Q: Recently, I prayed Compline from the Liturgy of the Hours during a group retreat. Please give some explanation of the meaning and content of this prayer. Thank you.
A: Compline, or Night Prayer, is the church’s official bedtime prayer. It is the last prayer of the liturgical day before retiring for a night’s rest. Compline invites us to pray for protection in three kinds of sleep: the natural sleep of night, the sleep of the soul in sinfulness, and the sleep of death at life’s end.
And before the powerful love of God, as before the night light in a child’s bedroom, fear of the night and fear of death take flight.
Compline lets our need to rest draw us into the mystery of the Lord’s death and our own death, so that we can celebrate our sharing in the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, God’s Easter plan for our salvation in the dying and rising of Christ in which we share through baptism.
We thus complete our daily dying to self in order to rise with Christ.
The opening words of Compline, accompanied by the sign of the cross, are so necessary: “God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me. Glory to the Father….” God must help us in our praise and petition.
The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours says that “it is laudable to follow the introductory verse with an examination of conscience” (no. 86).
Romano Guardini explains that:
“We place ourselves before God to whom all time, past or future, is the living present, before God who is able to restore to the penitent even what is lost. We think back over the day gone by. What was not well done contrition seizes upon and thinks anew. For what was well done we give God humble thanks, sincerely taking no credit to ourselves.
“What we are uncertain about, or failed to accomplish, the whole sorry remnant, we sink in entire abandonment into God’s all powerful love” (“Sacred Signs” [Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier Inc., 1979], p. 95).
After the examination of conscience, in a hymn we ask for God’s gifts of rest and protection throughout the night. Psalms which are “particularly evocative of trust in God” (“General Instruction,” no. 88) have been assigned for each day of the week. They are fittingly short and image the end of the day and the end of life.
A short reading from Scripture (sometimes a single verse) follows the psalmody. The response to the reading (invariable throughout the week) makes the prayer of the dying Jesus our own: “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.”
We declare the reason for such trust: “You have redeemed us, Lord God of truth.” After its doxology, this response gently leads us into the “Nunc dimittis” with its antiphon.
Protect us, Lord
The “Nunc dimittis” (Canticle of Simeon, Luke 2:29-32) is the highpoint of Compline and has an invariable antiphon: “Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace.”
The sign of the cross at the beginning of this Gospel canticle is fitting: We who have received the victorious sign of Christ’s cross in baptism, confirmation and reconciliation, hope to receive his blessing and anointing at the end of our life.
Our praying of the “Nunc dimittis” gives assent to the words of Alexander Schmemann: “In Christ and through Christ, [evening] may become the beginning of a new life, of the day that has no evening. For our eyes have seen salvation and a light which will never fail” (“For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy” [Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973], p. 63).
In the concluding prayers assigned for each day of the week, we ask for God’s protection during a night free from sin; we seek to rise with God’s blessings in the morning and serve God with strength renewed.
The old blessing formula, “Noctem quietam,” still concludes Compline: “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.”
It brings the celebration to a satisfying and calming end, just as the final notes of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” seem to quietly sound the lamps going out after a busy day of work and play in the country. The Sarum Primer (1527) asks that “God be at my end, and my departing”; we, too, ask God to be with us at the end of our day and the end of our life, so that we can safely depart into sleep and into death. The Latin Christian poet, Prudentius (+ca. 405), captured the power of this blessing for the night:
“Let, let the weary body
“Lie sunk in slumber deep.
“The heart shall still remember
“Christ in its very sleep.
(“Before Sleep,” in “Medieval Latin Lyrics,” trans. Helen Waddell [4th ed. rev.], Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, (1952), stanza 4.)
As we sleep, Christ also remembers us.
The custom of including the Marian antiphon (or anthem) called the “Salve, Regina” after Compline became popular in religious orders in the 13th century; the Roman liturgy first used it at Vespers and later at Compline.
The six Marian antiphons for Compline point to God’s mercy in Mary’s life and in our life. The “Salve, Regina” makes us one with Mary at the foot of Christ’s cross as we remember that we are sons and daughters of both Eve and Mary; it makes us one with Mary in what Eastern Christians call her “Dormition,” her “falling asleep” in death (Roman Catholics celebrate this event as Mary’s Assumption into heaven).
Compline is the prayer of our dormition, of our falling asleep in Christ at the end of the day and at the end of our life. We pray that Christ will bring us, as he brought Mary, to our heavenly home.
I invite the college students who live with me at St. John’s to pray Night Prayer on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. in my apartment. I include a time for spontaneous intercessions followed by the Lord’s Prayer, since these students may lack opportunities to offer communal prayer for their needs and the needs of others. I am edified by the far-ranging intercessions they offer for people and situations that need God’s help.
As we pray Compline, we gratefully acknowledge Christ to be our constant companion; we praise him as our risen Lord who rejoices to give us his blessings: repentance and forgiveness, protection and safety, rest and refreshment, death and life.
The official text of “Night Prayer” is available from U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Publishing, $5.95. (www.usccbpublishing.org or 800-235-8722).
Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at email@example.com or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.