Foreword to The Office of Compline
The Church, through the Liturgy of the Hours, an important part of her public prayer, sanctifies each hour of every day of our lives. She indeed makes all time holy. Among the Hours, the Office of Compline has a distinct importance. It is the Church’s last prayer of the day, her prayer before retiring. It embraces the experience of the whole day which has passed and, at the same time, the experience of sleep, the abandonment of self to unconsciousness, which is, for us, a daily anticipation of death, of the passage from this life to the life which is to come.
Abbot Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B., commenting on the Office of Compline for the Season of Advent, in what is now known as the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, observed:
This Office, which concludes the day, commences by a warning of the dangers of the night: then immediately follows the public confession of our sins, as a powerful means of propitiating the divine justice, and obtaining God’s help, now that we are going to spend so many hours in the unconscious, and therefore dangerous, state of sleep, which is also such an image of death(1).
The Christian pilgrimage of each day, through the Office of Compline, is consistently placed within the context of the pilgrimage of a lifetime, which reaches its destiny in death, in the passage, with Christ, from our earthly home to the lasting home which He has prepared for us in Heaven.(2)
Given the importance of the Office of Compline as the Hour which ends the day before sleep, the Church, in her liturgical discipline, has insisted that Compline should always be her final public prayer of the day. In the General Rubrics of the Breviarium Romanum, as it was restored by decree of the Ecumenical Council of Trent, we read:
Compline is most fittingly said by all who are obliged to the recitation of the Divine Office, but, above all, in religious families, as the final prayer at the end of the day, even if, for a just reason, Matins of the following day will have already been anticipated (3)
The Fathers at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, likewise, gave the following norm regarding Compline in the reform of the Divine Office: “Compline is to be so composed that it will be a suitable for the end of the day.”(4) Accordingly, the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, published after the Council, stipulates:
“Night prayer is the last prayer of the day, said before retiring, even if that is after midnight.”(5)
At the end of each day, the Office of Compline uncovers for us, once again, the nature of our Christian pilgrimage on this earth, that is, the daily conversion of life to Christ, which is, at one and the same time, the daily turning away from sin and death. The Examination of Conscience with which Compline begins permits the Christian to see most clearly the profound truth of the gift of life and time, the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the Christian soul. Having confronted his sins, his failure to turn to Christ throughout the day, the Christian, by the Act of Contrition, turns to Christ, turns away from sin and death once more, one final time in the day, before falling to sleep.
Compline, in a particular way, underlines for the Christian the reality of Satan and his cohorts at work in the world and in his own life. Dom Cipriano Vagaggini, O.S.B., commenting on the struggle against Satan, as it is reflected in the Liturgy of the Hours, in general, and in the Hour of Compline, in particular, declared: “The Roman Liturgy of the ferial breviary reminds us of the struggle against Satan in a special way in the last canonical hour of the day, which is Compline.”(6)
The Lectio brevis for Compline on every day before the reform after the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and, since the reform, for Compline on Tuesday, taken from the First Letter of Peter, gives clear expression to the battle against Satan, which is at heart of the Christian life:
Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.(7)
The prayer at the conclusion of Compline on solemnities other than Sundays, likewise, gives expression to the Christian’s consciousness of the real danger which Satan constitutes in his life and, therefore, of his need to turn to Christ Who, especially through the ministration of His angels, will not fail to safeguard and save the soul who places his trust in Him:
Lord, we beg you to visit this house and banish from it all the deadly power of the enemy. May your holy angels dwell here to keep us in peace; and may your blessing be upon us always. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. (8)
The Christian is deeply conscious that, in the struggle to live in Christ who conquers sin and death in our human nature, he faces a formidable enemy in Satan and his cohorts. At the same time, he knows that God has dispatched His angels to watch over and assist him. In the daily Prayer to One’s Guardian Angel, we acknowledge the supreme love of God Who commits us to the care of the angels, “to light and guard, to rule and guide.”(9)
Dom Vagaggini observes well that neither the Christian life itself nor its highest expression, the Sacred Liturgy, make ultimate sense if the reality of the struggle against Satan is ignored or forgotten. (10)
Psalm 90, one of the three “proper and specific psalms of Compline, in the monastic tradition, the tradition in which this hour was born,” (11) addresses powerfully the struggle against Satan, expressing confidence in the particular assistance and protection which God provides for us in the struggle through the ministration of His angels:
IN]o evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent,
For he will give his angels charge of you,
to guard you in all your ways.(12)
While the Office of Compline makes the Christian deeply conscious of his daily combat against Satan, with the concomitant danger to the eternal salvation of his soul, even as Our Lord was tempted by Satan in the desert at the beginning of His public ministry, it also leads him to trust in the protection and guidance of God, provided through His angels,(13)
Praying the Canticle of Compline, which is the prayer of Simeon at the Presentation of the Lord, the Christian goes to rest at peace, because he has placed all his trust in the Lord Who never fails in His love of man and Who covers the Christian with the protection of the angels.
