Monday, February 11, 2013

The Liturgy of the Hours - Compline

"It is greatly to be desired that the laity should take part in the recitation or singing of Vespers or Compline.” - Pope Pius XII

At the End of the Day

Compline is the final Hour of the Solar Day, and the second Hour of the Liturgical Day. The word Compline, comes from the Latin Completorium, which means to have “Finished Work”. Roughly corresponding to the time frame of 8 - 10pm, Compline would be prayed in a parochial setting on the earlier side, giving parishoners a chance to arrive home with enough time to finish the day’s tasks and prepare themselves for the day ahead. If prayed in a household, Compline would come after dinner, giving the children a chance to join in prayer with their parents before going to bed, as the Greek term for this Hour, Ap√≥deipnon (“After Supper”) suggests.

“By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” - (Psalm 42:8)

As Compline occurs at the end of the day, it is particularly suited to be celebrated by parish churches and cathedrals. This was the one Hour where most of the Laity were not working, and could be celebrated early enough to still draw church attendance. As a result, it occupies a place of importance between the Dominical Hours of Vespers and Lauds, and the Little Hours. This gave Compline a rich character that has set itself apart.

Compline has a long history that developed very early in many Christian communities. In the 4th century, Athanasius describes the Monks of the Egyptian desert celebrating an end of the day service before departing to their caves for the night. After the end of the Roman Persecution, Basil the Great, and Benedict of Nursia oversaw the codification of Greek and Latin Compline in the 5th century. Monasteries all over Christendom incorporated a Compline-like Hour into their services so that this Hour became universal by the 7th century. Toward the end of the first millenium, Compline was celebrated in most Cathedrals and in many parishes, but this practice began to slowly ebb by the middle of the second millenium. Compline became a “Special Hour” that was only celebrated for High Feasts or in many places, disappeared completely, becoming a devotional practice amongst the laity.

O Lord, Make Haste to Help Me

The themes of Compline come partly from it’s place in the day. As we come to the end of the day and prepare to sleep, we are reminded to “check ourselves” by the prayer of John Cassian used in Roman Compline: “O God, come to my aid. O Lord, make haste to help me.” Remembering that we are sinners, and calling to mind our offenses that we have committed during the day, we ask for forgiveness before going to sleep. It is best not to delay our repentance until the next day, when we don’t know with certainty that we will see a new day.

“Again, at the beginning of the night we ask that our rest may be without offence and free from evil dreams.” - Saint Basil the Great

We also ask that we may come to see another day, by asking God to grant us this gift. As night is physically the absence of daylight, it was seen to symbolically represent spiritual darkness as well. It was at night after the Last Supper that Christ was praying in the Garden that his task be taken from Him if it could be. Shady dealings, conspiracies and even demonic activity were linked with the darkened world. This was reflected by the inclusion of prayers for the deliverance from evil, the devil, and temptation. Dreams and nightmares are often attributed to the influence of the devil, but may also be the work of our polluted minds. We ask, as Basil the Great points out, for deliverance from these, that even our subconscious may be pure by the Grace of Our Lord.

We also thank God for every experience that we were given during the past day. Praising him as the Psalmist says for His Love. This life is a gift, and every minute that we are given, whether in good times or bad, is bestowed on us by God. We are never out His mind, so why should we shut him out of ours? The prayers of the Church given to us at this hour bring us back to a spirit of thanksgiving for both his forgiveness and his love.

The Order of Things

Just like Vespers and (every other Hour), Compline begins with introductory prayers. Coptic Compline starts with a prayer of Thanksgiving:

“Let us give thanks to the beneficent and merciful God, the Father of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, for He has covered us, helped us, guarded us, accepted us unto Him, spared us, supported us, and brought us to this hour.”

Then follows the recitation of the psalms, which are fewer in number than Vespers. The order and number varies according to tradition.

After the Psalms, the second part of the liturgy begins. Several prayers for protection during the night can be found, such as this one from Syrian Compline:

“Grant us, O Messiah; our Savior; a peaceful evening and a sinless night, for Thou art a glorious king, and unto Thee, are our eyes lifted up. Forgive our debts and our sins; have mercy upon us, both in this world and in that to come. May Thy loving kindness shelter us O Lord, and Thy grace be upon our faces. May Thy cross protect us from the evil one and his hosts.”

