in community, however, was where I found grace in the support of a family of believers.

A Prayer for Those Who Are Grieving

Most merciful God, whose wisdom is beyond our understanding: deal graciously with those who mourn. Surround them with your love, that they may not be overwhelmed by their loss, but have confidence in your goodness and strength to meet the days to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 2019, pg. 251)


[1] Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God: A Memoir, Random House, 2003.

[2] The phrase τὴν λογικὴν λατρείαν ὑμῶν in Romans 12:1 is often translated as “our spiritual worship,” but the word λογικός is rooted in the idea of “reason” or “reasonable;” In the tradition of the Stoics, which St. Paul is maybe dipping into, the word denotes being “rightly-ordered.”


Cover image: photo by Sandy G from Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Author

Bryan Lilly

The Rev. Bryan Lilly is an ordained deacon discerning a call to the priesthood in the Anglican Diocese of Christ Our Hope. He lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with his wife and two children. Bryan is active in the Anglican Creation Care Network and is passionate about the outdoors, the arts, and all things Appalachia.

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