The Psalms at Compline

Since at least the Rule of Saint Benedict, the three traditional Psalms for Compline have been 4, 91, and 134.  Sarum practice added some or all of Psalm 31, and recent Canadian and American Prayer Books have included its first six verses for the modern Compline liturgy.  The rubric’s permission of praying only “one or more” takes precedent from sources such as John Cosin’s Private Devotions of the Hours, which appointed only the first six verses of Psalm 91 for Compline.

The full text of Compline, with each of these psalms, can be found here.

Psalm 4

Along with two references to “your bed” and “take my rest”, this Psalm expresses a trusting confidence in the Lord’s ability to save and protect his people.  Even if surrounded by blasphemous “children of men”, the worshiper can acknowledge that it is God who gives us righteousness, and on the basis of his own godliness upon us will he also hear us.  And this is gladness in our hearts more than any earthly blessing or pleasure.

Psalm 31:1-6

This is another Trust Psalm, seeking God’s protection for the coming night.  Verse 6 provides part of the traditional Compline suffrages.

Psalm 91

Although sometimes blurred by Satan’s famous mis-use of this Psalm at the temptation of our Lord, and by others who similarly continue with the “Prosperity Gospel”, Psalm 91 nevertheless is a powerful declaration of hope and trust in the saving power of God.  The context of Compline helps the worshiper bring a line of interpretation that bears good fruit: the “snare of the hunter” and “the deadly pestilence” is sin; with our eyes we shall behold “and see the reward of the ungodly” in the life to come; God’s angels will have charge over us especially in our death, repose, and resurrection; it is ultimately and most importantly from sin and death that God will “lift him up, because he has known my name.”  We will be most satisfied “with long life” into eternity.

Psalm 134

Departing from the other psalms’ emphasis on trust and anticipation of death, this Psalm is a celebration of the endless worship that God’s people are to offer him – even “you that stand by night” to sing his praise.  This is fittingly the last psalm in the Compline sequence, ending with the true end, purpose, or telos of mankind.

Compline: a different confession

Compared to other liturgies and offices, Compline has changed more gradually, retaining its several features and ingredients with gentle rearrangements over the centuries.  Its first inclusion in an official Prayer Book was in Ireland in 1926, with the proposed English 1928 Book and the Scottish 1929 Book quickly following suit.  Canada, India, and the USA added Compline to their Prayer Books later in the 20th century.  Apart from those, devotional manuals have abounded since the 16th century with English-language versions of the traditional monastic office of Compline.

The prayer of confession in Compline (as found in the 2019 Prayer Book) is based upon both the Confiteor (the traditional confession in the “Fore-Mass” of the Roman Rite) and a confession from the Sarum Rite.

Almighty God and Father, we confess to you,
to one another, and to the whole company of heaven,
that we have sinned, through our own fault,
in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone.
For the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ,
have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins,
and by the power of your Holy Spirit,
raise us up to serve you in newness of life,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Just as the Daily Office and Communion services contain different prayers of confession, so does Compline provide another form.  Some obvious similarities are found, particularly the beloved phrase “in thought, word, and deed,” but it is the unique features of each confession that makes them shine in their own right.  This confession, drawing upon traditional predecessors, sets our admission of guilt into an ecclesial context: “we confess to you, to one another, and to the whole company of heaven.”  Other ancient versions of this prayer even mention specific saints, or the priest with whom the confession is being made.  This is not an invocation of the saints, “Almighty God and Father” is the addressee of this prayer.  Rather, this confession sets the worshiper into a crowd; we must confess our sins to one another and we forgive those who have trespassed against us.  This is pertinent to the devotional theme of Compline, as we are reminded to make amends and restitution with our neighbor, not just with God, before our earthly life is ended.

Faithfully Stay the Course

February 24th is Saint Matthias Day in the traditional liturgical calendar. Some churches and provinces have moved him over to May 14, closer to Ascension Day and Pentecost, where his story in Acts 1 fits right in from a biblical-narrative perspective. But we’ve still got him in late February, usually in Lent. It’s always nice to have a feast day in Lent – we get a little break from the penitential tone! – but there’s also something appropriate about observing this Saint during Lent: Matthias is only one of the twelve Apostles because he was selected to replace Judas, the traitor.