During the second half of the Liturgy, there are prayers of the faithful or litanies, for the needs of the Church. Responsorials and Antiphons make their appearance at this point as well, followed by, in many traditions, the recitation of the Nicene Creed as a confession of the Orthodox Faith.

Just before the concluding or dismissal prayers, universally there is some hymn to the Mother of God.

Compline is one of the easiest Hours to pray if you are just getting started with praying the Holy Hours. If you are at all looking for a way to increase your evening prayers, I would definitely recommend giving Compline a try. Not only is it a wonderful ending and act of praise (along with so many other benefits and blessings) for your day, but it helps us remember our sinfulness and our need for Mercy. If you can attend a Compline Liturgy, even better. What better way to end your day, than in the House of the Lord, with the sound of the Choir chanting timeless psalms echoing off the walls of nave of the Church!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Liturgy of the Hours - Vespers

“Sunrise and sunset are not anonymous moments in the day. They have unmistakable features: the joyful beauty of dawn and the triumphant splendour of sunset follow the cosmic rhythms that deeply involve human life. Furthermore, the mystery of salvation that is actuated in history has moments linked to various phases of time. So it is that together with the celebration of Lauds at daybreak, and the celebration of Vespers at nightfall, these have gradually became a regular practice in the Church. Both of these Liturgical Hours have an evocative charge of their own that recalls the two essential aspects of the paschal mystery: "In the evening the Lord is on the Cross, in the morning, he rises to new life.” - Saint Augustine of Hippo

Vesperial Light and Sunset

Vespers marks the start of the new liturgical day in the Christian tradition and as such is one of the two Dominical Hours of the Church. This is based upon the account given in Genesis whereby morning followed evening.

"There was evening and there was morning, the first day." (Genesis 1:5).

The word “Vesper” is a latin word that means evening star. Just as the stars light up the darkness of the night sky, and led the magi to the worship of the incarnate Word, so our first prayer of the new day begins with hope in Christ the Light of the world who brightens spiritual darkness. In antiquity, the lighting of the oil lamp after sunset brought a note of joy to a household in what would have been an otherwise dark world. In lighting the lamp at dusk, the Christian community also prayed with gratitude for the gift of spiritual light. This was called the "lucernarium", the ritual lighting of the lamp whose flame is the symbol of Christ, "the Sun that never sets". It is God who brightens the darkness of night with the radiance of his presence and the light of his teachings.

"The sun has set and with the ending of the day, once again we are called to pray. Since Christ is the true Sun, let us pray while the sun sets and the day fades in this world, imploring that the light shine on us anew; and let us call for the coming of Christ who will bring us the grace of eternal light." - Saint Cyprian of Carthage

Drawing inspiration from the symbolism of light, the prayers of Vespers developed as an evening sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the gift of physical and spiritual light, and for the other gifts of the Creation and the Redemption of mankind, as Saint Basil the Great says:

“[It is a fitting time] to give thanks for what has been given to us or for what we have been able to do with integrity."

Order of Vespers

The order of vespers begins with introductory prayers, usually some form of the Gloria Patri is used in most traditions followed by other hymns or responsorials. In the Syrian tradition, Ramsho (Vespers) begins with a little prayer recounting the theme of creation.

“You created me and placed your hands upon me. In the beginning God created Adam from the dust and breathed on him the spirit and gave him speech that he might sing praise to him, halleluiah, and give thanks to his creator.”

After this follows the psalter. Depending on the day, time of year, and proximity to a Great Feast, the number of psalms and order can change. Abbreviations occur for parochial use, and if you are praying this alone, then the number of psalms prayed of course, is at your discretion. This forms the first part of the Liturgy. You can think of this as akin to the Liturgy of the Word in the Mass.

The second half of vespers can be seen as the Liturgy of the Faithful or Eucharist, in a very superficial way of course. It begins with a hymn or canticle. The hymn “O Joyful Light” marks the second part of vespers in the Byzantine tradition, and features the transition from darkness to light by the illumination of chandeliers during liturgy. In Roman vespers, a canticle of creation signals this transition.

Following the transitional hymns, supplications for the world and the Church in the form of litanies or responsorials occur. In the Armenian vesperial service, this begins with a portion of a psalm of David, “... may our prayers arise as incense before [God], and the lifting up of our hands be as an evening sacrifice (Psalm 141).”

Readings may also occur in the second half of vespers, though they are not a universal feature. Scriptural readings were the last development to occur in the formation of the Hours, and only begin to be found in the middle ages, appearing initially only on the eves of great feats.

