Introduction to Compline
The ancient office of Compline derives its name from a Latin word meaning ‘completion.’ Dating back to the fourth century, and referenced by St. Benedict, St. Basil, and St. John Chrysostom, Compline has been prayed for continuously since then.
The practice of daily prayers grew from the Jewish practice of reciting prayers at set times of the day known as zmanim.
Catholics set up official prayers at the times of the day during the middle ages. The monastic prayer cycle was designed as a means of devoting the whole of one’s daily life to the Lord. It is called the liturgy of the hours:
- Vigil (eighth hour of night: 2 a.m.)
- Matins (a later portion of Vigil, from 3 a.m. to dawn)
- Lauds (dawn; approximately 5 a.m., but varies seasonally)
- Prime (early morning, the first hour of daylight, approximately 6 a.m.)
- Terce (third hour, 9 a.m.)
- Sext (sixth hour, noon)
- Nones (ninth hour, 3 p.m.)
- Vespers (sunset, approximately 6 p.m.)
- Compline (end of the day before retiring, approximately 7 p.m.)
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in the mid-16th century made an important liturgical move as part of the English Reformation which saw Vespers and Compline combined into a single service known as Evensong. He called it “Evening Prayer” . Overtime Evening Prayer over time has become more of a said liturgy, not a choral service (Even Song) though there are places for hymns. Even Song has become a cathedral service and a choral service, that is a service led by the choir.
Cranmer did the same thing when forming Matins—what we now know as Morning Prayer—when he combined Matins, Lauds, and Prime. Cranmer left a legacy of two chief prayer services at the beginning and end of the day filled with Scripture, hymns, and prayer.
Moving through the day, traditional monastic offices that were recited at 9 a.m., “the third hour” (terce), 12 noon, “the sixth hour” (sext), and 3 p.m., “the ninth hour” (none). These canonical hours of the breviary office were known as little hours or little offices. These were times of private devotions and associated with the Passion of Christ. The custom of daily prayer is evidenced by Acts 3:1, which records that Peter and John “were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon.” Acts 10:9 also states that Peter went to pray at noon on the day when the men sent by Cornelius arrived.
Sext became noonday prayer. The 1979 prayer book restored both noonday prayer and compline.
Whereas Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer were designed as Cathedral offices, to be prayed corporately, Compline has always been a monastic, private office used in the comfort and seclusion of one’s habitation.
Compline was a service to close the day, an opportunity to give thanks for the joys and graces experienced, a chance to confess sins committed throughout the day, and the perfect moment to close the day the same way it started: in prayer. If Morning Prayer is designed to start the day off right then Compline is designed to end it well. It frames you for sleep and puts the day in perspective. You are then ready for the next day.
In his book, Opening the Prayer Book, Jeffrey Lee states that “if the heart of the prayer book is the celebration of the paschal mystery of Christ in baptism and eucharist, then its soul may be the daily office…the word ‘office’ comes from the Latin word ‘officium,’ the performance of a task or a duty. The offices have a corporate familiarity that leads us deeper into the regular rhythms of the day and of our life with God.
Regular engagement in Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayer and Compline teaches us that God and his Kingdom are first and foremost the reality of our lives. We learn how to view the world through that lens rather than church being an escape from the “real world” or something we do on Sundays. The daily office is an opportunity to pause a reflect during a day when the world sets our agenda. We are daily transformed through the confession of sin and the assurance that God loves us and lovingly calls us to a higher form of living.
Here is one example. Kate Mears wrote the following for Maundy Thursday in 2016 to illustrate how Compline helped her through a hard time in working through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans
“It’s hard to think about what enough means after a disaster. With so many people so acutely struggling right in your own community, you know you must do something. But how many things can you do? Who can you serve? Who are you missing who is still in desperate need? And when can you stop and catch your breath? When are you allowed to rest?
“But in the months following the storm, I found that I could quiet them through prayer. I lit a candle next to my bed almost every night and read the Compline service to myself, whispering both parts in the darkness.
“Most nights, that routine, those words I grew to know by heart, were all the prayer that I could muster with my scattered, distracted mind. But somehow that ritual, that flame, those whispers and that connection to God kept the anxiety at bay. My time in prayer reminded me that while the challenges are many, they’re not mine to shoulder alone. There will always be enough work for tomorrow, but in the meantime, we can sit with the darkness and the quiet and try, for a moment, to find some peace and strength for what lies ahead – and to know that God is always enough.”