In the shadow of a global pandemic and the uncertainty it has brought to every aspect of life, I have found myself drawn again and again to the Compline service in the Book of Common Prayer. I have especially found deep comfort in the service’s collects and prayers, which deftly blend a realism about the contingencies of life with an unswerving trust in the steady hand of God.
As an example of this blend, I want to begin with the ending of the service. Before the final blessing, the service concludes with these words,
“Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”
To watch with Christ is, of course, an act of faith, but so too is resting in peace. In sleep, that little death, we creatures become our most creaturely, our most vulnerable. Sleep is its own act of faith because the night is and always has been precarious. The prayer book services for Evening Prayer and especially Compline take up the reality of the dangers of the night and offer them up in prayer, something Alan Jacobs wonderfully describes in his biography of The Book of Common Prayer (see pg. 33).
“Guide us waking and guard us sleeping…” I have found myself returning to these words as a summative act of faith whereby I entrust myself to God at my most exposed. These words are a salve in this time of upheaval and uncertainty, and frankly, sometimes these words or some variation thereof feel like all I can muster.
“Guide us waking and guard us sleeping…” These words encapsulate for me the spirit of the Compline service. To pray Compline is to say, on the one hand, with the wisdom that children have, that the darkness indeed holds frightful things, but to say, on the other hand, with the faith of a Christian, that there is a light that shines in the darkness. These words and the whole Compline liturgy whisper back to the faithful what we must always strive to remember, “Creature, you are but a breath. But there is one who watches with and for you.” But the liturgy never just says something. The liturgy always invites us to say and to pray these things, too, as confession, as worship, as petition.
A set of Collects anchor the Compline liturgy, some of which are among the most poignant and moving prayers in the whole prayer book. These collects invite us to confess our contingency and to entrust ourselves to God. I want to reflect briefly on three of the collects, and in so doing, invite you to pray them too.
“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 collect, in particular, has been a kind of light for me not only in the darkness of night, but in the darkness of a global pandemic, in the darkness that uncertainty brings, and in the ever-present darkness of our own hearts. When I have met with my small group over Zoom, and we have confessed our loneliness, our confusion, our anger, our doubts, we have returned to this prayer as a reminder of those who are suffering from this illness and those who are fighting this illness. Going to sleep, those who pray these words acknowledge that they are no longer on duty, no longer watching, but that there are those who wait, those who watch, and those who weep still.
“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.”
This collect acknowledges that we are indeed those “who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life.” Boy, do I feel the weight of that weariness right now, but as true as this is, it is only half the story. In the same breath of prayer, the collect asks that the weary might find rest in the changelessness of God. Here again is the blend I mentioned. Such a prayer marries the realism of Ecclesiastes with the hope of the empty tomb, and in this complex moment, that is the moral clarity and theological complexity I need.
“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.”
COVID-19, as we well know, is a communicable disease, so the logic of social distancing says, give up proximity, in effect, give up community as you know it in order to fight the virus. But even with social distance, we still share a common life, and the disease itself has highlighted for me how much our common life does indeed depend on the toil of others. For all that is dire and for every supply chain that is on the verge of snapping, it is actually incredible how many things have remained intact, how many services that we still enjoy basically unchanged. For the end-user, at least, these chains and the people who make them possible remain essentially invisible, and yet the work that makes these services possible is both a boon to our common life and can be toil for those who do such work. This prayer reminds me to be grateful for those who toil and to seek ways to bless and honor them.
Give Compline a Try
These are only three of the collects in Compline. I hope their blend of theological depth and humane honesty invites you to not just think about them but to pray them too. Anglicans often say that we pray our theology, invoking the spirit of the ancient maxim, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi (“the law of prayer is the law of believing,’). These collects and the others in the service, along with the Psalms, the Scriptures, and the other prayers, invite us to pray a theology of human contingency and a theology of utter dependence on a merciful and unchanging God. Begin to let these truths seep into your bones not first as ideas, but as truths that you pray.
Pray Compline tonight (pp. 57-65 in the ACNA 2019 Prayer Book, with a shorter version on pp.73-75). Sit with the Psalms. Contemplate the reality of darkness, both as the literal night and as the existential darkness of this present evil age. Contemplate too the providence of God, who is not just powerful, but also merciful. Pray the collects as a reminder that life has always been precarious, full of change and chance, but no less a gift for its contingency. For it comes from the unchangeable one, the Father of lights, who watches, waits, and yes, weeps too in the face of his son, Jesus Christ our Lord.