Vesperial services conclude with some form of Hymn or Canticle often to Our Lady, or the Song of Symeon, and an invocation of protection and visitation upon all the faithful in the night to come. This would constitute the primary evening liturgy in most parishes during antiquity. In some cases, a vigil Mass would follow the celebration of vespers as the first mass of the new day.

In Hours celebrated by a Priest, additional prayers proper to his office will occur, including blessings appropriate only to a Priest.

If you’d like to know more about Vespers, or pray Vespers, Universalis contains the entire revised Office (The Hours) according to Pope Paul VI available with daily updates for variable material for your convenience.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Liturgy of the Hours - An Introduction

“I would like to call everyone to pray the Psalms, to become accustomed to using the Liturgy of the Hours, Lauds, Vespers, and Compline. Our relationship with God can only be enriched by our journeying towards Him day after day.” - Pope Benedict XVI

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Holy Hours, the Divine Office, the Daily Cycle; all of these are different names given for the eight periods of prayer throughout the day. Perhaps you have heard the name Vespers or Compline mentioned by someone, or you know someone who prays the Hours as a personal devotion, or maybe you own a copy of the Breviary and have attempted to pray one of these hours at one point or another and found it altogether confusing to figure out let alone pray . For most catholics this is enough to end their acquaintance with the Hours. So what are they and how did Christians start praying them?


The Hours as we have them today can be found in every tradition of apostolic Christianity, which illustrates just how ancient they are (at least fourth century old). Drawing from the example of the Jewish Faith at the time of the Second Temple, the Hours really begin to take form during the second and third centuries. At the temple, minor priests lead prayer services during the morning, midday and evening (on occasion midnight) that consisted primarily of the chanting of psalms. Early Christians adopted this as a way to consecrate their days to Christ, joining together not only at the Holy Mass, but now also in short prayer services that marked the coming of light at sunrise and the coming of darkness at sunset and times in between. Because of the underground nature of the faith at this time, there was much variation in practice as attested to by early fathers like Clement of Alexandria

With the lifting of the persecution by Emperor Constantine, Christians were now free to address variations amongst regional prayer services and formulate what would become the Hours. Over the period of about two hundred years, between the fourth and fifth centuries, the church began to piece together the hours. Psalm 119 was influential, owing to two lines:

“Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws (Psalm 119:164).”


“At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws (Psalm 119:62).”

Called by different names by different traditions, they all boil down to the same basic periods of time: sunrise prayer, morning prayer, mid morning prayer, noon prayer, afternoon prayer, sunset prayer, evening prayer, and middle of the night prayer. Initially these services were all celebrated at the cathedral of the bishop, but as diocese grew and more country churches became established, it became burdensome and impractical for smaller communities to celebrate the full set of Hours. Some regions never celebrated the entire eight from the get go. Gradually though, the dominical hours of Sunrise and Sunset became the only two Hours celebrated in most parishes. But the full set of Hours did not die. Monasticism embraced the Hours, becoming the foundation for Monks everywhere. Over time as Christianity spread, so did the Hours, and wherever they went, they acquired a unique character of their own, from the Malabar Coast in India to the lonely islands of west Scotland.

The Nature of the Hours

At their core, the Hours are the daily communal work of the faithful. To give you an idea of their place in the Christian life, they can called the “Little Liturgy” whereas the Mass is the “Great Liturgy”. With one voice, we offer our supplications for the world, offer our thanksgiving for all gifts and blessings, and praise Him for his ineffable glory. Everything you would find in the Mass, except the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. Instead, we have the Psalter; the heart of the Hours.

Each Hour contains at least 3 or 4 psalms (and sometimes many more)and have been selected for each of the Hours according to a particular theme. Interspersed between the psalms are prayers and litanies. All of these are focused on a particular mystery or theme which that gives each of the Hours their unique character: Watchfulness, Creation, the Resurrection...

To pray the Hours, is to immerse yourself in the Psalms; the prayers of Christ, and his ancestors. A treasury of healing and faith.

"The Book of Psalms contains everything useful that the others have. It predicts the future, it recalls the past, it gives directions for living, it suggests the right behavior to adopt. It is, in short, a jewel case in which have been collected all the valid teachings in such a way that individuals find remedies just right for their cases... [In every Psalm, there is] the voice of the Church.” - St. Basil the Great