There are two lessons that I’d like to draw from this liturgical observance (and from Acts 1:12-26).

  1. Apostolic authority is a critical point for the unity of the Church.
  2. Every Christian must faithfully stay the course of the faith.

On the point of apostolic authority, this is something I like to try to mention during Ascensiontide but often don’t have time – (there is a lot of fantastic theology and lessons about Jesus and his ministry to us to tease out in that brief mini-season, and I seldom have opportunity to write or preach about ecclesiology then) – the eleven considered it vitally important that they replace Judas and restore their number to twelve apostles. Jesus had just told them that while it was not for them to know “the times or seasons” concerning the Kingdom of God, but that they would “receive power” when the Holy Spirit would descend upon them. And this wasn’t entirely in the future; Jesus had already “breathed on them the Holy Spirit” giving them authority to forgive and retain sins. In that authority they’d already been entrusted with, they took it upon them to select and ordain a new twelfth man – Matthias. St. Peter even quotes Psalm 109 to acknowledge the necessity of this act: “Let another take his office.” And in the Greek, the word translated “office” is the source for the word “episcopate” – the office of an overseer, or bishop.

They knew that when the Holy Spirit would descend upon the whole church (on the day of Pentecost) the leadership had to be ready. Ancient Israel was founded with Twelve Tribes, and the New Israel was to be re-founded with Twelve Apostles – this was a very self-conscious and -aware decision, they knew the significance of what they were doing.

And, although the nature of the authority of those first Apostles is different from the authority that has been passed down among the Bishops ever since, the apostolic role of the bishops assembled is still critical for the church today. On their own, bishops might be little more than super-priests, pastors of megachurches, or of multi-site churches. That’s where cynicism from tired or burned church-goers (or skepticism from presbyterians and congregationalists) thrives. The real power, or authority, of the bishop is not so much in the individual as in the episcopacy as an institution and a group. One bishop can go astray about as easily as one priest or pastor, honestly. But a group, or college, of bishops, is another matter. Yes, a group can be corrupted too – we consider the entire Roman Church to be in error for example. But a church is at its best when its bishops speak together with one voice, in accord with the Church global and temporal.

An example of this was just demonstrated last month when the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America concluded a year of deliberations concerning the issues of ministering to people with same-sex attraction. It’s one of the greatest ministry challenges of our time, and must be met with careful biblical attention and loving attention to the situation of people today. Their excellent statement can be read online here.

But of course, there are always people who want to add their own nuances, pick at words, and even twist or re-cast what has been said. No small online furor has followed, muddying the waters and making some people wonder what the exodus from the Episcopal Church was all about if we’re just going to re-tread the same ground all over again. One of the angles of corrective response is an article in which a respected Anglican examines for us the nature of the teaching authority of bishops as a unified body. I commend that reading to you also!

But this also leads us to the second point about the election of Matthias to be the new 12th Apostle – he was “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us“. And, critically unlike Judas Iscariot, Matthias faithfully stayed the course. He did not falter from the way of Christ; he remained constant like the other eleven.

Other Scriptures read on this day attest to this also: Psalm 15 asks the hard-yet-important question of who can dwell on God’s holy hill; Philippians 3 gives us the example of “press[ing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus“. Simply put, there is a way that leads to life, and a way that leads to death. Judas chose the latter for himself; we must choose the former. Yes, salvation is not simply about what you choose – the real work of salvation is Jesus’ death on the Cross for the sins of the world, but if you reject his sacrifice on your behalf then you’ll have to find another way to pay for your sins… and there isn’t one.

The story of St. Matthias taking Judas’ office, or episcopacy, is a sobering reminder. Please, faithfully stay the course of the faith. In Christ alone is salvation wrought, and only his Body (the Church) offers him to us.

Comforting those who mourn

After someone has died, there are mourners to comfort. That’s where the Prayer Book’s Prayers for a Vigil come in – after the death but before the burial/funeral. It’s not a feature of the classical Prayer Books, though it is a long-standing custom and a very real practical and pastoral need.

One of the biggest challenges in life, especially in ministry, is knowing what to say at critical moments. Obviously, when someone dies, one can’t just spout off any old sentimental drivel, toxic positivity, or (in the opposite extreme) act callously and flippantly toward those who grieve a loss. This rite helps give us sound words to say: two excellent Psalm examples, two excellent brief Scripture readings, and a set of prayers all geared to help people understand and process the painful reality of death, and the Christian hope to be found therein.

