"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, Apódeipnon (“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!