Compline: the little bird

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March 27, 2016 by Worship, Community, Formation

‘Into your hands O Lord, I commit my spirit.

Do you know Compline?   I imagine most reading this do.  I think of it as ‘the little bird’ of the offices.

Compline was the monastic service of night prayer, but it’s found a place of its own in Anglican tradition, at least.  Our church dusts it down every Advent and Lent, for a 9pm Wednesday night service.

It’s a short, putting-to-bed of the day’s concerns.  There is one sung hymn, one psalm, some canticles, some silence, some simple speech and responses, collects and perhaps intercessions.   It takes ten to fifteen minutes.  In a quiet, half-lit church, in the company of people you trust, or at least ought to trust, it can be a very beautiful and peaceful experience.

Not that it’s just a pat on the head at the end of the day.   From the opening line, Compline mixes images of sleep and death (‘The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end’).   The traditional psalm, no 91, speaks of being protected by the Lord, but reminds us just what kind of apocalypses we seek protection from.   The Nunc Dimitis (ie. the Song of Simeon, below) teases us each night with the questions: how well have we spent today?  and when our end comes, will it feel like we have done all we ought?    And in collect and intercession, we can pray concern for those who will be vulnerable or working through the night, even as we pray for a night of peace to ready us for the day to come.   All this is as it should be: Chrisitanity is never just about ‘me’.

Recently I have found the little bird works in other settings too.   At home, alone, I value a service which is so steady I can almost learn it off by heart.   Unlike Morning and Evening Prayer, there is no programme of daily Bible reading; little seasonal variation, and you can use the same psalm every day.   After a while you can more or less pray it in the dark.

The small group I’m part of has begun to use it too.   After an hour of structured work or friendly discussion, depending on how the spirit takes us, we close with Compline.   It’s long enough to properly engage us in prayer; short enough that it fits in the timescale of a comfortable evening meeting.    For weeks, our group spoke the hymn, but recently we plucked up the courage to try to sing it as we were – without any expertise or accompaniment.  There’s something moving and formative about that; and the idea that a small group of lay people can collectively decide to sing seemed to show that we were ready to say we were more Christians than we were embarassed Englishers.

Compline in this setting works better than extemporare prayer.  People in the group have had their say, and now it’s time to settle.  Compline provides closure to the session as well as the day.  We have intercessions, but they take the completed discussion of the evening and relate it to the themes in the Compline service.

I wonder what would happen if we took the little bird elsewhere?   It’s teleological theme speaks at other times and places.   Soon I will have finished an eighteen-month research project for a Christian charity, and whatever time of day I walk out on that project for the last time, so many of the words of Compline will feel like the right words to use; perhaps none more so than Simeon’s:

Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace

Your word has been fulfilled

My own eyes have seen the salvation

Prepared in the sight of every people

A light to reveal you to the nation

And the glory of your people, Israel.

If I say them, I shall say them more in hope than in confidence.  But perhaps they will fit.

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