This Customary’s walk-through of the Prayers for a Vigil can be found in full here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-prayers-for-a-vigil/

Liturgical care for the dying

It goes without saying that what we say to people as their time of death approaches is very important. With limited time left for them to live, we find the need to cut to the chase, say what needs to be said, make amends, confess the truth, and so forth, bubbles up to the surface. Sometimes this can be emotional and difficult, and this applies to the pastoral relationship as well. How does a clergyman minister to someone who is dying?

Various pastoral manuals have always been around to help parish priests care for the flock at time of death, but only in modern times have Prayer Books started including actual rites for such occasions. The rite provided in our 2019 Prayer Book is well-crafted to be a few minutes long, one minute long, or just a few seconds, depending upon the situation’s need. When there is ample time to prepare and space for family members to gather, it can be a strangely beautiful time of worship. Other times it will be a simpler matter: the priest visiting the barely-conscious patient in a hospital bed – time for interaction is just about over and the Last Prayers and Commendations simply need to be given (still heartily and clearly). Or there might be an emergency or other crisis, the priest having only seconds to speak before the chance is lost. This rite provides all you need for any of those situations.

Of course, all that careful liturgical crafting will go to waste if the minister, in a pinch, doesn’t know what’s in this rite and how to implement it when put on the spot. So here is the Saint Aelfric Customary’s explanation of the Ministry to the Dying and how to put the page into practice.

Prayers for Mission in the Evening

The prayers for mission in Evening Prayer are less directly concerned with evangelism or outreach compared to the Morning Prayer collects.  With the day drawing to a close, and its work ending, these prayers appropriately reflect on the results and signs of the missio Dei (God’s mission) in our lives and churches.


The first prayer looks to the end-goal of missions work: the universal worship of God.  The worship of the “whole heavens” sets the paradigm for the whole earth, all nations, all tongues – men, women, and children.  This prayer also reminds us that worship entails peaceful love and service.

O God and Father of all, whom the whole heavens adore:
Let the whole earth also worship you, all nations obey you, all tongues confess and bless you, and men, women, and children everywhere love you and serve you in peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer was first published in 1933 and entered the Prayer Book in 1979.  The original phrase “men and women everywhere” has been changed to include children in this edition.


The second collect has been attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo though its origins remain unclear.  A form of it was included in the evening intercessions printed in a 1919 service book, The order of divine service for public worship.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering,
pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

This beloved collect, also used in Compline, prays for the “works of mercy” angle of mission, with the evening and nighttime as the specific focus.  Rather than drawing upon the usual night-dark-sin-death line of imagery, this prayer draws the worshiper to a posture of compassion toward others “who work, or watch, or weep” while others sleep.  And then, rather than directing us to minister to such persons, the prayer instead implores Jesus to tend, give rest, bless, soothe, pity, and shield others.  It is a sobering and touching reminder that Christian acts of mercy are the work of Christ himself.  And all that because of his love for a working, watching, and weeping world.


As if it’s building off of the previous prayer for mission, the third collect reminds us up front that the signs of his presence are made manifest in his servants, that is, people who carry out acts of love and service toward others.  Rather than a prayer about mission directly, thus, this prayer deals with the in-house benefits of a mission-minded life.  As Christians serve as Christ’s presence in the world, his “abounding grace” increases in our own midst.  The “Spirit of love” and “companionship with one another” together create a healthful community – a church – that makes Jesus present both to us and to the whole world.

O God, you manifest in your servants the signs of your presence:
Send forth upon us the Spirit of love,
that in companionship with one another your abounding grace may increase among us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This collect is a 1979 revision of a prayer written by William Bright in his 1864 book Ancient Collects.  Its original form dates back to the 8th century.

An evening prayer for Saturday

This prayer was translated from the Sarum Breviary in Selina F. Fox’s A Chain of Prayer Across the Ages, published in 1913, and adopted as a collect for Saturday in Evening Prayer in the 1979 Prayer Book.

