Thursday, August 30, 2012

Prayers at Day's End: A "How To" for the service of Compline

Background: The final prayers of the Daily Office as found in The Book of Common Prayer are those of Compline (p. 127). A parishioner once asked me why the name of this service sounded like 'complaining'? Was it, she asked, because people get cranky by the end of the day? I explained that the word compline was actually an old English word for complete. So, these were the prayers to be said at the completion of the day. But, we often do get cranky by the day’s end, so we might want to hold on to that point as we go through the service in detail. At least it explains why there is a confession in this service!

Compline is really a service derived from monastic sources. Its logic is based on the idea that at the of the day, before the Great Silence is begun (which, for monastics, lasts from the end of Compline until the next morning), a time of self-examination, a flourish of praise, and an opportunity for commending ourselves to God is needed and valuable.

The form of Compline in the BCP is quite simple and can be memorized by most people. One of the pleasures of visiting some monastic communities is finding that they don’t even have to use books for this service. Some even offer it in light too dim to read by. Its almost unvarying content is deep in their blood. It can be in ours, too.

Posture: When saying this liturgy, it is customary to remain standing throughout (When the confession is made, kneeling or making a profound bow is traditional). Being seated is a variant in some places, as well.

Through the Service: After whatever pre-service prayers you are accustomed to saying, the liturgy of Compline begins with a simple invocation for peace and protection: “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.” This is traditionally accompanied by blessing one’s self with the sign of the cross.

The verse and response that follow recall our dependence upon God, whose power is manifested in Creation itself.

The rubrics (the “directions” for the service, printed in small italics) then give us the choice of confessing our sins. Compline was—and is still—the time in many monastic communities each day when an examination of conscience takes place and a communal confession of faults is offered. If you have said Evening Prayer already and used the confession there, then it is likely unnecessary to do so again here. However, this is the ideal opportunity to reflect on one’s day, answering these two questions: “O Lord, how have I pleased you, and how have I grieved you this day?” A fruitful confession may then be offered, and some of that crankiness I spoke of earlier exposed and dissipated.

A prayer for pardon and spiritual blessing follows, during which it is traditional to make the sign of the cross (as a reminder that it by the Cross, and through the Spirit’s gift of Baptism in which we were marked with the Cross, that we originally received this pardon and blessing).

The first part of Compline concluded and our hearts cleansed of sin's burden, we call upon God to give us the grace to praise his Name. This may seem odd to “do-it-yourself” Americans, but we are told in the New Testament that even our desire to praise God requires divine assistance. This verse and response (“O God, makes speed to save us; O Lord, make has to help us.”) sets the tone for are praise of God at day’s end: we need God’s protection and assistance at every turn in life. Little children know this, but adults are apt to forget. (If you have omitted the confession above, this is where Compline continues). In all seasons but Lent, it is normal to offer “Alleluia” as a remembrance of the Resurrection. All of this forms a preparation for the Compline Psalms.

The Psalter is the heart of Compline, as it is for all the Daily Office services. At Compline, though, there is a longstanding history of having a fixed set of Psalms to recite. The 1979 BCP gives us the option of using any “suitable selection” of Psalms, but prints several suggested (and traditional) Psalms in the rite: Psalm 4, the first five verses of Psalm 31, Psalm 92, and (the very short, but very ancient Compline-themed) Psalm 134. One or more of the Psalms is said or sung, followed by the “Glory to the Father, &c.”, during which it is customary to bow in honor of the Trinity. These Psalms provide us with poetic and rich insight into the act of commending ourselves over into God’s care.

Following the Psalms, a short lesson from Scripture is read. This, in the Medieval Church, was called the “Chapter” (even though it was usually just one or two verses!). Four options are provided for this lesson (the first and last of which are from the Medieval Compline service), and you may wish to add others appropriate to the season…but the general practice is to keep it simple and stick with the ones provided. Remember: Compline is not a substitute for Evening Prayer. It is a unique liturgy with its own character and content. Trying to turn it into a service with a lot of Scripture lessons, seasonal Psalmody and the like distorts it.

After the Lesson, provision for a hymn is made. This was (and is) one of Compline's treasures. The traditional Gregorian hymn for this Office is Te lucis ante terminum, found in The Hymnal 1982 and other sources. Another appropriate hymn is “God that madest earth and heaven,” to the Welsh tune Ar Hyd y Nos. Singing a short, peaceful hymn at this point in Compline is one of its distinctive, beautiful elements and should not be omitted if at all possible.

The hymn leads us to a short set of verses and responses in which we very actively commend ourselves to God’s care (these verses serve well to be our last thought of the day before going to sleep a bit later). Then comes the Kyries (more calling upon God in childlike simplicity) and the Lord’s Prayer.

Ever since the 1662 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, it has been Anglican custom to omit the doxology (“For thine is the Kingdom, the power…” &c.) from the Lord’s Prayer whenever the Kyries proceed it. The exact reason for this is not clear, but it seems to be connected to the penitential character of the Kyrie eleison.

The Lord’s Prayer is followed by a salutation and response (if you are saying this alone, it makes sense to substitute: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; and let my cry come to you.”) and a Collect. Once again, Compline has a short list of choices for the collect, unlike the many options available at Morning and Evening Prayer. Simply choose one from the list. A special collect is available for use on Saturday nights, in order to help prepare us for the drama and significance of the Holy Eucharist on Sunday.

Two additional collect are printed as prayers of intercession: one commending all those we know into God’s care; another recalling the labors of others while we sleep.

The rubrics then allow for the option of taking time for intercessions or thanksgivings. This is not a requirement, but an option.

The last major—and very ancient—part of Compline is the saying of the Song of Simeon (Nunc dimittis) from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 2. This is the traditional Gospel Canticle of Compline, just as the Song of Zechariah (Benedictus) and the Song of Mary (Magnificat) are the traditional Canticles for Morning and Evening Prayer. As with these other Gospel Canticles, you will see some people bless themselves with the sign of the cross at the start.

The Song of Simeon is prefaced and followed by an antiphon—a short verse that sets the tone for the Canticle. This antiphon asks for God’s grace to “watch with Christ” while awake—a daunting privilege—and to rest in peace while asleep. This reminds us that sleep was seen by all early Christians as a miniature “death” at each day’s end. Thus, it was an opportunity to prepare on a daily basis for our eventual need to surrender our lives to God. Properly understood, there is nothing morbid about this. It really is a way to help us learn to live properly by emerging from the shadow of death’s power as free, forgiven people.

The antiphon is concluded by a triple alleluia during the 50 Days of Eastertide…one of a only a handful of variations to this simple and unvarying liturgy.

As we say the Song of Simeon, we are really truly experiencing completion in its deepest sense. Simeon, holding the infant Jesus in his arms, was beholding the Messiah and at the same time contemplating the completion of his own mission to remain alive until the Messiah’s arrival. It is a poignant and mysterious moment.

Following the repetition of the antiphon (and Alleluias, in Eastertide), the service comes to a quick end: a verse and response forming a dismissal, and a final commendation/praise to the Holy Trinity, our Creator and Redeemer. It is customary to make the sign of the cross at this point. This would be a good time to use holy water as part of one's devotions or in corporate worship. It is often part of monastic practice to receive holy water at this point (via asperges in a public liturgy, or dipping one's hand in holy water and making the sign of the cross in personal recitation of Compline).

With this (and any post-worship prayers you are accustomed to say), the little service of Compline has ended. All our grouchy, complaining self has been overcome in a stream of thanksgiving and praise! You are now ready to end the day, and one of the gems of the Prayer Book is yours for all the nights of your earthly pilgrimage. 

No comments:

Post a Comment