Finishing Compline

Although in the classical Anglican Prayer Books the Nunc Dimittis is resident in Evening Prayer, its place in the spirituality of liturgical time most fully comes into its own here in Compline.  The language of “let your servant depart in peace” is an integral part of this office’s devotional emphases on sleep as an image of death, and the light of Christ transforming both the worshiper and the world.  For further notes, see Evening Prayer.

This Canticle has been a part of the service of Compline since at least the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the antiphon is also of ancient use in the Church.  The positioning has shifted in different breviaries – some before the Prayers (such as the Sarum) and some after the Prayers (such as in modern Prayer Books and the Roman Rite).  Precise translation of the antiphon into English varies among different sources; ours retains the wording of the 1979 Prayer Book.

The addition of three Alleluias during Eastertide is also a pre-Reformation tradition, marking one of the heightened features of praise during that festal season.


The call and response, Benedicamus in Latin, is a common closure for many offices.

Retained from the 1979 Prayer Book, the final benediction said by the officiant is drawn from the Roman Rite.

The almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
bless us and keep us, this night and evermore. Amen.

In the monastic setting where most of the daily office tradition was developed, these prayers would be the worshipers’ last words before going (back) to sleep. The benediction is not a formal blessing in the sense of a priest’s role, and thus is proper for an officiant of any order to say.  It draws from part of the Aaronic blessing (Numbers 6:24) but is made explicitly Trinitarian and occasioned for Compline in the adding of “this night and evermore.”  Although it is a traditional benediction for this office, it is an appropriate final bedtime prayer to use in family settings and other late-evening occasions.

Bedtime Prayers, Old & New

The versicles and responses are taken from Psalms 31:6 and 17:8, and have been part of the Compline tradition for centuries. They set the prayers’ tone with expressions of commendation and trust.  Appealing to God’s completed work of redemption we entrust our spirit, and hide ourselves, in his protective arms “as a hen gathers her chicks” (Matt. 23:37 & Luke 13:34).

Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit;
For you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth.
Keep me, O Lord, as the apple of your eye;
Hide me under the shadow of your wings.


The First Collect is a traditional collect for Compline in the Western liturgy. It is a quintessential Compline prayer in Western tradition, imploring the protection of God and his angels against “all snares of the enemy”, dovetailing neatly with the traditional reading from 1 Peter 5.

Visit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all snares of the enemy; let your holy angels dwell with us to preserve us in peace; and let your blessing be upon us always; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Second Collect is the Collect for Aid Against Perils in Evening Prayer.  As its history has alternated its home between Vespers and Compline, it appropriately shows up in both in the present Prayer Book.

Lighten our darkness, we beseech you, O Lord; and by your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Third Collect is an ancient prayer that, throughout the 20th century, has made its way into the Compline services of several Anglican Prayer Books. As the pace of modern life continues to increase, the heart of this prayer grows ever more relevant to the typical worshiper: the “changes and chances of this life” are indeed quite wearying, it is only in the “eternal changeless” of God that we can find protection through both literal night and in the spiritual night of death.

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Fourth Collect is also an ancient prayer that has become a standard Compline collect in Anglican Prayer Books.  The wording of the latter half of this prayer was re-written in the 1979 Prayer Book, and is here restored to its original meaning. Returning to the imagery of light and darkness, this prayer brings us to the themes of illumination and cleansing.  The “celestial brightness” of God invokes God’s appearance throughout Ezekiel 1 and similar passages, and we implore our gloriously bright God to sanctify us – to cast out the works of darkness from among us.  This is reflective of both the worshiper’s act of repentance at the end of the day and of the Christian’s final acts of reconciliation before death.

Look down, O Lord, from your heavenly throne, illumine this night with your celestial brightness, and from the children of light banish the deeds of darkness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Collect for Saturdays is from the Taizé community tradition, adapted in 1979 and retained here. It is very similar to the Collect for the Eve of Worship (in Evening Prayer).  The resurrection of Jesus is likened to light, in continuity with typical Compline imagery, and we look forward to the morning’s time of worship.  The “paschal mystery” is the heart of the weekly rhythm of worship, every Sunday an Easter of sorts, so Saturday night is rightly a time of joyful anticipation of that approaching celebration.

We give you thanks, O God, for revealing your Son Jesus Christ to us by the light of his resurrection: Grant that as we sing your glory at the close of this day, our joy may abound in the morning as we celebrate the Paschal mystery; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Evening Prayer’s Second Prayer for Mission, although relatively new to the Prayer Book tradition, has become a popular favorite, and thus is enjoyed both in Evening Prayer and in Compline.  Its night-time appeals arguably befit Compline better, given its similarities to other historic Compline collects.

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.

Functionally similar to the previous prayer, this last collect more directly points the worshiper to intercession for workers of the nightshift – a reality that has only become more pronounced since its authorship.  The interconnectedness of society mirrors the unity of the Body of Christ, some praying while others sleep, and keeps the worshiper engaged with the larger realities of creation rather than being too focused on the personally immediate and present. Alternatively entitled “for Those Who Work While Others sleep,” this was written for the 1979 Prayer Book by its long-time custodian, the Rev. Dr. Charles M. Guilbert.

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Fasting has a Purpose

Fasting is perhaps the most prominent and well-known feature of the season of Lent, even though many people today don’t practice it. One of the issues that presents itself to people seems to be that fasting is often misunderstood. Since today is Friday, a fast day, let’s take a look at a few examples of what fasting isn’t, and what it actually is.

