On compline

August 7, 2018

On a recent trip to Edinburgh, one of my finds in one of my favourite second-hand bookshops was a pamphlet I hadn’t seen for over 40 years, though I’d never forgotten it – a version of Compline for Sunday, the very first version arranged to be sung in English, with which I was familiar from church and school in my younger days.

The divine office of the Catholic church is a complicated thing, which I won’t muddy the waters with here; suffice it to say that Compline was the last prayer of the day, said or sung immediately before the monks went to bed, and basically it is about wanting to be kept safe during the night, when all sorts of perils are abroad. There aren’t too many of those, perhaps, for us to worry about nowadays, but in Anglo-Saxon times for example, when you were never sure whether your monastery might be attacked and burned by marauding Vikings in the night, things were clearly rather different…

Night-time is a curious time, anyway, if you think about it: we are asleep, mostly, and thus at our most vulnerable, as well as at the mercy of our dreams and nightmares, if not insomnia. And one third of our life is spent in that state, in the dark. In those long-forgotten and dangerous days, when the biology of sleep and the psychology of dreams was unknown, praying to be kept safe made sense.

The service is short – about ten or fifteen minutes at the most – and some of it is only semi-audible prayers, but then there are the lovely plainsong chants of the psalms, and a hymn about the arrival of nightfall, Te lucis ante terminum. It’s soothing to listen to, calming and absolutely appropriate to the time of day when you are slowing down, ready for bed and sleep. If you want to listen to it, recordings are out there on the web.

I’m a little surprised that I’m actually quite so attached to this English version, rather than the Latin original (which I do also like); so many of the English versions of the old Latin services read like something translated by a translation program and are about as spiritual as a bus timetable, but not this one. When Cranmer produced the Book of Common Prayer for the new, reformed English church in the late 1540s, he combined the two old services of Vespers and Compline into Evensong, and although that gave rise to the wonders of Anglican psalmody, it’s a longer and more cluttered service, which isn’t so specific about the approach of night and for me, does not have the same comforting effect.

One Response to “On compline”

  1. […] my library. I’ve written about my love of this religious office which brings the day to a close here. And, although I have a great nostalgia for the vanished Latin services and rituals of my childhood […]


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