Thursday, August 28, 2014

Compline: For Tonight and Forever (LOH 8 Throwback Thursday Edition)

(This is one of a series of posts on the Liturgy of the Hours for Laypeople)

      In today's discussion of the Liturgy of the Hours I'll focus on Night Prayer, or Compline.  This office  plays a special role in the overall plan of the Liturgy of the Hours.  It complements the Invitatory Psalm with which we start the daily liturgy (see here). While the Invitatory orients us to God from the first moments of the day, reminding us of his Lordship and the challenges we are likely to face if  we fail to rely on Him, Compline draws our daily activities to a conclusion, and puts us in a proper frame of mind to surrender ourselves to the Lord’s care in sleep.  At the same time as it prepares us for our nightly sleep, however, Night Prayer also prepares us for our eternal rest in the life to come.

Nunc Dimittis: Simeon sees the infant Jesus in the Temple

    Night Prayer is structured much like a shorter version of Lauds [link] or Vespers [link]: there is a Psalmody, a brief scripture reading followed by a responsory, a Gospel Canticle and closing prayer.  But there are also significant differences.  After the usual opening (“Lord, come to my assistance . . .”) we conduct an examination of conscience, followed by the Confiteor, the Kyrie or some other appropriate penitential prayer.  There is only one psalm, or two very short ones, no intercessions, and the closing prayer is followed by a Marian antiphon.  Also, in addition to being shorter, there is much less variety in Night Prayer.  Aside from minor variations for particularly important solemnities and "alleiuas" during the Easter season, the prayers all follow the same cycle every week (as opposed to a four week cycle, and much greater variation for liturgical seasons, in the other hours). 
     Compline is a wonderfully effective transitional prayer.  At the beginning we tie up any loose ends from the day in the examination of conscience and put them behind us in the penitential prayer.  If there is a hymn, it isn’t sung until after those things are done; only then are we ready to entrust ourselves to the mercy of God.  That reliance on God’s Grace is a major element in the Psalmody for Night Prayer. Sunday’s psalm, for instance (Psalm 91) begins:

            He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
            And abides in the shade of the Almighty –
            Says to the Lord: “My refuge,
            My Stronghold, my God in whom I trust!”
The themes of night (“Lift your hands to the holy place/and bless the Lord through the night”, Psalm 134, Saturday) and sleep (“I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once”, Psalm 4, Friday) also play a large role – as does the theme of death (“Will you work your wonders for the dead/Will the shades stand and praise you?”, Psalm 88, Thursday).
     The theme of preparing ourselves for eternal rest becomes even more explicit in the responsory that follows the short scripture verse:

            Into your hands lord, I commend my spirit.
                        - Into your hands lord, I commend my spirit.
            You have redeemed us, Lord God of Truth
                        -I commend my spirit.
            Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
                        - Into your hands lord, I commend my spirit.

This verse is based on Psalm 31, but is perhaps more familiar to us from Luke 23:46, when Jesus recites the first line as he is dying on the cross.  Because of its close association with the crucifixion it is replaced during the Octave of Easter with “This is the day the Lord has made/Let us rejoice and be glad”; other than that, we say this same responsory every night of the year, albeit with “alleluia, alleluia” included during the Easter season outside the Octave.
     After the responsory we find the Gospel Canticle, the Canticle of Simeon (also known as the Nunc Dimittis, from Luke 2:29-32) which begins “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace . . .”   This is the prayer of thanksgiving sung by the old prophet Simeon, to whom it had been revealed “by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).  This prayer forms a sort of triptych with the Canticles from Lauds and Vespers: in the morning, with the Benedictus, the focus is on John the Baptist, the Forerunner of the Messiah; at Evening Prayer in the Magnificat we see the first meeting (in utero!) of the Forerunner and the Messiah himself; at Compline the Messiah makes his first appearance in the Temple to claim his birthright, and Simeon, the aged representative of the Old Covenant, declares himself satisfied, praises God, and retires to his final repose.
     The closing prayer is appropriate to the hour; Thursday’s office,  for instance, closes with:

            Lord God,
            Send peaceful sleep
            To refresh our tired bodies.
            May your help always renew us
And keep us strong in your service.

The conclusion that follows makes explicit reference to the connection between our nightly rest and the more permanent repose to come:

            May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.

     We close Night Prayer with an antiphon addressed to the Blessed Mother.
     Compline, or Night Prayer, is like the other offices, but also has a special part to play in the daily Office. Even if we are laypeople praying the Liturgy of the Hours as a private devotion, it is still a liturgical, which is to say a public, prayer and by its very nature it draws us out of ourselves to unite us with Christ and his Mystical Body, the Church.  Night Prayer does that and more: as we go through the office we put our affairs in order, as it were, in the penitential rite at the beginning; after that in the prayers that follow we turn our attention from the concerns of the day to the preparation of our souls for the night to come; we entrust ourselves to the Lord's Mercy ("Into you hands I commend my spirit") and then, through the words of Simeon and the concluding verse, reach beyond our rest in this world and ask for God's Grace in the world to come.  Our final prayer is to ask for the intercession of the First Disciple, who, we know, is already enjoying the Lord's peace in Heaven, and whom we hope to join there beyond the final setting of the sun on this world.
To read the whole series go here.

Below are some resources for anyone interested in exploring the Liturgy of the Hours -

Websites: – This was the first website I encountered with the text of the LOH.  It does have the full text of all the daily prayers, although, at least in the free version available online, many of the translations are not the approved ones.  They do say that the translations in the App version are the standard ones. – Full tests of all the prayers, which are designed so that they can be printed as booklets – but you need to buy a subscription. – My favorite LOH website.  It contains the full approved translations of most of the canonical hours (there is only one hour for Daytime Prayer).  There are also audio versions of each hour which include recorded hymns and recitation of the prayers, either spoken or chanted.

There are various one-volume books entitled Christian Prayer that contain most of the Liturgy of the Hours.  The best choice available is this one [here], although it is not complete (particularly the Office of  Readings), and hasn’t been updated since 1976.  I prefer this one [here] from the Daughters of St. Paul, which contains everything except the long readings from the Office of Readings (which are available from the websites above).  It also dates from 1976, however, and, even worse, seems to be out of print.

The Gold Standard is the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours [here].  It’s all there, but it’s gonna cost you.