‘The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end.” Thus begins Compline, the final service of the Daily Office. We ask for the grace and peace of God during the long night hours ahead. We ask for ‘a perfect end.’ Then follows a brief confession of sin to end the day, but to me, a confession has already begun in the opening sentence. I cannot end the day on my own. I need help.
This is the call of Compline, to close the day with the help of God. Every day needs some form of closure: normal, boring, and mundane days; stressful and exhausting days; days of relaxation and joy. This may be the greatest gift of Compline–to accept God’s wisdom that each day must come to an end, no matter what has or has not happened.
We need the holy space of Compline in an age when daytime activities extends into the night hours, when work erodes the hours of leisure, when endless entertainment dulls the soul. Our culture is a culture of Blue Lights–phones, laptops, tablets, and TVs. We welcome these backlit devices into our bedrooms, sources of artificial light that keep us constantly communicating, engaged, and entertained with the outside world. It may seem a subconscious decision of the night hours, but it’s a decision nonetheless. We were not made for constant engagement, entertainment, and productivity. Even the secular world knows that.
Compline in a Blue Light Age
Numerous sleep studies have been conducted in the past few years about the effect of backlit devices on human beings, especially teenagers. In a Washington Post article from 2014, researchers discovered that 68% of teenagers keep an electronic device on–whether a movie, video game, or laptop–all night long. I imagine the numbers of adults who do the same is alarmingly high as well.
However, another sleep study was done in 2013 where people camped in the Rocky Mountains for a week. This study found that in one week away from electronic devices, the circadian rhythms of the participants were restored to the rise and fall of the sun. Christians shouldn’t be surprised in these outcomes. God gave us limits within his creation, but these limits bring rest and freedom.
But the truest feature of human beings is not our limited nature, but our longing for communion with God. And this is what Compline restores–communion with God within the rhythms of his creation. In a blue light age, Compline is an increasingly important discipline. I do not wish to lessen the importance of the other Daily Office services–Morning Prayer, Noonday, and Evening Prayer–below that of Compline. However, it is urgent that Christians bear witness in this age that God is the author of rest. In a time where managers require more and more of their employees beyond the working day, we need a place to release all of those stresses and cares. We need to know that our life is not defined by the anxiety of unfinished work. There is such a thing as completed work, even if numerous tasks await us at our waking. Compline is a time to bring all the cares of the day and place them in the care of God alone. Compline completes the day.
A.G. Sertillanges describes Compline as completion saying:
I take the word figuratively–to complete and to inaugurate; for every completion of the continuous work which we postulate is a beginning as well as a terminal point. We close only to open again. Evening is the connecting medium between the daily sections which taken together make a life. (The Intellectual Life, p. 92)
Compline reminds us of the holy limits God established for his creation. He separates day from night, darkness from light. Seeing these beginnings and endings, God calls them good (Genesis 1.18). The beginnings and endings of creation are gifts, not burdens, for us. To close and complete the day, we need to be reminded that only the Holy Spirit completes our work. The Spirit, who ever works in mysterious ways, brings fruit from our labors in ways hidden to us. Kathleen Norris finds within Compline that holy mystery of our work when she writes:
Every night Compline invites us to be like the farmer of the Gospel parable, to admit to the limitations of our consciousness, and submit to the realm of God: ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.’ (Acedia and Me, p. 193)
Befriending the Night Hours with Compline
Recently, I’ve begun praying Compline on a more regular basis. There are nights when I’ve failed to pray Compline and I notice a difference. But I don’t shame myself for missing Compline. I simply resolve to pray Compline the next night.
Over time, I’ve seen that Compline gives shape to the whole evening, not just the night hours of sleep. In the hours before praying Compline, I’m learning to decelerate the day, to slow down, to bring my mind and body to a more relaxed state. That means I’ll miss the second half of some games I want to watch. I won’t be able to watch every show that’s recommended to me. My email inbox may be accumulating messages, but no matter. They can wait until the morning, when I can write more thoughtful responses anyway.
What I need most is a place and time to close the day. Find the most enclosed space in your home–an office, even a closet–and pray Compline from the Book of Common Prayer. The service can be prayed in an unhurried fashion in ten minutes. But those ten minutes will bring grace to your body, mind, and spirit.
I don’t use Compline as a method of sleep therapy, but I’m sleeping better since I’ve begun praying Compline regularly. Perhaps it’s because I’m ruminating less on what I need to be doing, problems to be solved, messages to answer and meditating more on this verse from Psalm 4 appointed for Compline: ‘In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.’ I’m not always conscious of that verse in my thoughts, but saying them on a regular basis must be training my body and soul in ways hidden from me.
Compline is so much more than a discipline, it leads me into a beautiful mystery of the night hours. Though I know not how, I’m beginning to experience that Psalm 16.7 is really true: ‘I bless the Lord who gives me counsel, in the night also my heart instructs me.’ And when I wake, then I know it is time to praise God for the new day ahead.
Photo: Public Domain