Compline

by Jahnabi Barooah

compline, noun, kom-plin

  • the final church service (or Office) of the day in the Christian tradition of canonical hours. From Medieval Latin hōra complēta, literally: the completed hour, from Latin complēre to fill up, complete.

Every night at 8:30 p.m., brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Anglican monastic community, gather in a dimly-lit riverfront stone chapel on Memorial Drive to pray compline. The Christian tradition of praying at regular intervals throughout the day, variously known as the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours and Opus Dei (“work of God”) is borrowed from the ancient Jewish custom of praying several times a day (cf. “Seven times a day I praise thee” Psalm 119:164, Acts 3:1). It is believed that the Divine Office fulfills the exhortation to “pray constantly” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The last prayer of the day, compline, is designed to be a time of penitence and contemplation before going to bed. In the monastic tradition of the Church, a “great silence” ensues after compline as monks retire to their cells, and do not talk (unless there is an emergency) until after the morning prayer the next day.

Several days this past week I joined the brothers to pray compline in the monastery chapel. Usually there are between 15 and 25 people, including nine or 10 brothers. The service is about 25 minutes long, and comprises of  call-and-response prayer (or preces), readings from scripture, the Lord’s Prayer, psalms and hymns sung in Anglican chant. The mood changes from penitence to adoration to thanksgiving to petition (not necessarily in that order).  The people confess their sins and whisper their joys and sorrows before the Lord. An aunt who was diagnosed with cancer, a friend who lost a job, the loss of a beloved child, a struggle with alcohol addiction. After the brothers sing the final prayer, “The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end,” the people come up and bow in front of the altar, and then stream out in silence in a single file. No words are exchanged (between people). They go in peace trusting in the Lord of light to protect them during the darkness.

I am grateful that I live near a monastery and grateful for monastic communities in general — men and women who dedicate their lives to prayer, and vow to live in poverty, chastity and obedience. To me, they are a powerful sign that faith is not a futile exercise. But last night when I was in the sanctuary during compline, my mind lingered on the opening prayer, “O Lord, make haste to save us” (cp. Psalm 38:22, Psalm 70:1) and in my mind, I imagined generations of faithful Jews and Christians reciting this petition for thousands of years, and then it turned to a pretty sacrilegious thought: So what is this faith worth?

Save us, O Lord, while waking,
and guard us while sleeping,
that awake we may watch with Christ
and asleep may rest in peace.

P.S. — I was quite excited to learn that the architect who designed the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist — Ralph Adams Cram — also designed the chapel at Princeton University (my alma mater) and some other buildings on the Princeton campus.

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