Collect for the Eve of Worship

O God, the source of eternal light: Shed forth your unending day upon us who watch for you, that our lips may praise you, our lives may bless you, and our worship on the morrow give you glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Like most of the other weekend prayers in the Daily Office, this collect draws upon both night-day imagery and Cross-Eternity theological references. God is the source of eternal light who brings unending day, thus our response of praise is found in our lips and lives, with “our worship on the morrow” as a specific example thereof.  Thus, once again, the life of salvation is marked by worship both now and forever.

An evening prayer for Friday

Dating back to at least the Didache, if not the apostolic age itself, Fridays have been a day of special devotion and discipline in Christian tradition.  This is linked to why we worship together on Sundays: as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord on the Lord’s Day, so we also observe the death of our Lord with a fast on Friday.  It is the part of the weekly rhythm of the Christian spiritual life: fasting and penitence upon our Lord’s death, sabbath rest on the day of his repose, and gathering with joy to worship the risen Lord on his resurrection day.  Along those lines, this prayer directs us right to the death of Christ, celebrating the victory Jesus wrought thereby, referencing  texts such as 1 Corinthians 15:56 and Romans 6:5.  We then turn to the reality of our own death – we pray that we would die a “peaceful” (that is, prepared-for and accepting) death, faithfully following Jesus through death toward our own resurrection unto glory.  It is an eschatological prayer, looking ahead to the end of all things, through and beyond even death itself.

A Collect for Faith

Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death:
Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way,
that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness;
for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen.

This collect seems to have originated in a supplemental liturgical volume called The Priest’s Prayer Book, by R. F. Littledale and J. E. Vaux, which went through several edition throughout the 19th century.  It first entered the Prayer Book tradition in 1892 as one of the Additional Prayers supplied at the end of the Burial service.  There it remained in the 1928 Prayer Book, in the Rite II Burial Office in 1979, and in 2019.  In 1979, however, it was also introduced as a “Collect for Fridays” in Evening Prayer, where it remains in the present book.

An evening prayer for Thursday

This prayer draws upon the experience of the disciples who did not recognize Jesus until after he had opened the Scriptures to them and broken bread with them (Luke 24:13-35).  The worshiper invites a similar degree of fellowship with Jesus, beseeching his continued presence that our hearts would burn with zeal and hope, and that we would grow to recognize him in Word and Sacrament alike.  In the cycle of the week, where Sunday is the day of resurrection and Friday is the day of the crucifixion, it makes sense that this prayer should land on Thursday as a memorial of Maundy Thursday, when our Lord first instituted the Sacrament of Holy Communion at that Supper.

Collect for the Presence of Christ

Lord Jesus, stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past;
be our companion in the way, kindle our hearts, and awaken hope,
that we may know you as you are revealed in Scripture and the breaking of bread.
Grant this for the sake of your love. Amen.

This collect originates in The Liturgy of the Hours, promulgated for the Roman Church by Pope Paul VI in 1974.  It was, and remains, the concluding Collect in Vespers for Monday of Week IV in that cycle of daily prayers.  The American Prayer Book of 1979 pulled this collect into a similar position in Evening Prayer, though common usage (now endorsed in the present Prayer Book) landed it on Thursday instead of Monday.  The Liturgy of the Hours has since revised the wording of this collect, but it remains here in its 1979 form.

An evening prayer for Wednesday

This collect was written by Bishop William Reed Huntington, compiled from pieces of several ancient collects, and proposed for the 1892 Prayer Book, but was not adopted until 1928, where it serves as one of the additional collects for Family Prayer on page 595.  Some minor edits to the wording were implemented in 1979 – “the life of mortal men” became “the life of all who live”, “the timely blessings of the day” became “the blessings of the day that is past” – all of which were retained here.

A Collect for Protection

O God, the life of all who live, the light of the faithful,
the strength of those who labor, and the repose of the dead:
We thank you for the blessings of the day that is past,
and humbly ask for your protection through the coming night.
Bring us in safety to the morning hours;
through him who died and rose again for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

As this prayer was compiled from several ancient collects, so are its devotional references numerous.  God is our life, our light, our strength, our repose; we thank him for all the blessings we receive and seek his special protection in our times of weakness, looking toward the safety of a future “morning” which is just as much a spiritual as it is a chronological dawn.  The death and resurrection of Jesus is the basis through which we pray, which is a fairly common appeal at the end of a collect but is particularly appropriate as these central Gospel realities are the basis on which we can turn to God for any of the things in this prayer.