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.

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.

Customary update for Compline

The service of Compline in the 2019 Prayer Book has a small number of options to navigate: four Psalms, four readings (plus another seven in the Additional Directions), and a handful of collects to choose from among the prayers.

Although the saying of Compline is usually a private devotion, and thus highly subject to personal preference, familiarity, or brevity, I’ve got a Customary entry for Compline, too, by which you can order your use of the options in this brief service of prayer and meditation.

You can find it here: Customary: Compline

The Readings at Compline

The Night Office, usually called Compline, is a pleasant little piece of liturgy that was just too beloved to die.  When the first Prayer Book was released, its adherents were criticized by Papists for having only two daily Offices – Morning/Mattins and Evening Prayer.  Although the Cranmerian genius was to streamline elements of the medieval monastic seven-fold office into two, popular devotional manuals quickly arose to provide people with orders for midday prayer and compline for their own private prayers.  John Cosin is one noteworthy contributor in this area, having re-created all the monastic canonical Hours in a Prayer Book friendly manner.

So in that regard it was no great surprise that eventually they would reappear in an actual Prayer Book.  Both the 1979 and the 2019 Books have Compline, and I think the Church is the richer for it, even though this office has many “redundancies” with Evening Prayer.

Our order for Compline is a bit different from its medieval forebear and its modern Roman counterpart.  Most of the ingredients are the same, but their arrangement has shuffled somewhat.  In particular, the diversity of Scripture readings now offered by Rome’s Liturgy of the Hours and the 2019 Prayer Book alike is something of an innovation on previous tradition.

To my knowledge, the primary reading for Compline, and possible the only one in monastic practice (we’d have to check) is 1 Peter 5:8-9 Be sober-minded, be watchful…  But now we have four choices printed in our Prayer Book:

  1. Jeremiah 14:9 You, O Lord, are in the midst of us…
  2. Matthew 11:28-30 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden…
  3. Hebrews 13:20-21 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead…
  4. 1 Peter 5:8-9 Be sober-minded; be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls…

To these the Additional Directions on page 65 add seven more possibilities:

  1. Isaiah 26:3-4  You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you…
  2. Isaiah 30:15  Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest…
  3. Matthew 6:31-34  Do not be anxious, saying “What shall we eat?…
  4. 2 Corinthians 4:6  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”…
  5. 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10  God has not destined us for wrath…
  6. 1 Thessalonians 5:23  Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you…
  7. Ephesians 4:26-27  Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down…

The purpose for these additions is that if Compline is said every day, especially in a group setting, having more readings to draw from may be desired and beneficial.  But it lists these seven as additional options, not the sum total.  That means you can read whatever you want, actually.  But the best advice is this: stick to something very short, and don’t vary it up too much. Compline is meant to be a short devotional time, not a lengthy study of the Scriptures.  Morning and Evening Prayer is where we are primarily meant together around the Bible and listen.  Minor Offices like Compline are supposed to be more prayer-oriented and reflective.

So stick to a small rotation of readings, allowing you or your group to gain familiarity with these verses, and draw deeper from the well of Sacred Scripture during this quiet time of prayer.

If you want a guide to how you might rotate them, this is how I’ve ordered them for the Saint Aelfric Customary.

  • Sunday (Advent through Epiphanytide) – 2 Corinthians 4:6
  • Sunday (Pre-Lent and Lent) – Matthew 11:28-30
  • Sunday (Easter through Trinity) – Hebrews 13:20-21
  • Sunday (after Trinity through Proper 16) – Isaiah 26:3-4
  • Sunday (Proper 17-29) – Isaiah 30:15
  • Monday – 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10
  • Tuesday – 1 Peter 5:8-9
  • Wednesday – Ephesians 4:26-27
  • Thursday – 1 Thessalonians 5:23
  • Friday – Jeremiah 14:9
  • Saturday – Matthew 6:31-34

What I did was write the extra seven verses onto either side of a piece of paper roughly 4″x4″ and taped it gently onto page 61 so it’s like an extra page of Scripture readings along with the standard four.  That way I don’t need to grab a Bible for Compline, which would be particularly silly and bothersome for just a couple sentences to read, and when I’m angling to go to bed in a few minutes.