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A Peaceful Night and a Perfect End

By Eugene R. Schlesinger

When I first discovered the Book of Common Prayer as a young evangelical Christian, I quickly determined that Compline was among its greatest treasures. In particular, the final antiphon that accompanies the Nunc Dimittis captivated me: “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”

This captivation was only amplified by the line’s repetition after the canticle. (Of course it’s repeated; that’s how antiphons work! But I didn’t know it at the time.) Here was a clear, poetically expressed articulation of a fundamental posture of the Christian life, and it was a line so good that it bore repeating less than a minute later.

My relationship with the daily offices has gone through several seasonal shifts over the years. Starting around 2009, my “quiet time” was supplanted by Morning Prayer. At first this was a solo endeavor, but in time my wife adopted the practice, and it became a family affair. When our children entered the picture, our bedtime prayers tended to consist of the short form of Compline found in the prayer book’s “Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families” (p. 140).

As they got older, and more capable of sitting still, we transitioned to the full version. Sometimes Evening Prayer has been part of the picture, but that’s always been the most difficult office for me to consistently retain as a practice. Similarly, Noonday Prayer has come and gone at various seasonal junctures. As the kids got older, evening schedules fuller, and bedtimes more fluid, our practice of praying Compline together fell by the wayside. Morning Prayer has been the more-or-less invariable mainstay, perhaps because of that deep-seated pattern of a morning quiet time gained from my evangelical days.

When I began teaching liturgy to (mostly Catholic) graduate pastoral ministry students, I knew that I wanted the Liturgy of the Hours to be a significant feature of their education. So in my core liturgy class, one of the assignments is to commit to praying Morning and Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours every day during the quarter. When our classes meet in the morning, we all pray Morning Prayer together at the outset. When they’re in the evening, we begin with Evening Prayer and close with Compline/Night Prayer.

This serves multiple functions. Obviously, it introduces them to a major (but often neglected) component of the church’s liturgical life. Second, I believe that the Liturgy of the Hours is an important resource for overcoming clericalist mindsets. Recovering lay agency is vital to the future of churches, and is especially important for my Catholic students. And here is an official liturgy of the Catholic Church that requires no ordained person.

Additionally, learning to navigate the Breviary has a steep learning curve, and students usually spend a few weeks pretty confused about what we’re doing and how to proceed. Sometimes, they remain pretty confused even at the end of the quarter. I exploit this, pedagogically, to remind them that the liturgies that seem “normal” and straightforward to them are similarly alien and confusing to newcomers, which presents an opportunity for greater intentionality in liturgical hospitality. Despite this initial frustration, students typically come away with a genuine appreciation for the Liturgy of the Hours, and indicate their intention to continue the practice even after I’m no longer dangling the carrot-and-stick that is a grade before them.

It’s also given me a renewed appreciation for the prayer book and its liturgies. Witnessing my students’ confusion and frustration with the Breviary casts Cranmer’s liturgical reforms into new light, particularly his observation from the Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer:

Moreover, the number and hardness of the Rules called the Pie, and the manifold changings of the service, was the cause, that to turn the Book only, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out (BCP, p. 866).

While the prayer book offices could probably be more user-friendly, in general, the streamlined, consolidated services Cranmer produced do a wonderful job in attaining his goal of making the offices accessible to ordinary Christian folk with secular vocations and day jobs.

Moreover, while familiarity with the Liturgy of the Hours has led to some perplexity over certain features of the prayer book offices (much as I love the Phos Hilaron, there is no reason in the world that Evening Prayer should have an invitatory), in general the limpid and lyrical prose of the Book of Common Prayer remains unrivaled. (Some of this is a translation issue for the current edition of the Breviary, but nevertheless, the contrast is stark.)

All of this brings me back to Compline. Ever since I started requiring my pastoral ministries students to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, I’ve made it my habit to pray that final office of the day in that space after I’ve turned off the lights, but before I’ve fallen asleep. It’s brief enough to pray from memory, and so I do.

Some nights, I am alert through the whole liturgy, and remember before God, in the space allotted before the Nunc Dimittis, one last time before I fall asleep the prayerful intentions that are on my heart, and/or which others have entrusted to me. Other times, I catch myself drifting off to sleep before I’ve reached the Our Father. When the latter happens, it doesn’t distress me in the least. God, who never slumbers or sleeps, knows the prayer requests I have before I ask. And I’m sure that God honors those requests on the nights I fall asleep before making them just as fully as would be the case if I were alert throughout.

The prayer book Compline liturgy begins with the hope that “The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end” (BCP, p. 127), which is matched by the conclusion of the Catholic Church’s office of Night Prayer, which more clearly (if less artfully) petitions for a “restful night and a peaceful death.”

There’s something profoundly appropriate about this experience of drifting off to sleep whilst praying, for my last conscious thoughts to be of and directed to the Lord. In some ways it captures the essence of prayer — a creature’s dependence upon a God whose care for the creature in no way depends on that creature. I can only hope that, by the mercies of Christ, when my life comes to its conclusion, it will be thus — my last thoughts directed towards God and a seamless transition into the fullness of God’s loving embrace.

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