Fasting is not an end unto itself

Simply “giving something up for Lent” or refraining from eating certain foods at certain times does not make a person more holy. All foods were created for our enjoyment, provided we give thanks to God. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). Fasting, however, is a powerful tool in the toolbox of spiritual disciplines if used rightly. Fasting is a discipline that we can celebrate and use in conjunction with prayer and alms-giving. You can read more about that connection in Isaiah 58 and in part of this short article.

Fasting is not abstinence

It is not always clear in the Bible, but there is a difference between fasting and abstinence. Fasting is a reduction, abstinence is an elimination. When Moses, Jesus, or others fasted for 40 days, it does not typically mean that they ate or drank nothing at all – the human body can survive without food that long if properly prepared, but certainly not without water. One might appeal to divine providence in certain cases, but to belabor that point would be to miss the spiritual point: the discipline of fasting before special occasions or for special intercessory or penitential purposes is valuable to every believer. To fast is to reduce the amount or luxury of a thing. The biggest traditional example of this is to cut meat out of the diet because eating meat was associated with feasting, celebration, even worship. If you want some tips on what fasting might look like in today’s world, you can check out this article.

Fasting is not self-harm

Again, fasting is a spiritual discipline. It is geared toward exercising self-denial such that your spiritual attentions are provoked and improved in some way. Thus, fasting in such a way that your health suffers is not a true fast. The goal is redirect your passions, not make yourself sick. This is not about self-punishment, but self-control. This is why, traditionally, the young, the old, the sick, and pregnant women have been exempt from rules of fasting. It’s not that we’re going easy on “the weak”, but that people must not be encouraged to harm themselves. If you’re on medication, have dietary issues, or other food-related situation, fasting from food is something that you should not pursue without pastoral and medical advice.

Fasting is not just about food

Last of all, there are many other things that can be reduced or eliminated by way of the spiritual discipline of fasting. Social media, television, other activities of leisure or entertainment, are all excellent examples of things that can profitably be reduced or set aside for the sake of increased spiritual pursuits. Don’t get hung up on “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent!” when there are so many other possibilities out there. Look to where your habits and desires are found, and explore ways to curb and control those habits and desires – that is where you truly learn self-control.

The Lessons at Compline

Traditional orders for Compline did not have a Scripture lesson as such, though the devotional reading of 1 Peter 5:8-9a has been a mainstay of the office – often near the beginning of the liturgy.  As the Office of Compline entered into the 20th century the lessons (both in Anglican and Roman practice) took on a distinct position in the liturgy, mirroring the other Offices in the daytime.  The Canadian and American Prayer Books of 1962 and 1979 included three readings from Jeremiah 14, Matthew 11, and Hebrews 13, as does the Church of England’s Common Prayer (2000).  The additional readings from 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, 5:23, and Ephesians 4:26-27 (and Jeremiah 14:9a again) are drawn by the modern Roman Liturgy of the Hours.

The Four Primary Scripture Lessons in the 2019 Prayer Book:

Jeremiah 14:9

Particularly appropriate for Fridays and other penitential days, this verse comes from a plea for mercy despite Israel’s sins.  Famine and disaster has struck, yet despite their unworthiness Jeremiah pleads for God to save his people once more.  As the worshiper prepares to sleep, this verse echoes the same cry of the heart: “Leave us not!”

Matthew 11:28-30

One of the Comfortable Words in the Communion service is found here, taking a more literal context of finding “rest” after the burden of the day.

Hebrews 13:20-21

These verses are a benediction, delivering the blessed promise of sanctification at God’s hand.  The image of being “brought again from the dead” is a source of peace in preparation for sleep.

1 Peter 5:8-9

This is the quintessential Compline verse.  It highlights the spiritual danger typified by sleep, and the need for wakefulness.  In this sense it also provides the raison d’être for the service of Compline: it is our act of sober-minded watchfulness at night, resisting the prowling darkness that surrounds us at this time of night.

The Seven Additional Scripture Lessons:

Isaiah 26:3-4

The promise of God’s “perfect peace” upon those “whose mind is stayed” on him is “an everlasting rock” of hope, appropriate for bedtime.

Isaiah 30:15

This is the verse that inspired the popular Collet for Quiet Confidence (#82 on BCP 670), and provides another liturgical purpose for the Office of Compline: return and rest in the Lord.

Matthew 6:31-34

Putting the mind at ease at the end of the day can be difficult, and the Lord’s exhortation “Seek first the kingdom of God… do not be anxious about tomorrow” can be precisely the correction one needs right before bed.

2 Corinthians 4:6

The imagery of light shining out of darkness is a straight-forward connection to the devotional place of Compline in the overall life of worship.

1 Thessalonians 5:9-10

The death/sleep versus life/awake theme is evoked in these verses, infusing our act of going to sleep as an act of faith and trust in God’s predestination and Christ’s death for us.

1 Thessalonians 5:23

This verse is another benediction, and the language of being “kept” is appropriate for the context of Compline.  As we sleep, only God can keep us; in the same way, only God can keep us blameless and sanctify us completely before the dawn of Christ’s return.

Ephesians 4:26-27

Similar to 1 Peter 5:8-9, these verses remind us of the active danger of the devil and our need to take action to give him “no opportunity.” Specifically, the worshiper is reminded to give up sinful anger before the day is over – Compline is our last chance to repent before we sleep!

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.