It’s 9 pm on a Tuesday evening, and my 9 and 11 year old boys have just finished their second full day of Camp Mama. During Camp Mama, we do the laundry from last week’s actual sleepaway camp. While my husband travels for business, I attempt to do my own job from home. I Zoom while the boys make breakfast and lunch for themselves in the toaster oven. I respond to an endless parade of emails while they play video games and pretend to do their summer reading. Camp Mama is heavily air-conditioned, generally free from bug bites, and punctuated with occasional cheap thrills like impromptu trips to the neighborhood pool or popcorn for dinner. Because its director is hard at work unlearning her perfectionistic, overachieving tendencies, Camp Mama’s official slogan is: lowered standards.
One thing we do not do during Camp Mama—or any time anymore with the boys present—is watch live news. When my husband and I were our boys’ ages, watching live news with our parents and siblings was a bonding ritual: we learned about current events and how they tied to history, and we also observed our parents as they processed and commented on current events in real time. Watching live news reports alongside our parents connected us both to history and to our own family stories. But that was long before the 24-hour news cycle and, in particular, the appalling mass shooting events that have become part of everyday existence in America.
My husband and I have decided to be honest with the boys about mass shootings when they happen, but first, we have to give ourselves time and space to process them alone. After I raged and wept about Uvalde alone behind closed doors, we took deep breaths and gave the boys some basic information about what had happened since we knew it might come up in conversation with their friends at school. And when we did, our nine-year-old immediately burst into tears and went under our bed to hide. I am well beyond furious that this sort of news is part of my children’s realities. I yearn to give them space and ritual to acknowledge and contain their sadness and fear.
Enter my favorite part of Camp Mama, which happens now, at 9pm: Compline.
Compline is an ancient night liturgy in the Christian tradition that is meant to bring light, insight, and closure to the day. From Buffalo, Highland Park, and Uvalde to the war in the Ukraine—and from the January 6 hearings to feeling like the Supreme Court is ready to burn it all down—this sure has been a season in which I am desperate for light, insight, and a sense of closure. Compline offers a container for our weariness and a sense of peace before we get under the covers, close our eyes, and surrender ourselves to the world of dreams.
As the boys and I sit down at 9pm together to close our day with the liturgy of Compline, I light two beeswax candles. My dear friend Tallu Quinn rolled them with her own precious hands a year before she died in February at age 42 from glioblastoma, a devastating form of brain cancer. Tallu and I spent more than a decade mothering young children alongside one another, and we both dreamed of raising our children to be both excellent critical thinkers and prisoners of hope. We wanted to make sure they knew that following Jesus didn’t mean checking your brain at the door. Over the years, we had long, heartfelt conversations about guiding our children in a faith that didn’t avoid complexity, as well as a faith that showed them how to befriend the divine light within. When I light the beeswax candles she made, I sense Tallu’s luminous spirit.
My boys sit at the table in their pajamas and, at their places, I’ve placed chocolate-covered pretzels I’ve squirreled away especially for Camp Mama’s canteen. Also at each place is a copy of the brief Compline liturgy I’ve printed out from The Book of Common Prayer. We eat our pretzels, adjust our eyes to the darkness, and get quiet. My 11-year-old begins, “The Lord almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.”
We take turns reading the short bits of scripture and prayers. My younger son interrupts his reading of Psalm 31 to ask us what it means when the psalmist pleads, “take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me.” When it comes my turn to read, I change Glory to the Father to Glory to the Mother. A few lines later, my voice shakes as I read the invitation Jesus offers in Matthew to “come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Because in this long season of grief and heartbreak, oh how deeply this Mama yearns for rest and a burden that has been lightened just a little bit.
The liturgy of Compline is only about ten minutes long. We conclude with everyone saying together the ancient Song of Simeon or Nunc dimittis. The Song of Simeon is a poem from Luke’s gospel, exclaimed by an old man who has been able to hold the baby Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had promised old Simeon that he would not die until he had laid eyes on The Messiah, the great liberator. As Simeon cradles baby Jesus in his arms, he says that, finally, he can die in freedom and peace.
My boys and I repeat his words, which, in the Compline liturgy, are bookended by the lyrical, dreamlike antiphon, “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.” I have been saying Compline since I was a young child, and these have always been my favorite lines. As I speak them out loud in my weary voice, I feel like I imagine Simeon felt—settled, safe, peaceful, and yet astonished because I have brushed up against the great liberator.
In a season when I often find myself experiencing more rage and grief than I ever have in my forty-seven years, saying the short liturgy of Compline alongside my family teaches me to keep dreaming of and working for a church that inspires, enlightens, and liberates. Ending the day bathed in candlelight at the table with our children reminds me that Christ’s dream for loving our neighbor and offering liberation lives in me because God’s spirit dwells in me. Despite how many people these days blatantly use Christianity as a method for manipulation and control, Jesus did not stand for empire and domination; he turned toward suffering and he stood for full liberation of our bodies, of our minds, and of our lives. If I don’t at least try to help my children experience a Christianity that illuminates, frees, inspires, and offers peace, how will they ever come to love it enough to repair or reform it?