Abbot Guéranger comments:
The canticle of the venerable Simeon -who, while holding the divine Infant in his arms, proclaimed him to be light of the Gentiles, and then slept the sleep of the just- admirably expresses the rest which a good Christian, whose heart is united to God, enjoys in Jesus; for, as the apostle says, whether we wake or sleep, we live together with Him who died for us, (14)
The Christian, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, lives in Christ, and, even as Simeon who held the Christ Child in his arms, finds his lasting, that is, eternal, joy and peace in the living presence of Christ. Having prayed the Canticle of Simeon, he can with confidence conclude his night prayer, knowing that Christ dwells within him through the Holy Spirit, by asking God to give him “a restful night and a peaceful death.” (15)
Finally, Compline concludes with an antiphon calling upon the intercession of the Mother of God. Contemplating the reality of another day of his Christian pilgrimage, the Christian experiences the company of the Mother of God, whom the Lord has given to us, when He was dying on the Cross, as the Mother of the Church, the Mother of all of the members of His Mystical Body. Before retiring for the night, he rightly turns to his Heavenly Mother to thank her for her unfailing care and to beg, once again, her protection and intercession, during the night.
Compline can well be called the Church’s family prayer before retiring. Even as children gather around their father and mother to pray before going to bed, so, too, the whole Church places herself before her Heavenly Father, in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the angels and all the Saints, to pray before retiring for the night. Like children in the company of their parents, as they, with fear, face the darkness of the night, the Church, before God the Father, knows the
faithful and enduring protection of God Who loves us unconditionally and safeguards us against the assaults of the Evil One. It is most important, therefore, that a worthy book containing the Office of Compline be accessible to all in the Church, to religious communities, seminaries, parishes, families, and, in sort, to all who wish to be one with the Church in her final public prayer of the day.
Father Samuel Weber, O.S.B., director of the Institute of Sacred Music of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, responding to the need of a readily accessible Book of Compline for English-speaking Catholics, has carefully prepared the volume which you now have in your hands.
The Office of Compline is an important and integral part of his bigger work, the Saint Louis Antiphonary for the Hours, which provides beautiful and yet accessible chant settings for the fuller praying of the Liturgy of the Hours in the Church, both at home and in the wider community of parishes, religious communities, seminaries and other groups of the faithful. The Institute of Sacred Music has for its purpose the promotion of fitting Sacred Music for the Church’s public prayer, especially Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony, in accord with the deeper appreciation of the organic unity of Sacred Liturgy, as it has been celebrated throughout the Christian centuries.
Father Weber’s Office of Compline offers to all the faithful the richness of the Church’s night prayer. It is complete, that is, it contains all the texts of the Church’s public night prayer, both in Latin and in English. It fully respects the integrity of those texts in the original Latin and in the approved English translation from the Latin.
The Office of Compline also provides all of the chants for those who are able to pray the Hour more fully by singing. The musical texts, which Father Weber has arranged for ease of chanting, are beautiful and can be learned also by the family who wants to pray with the universal Church before retiring for the night. The chants are set, as just noted, to the original Latin text or its approved English translation.
In summary, the Office of Compline satisfies the requirements for the fitting and indeed beautiful celebration of the last Hour of the day, in every community of the Church, from the little Church of the home and family to the bigger Church of the parish, the religious community or the seminary. It provides a most worthy instrument for the praying of Compline with renewed faith, hope and love.
In the name of all who will use the Office of Compline, I express the deepest esteem and gratitude to Father Samuel Weber, O.S.B., for his great care in preparing a volume which certainly will serve well the public prayer of the Church, her Sacred Liturgy. In our gratitude, let us pray for God’s continued blessing upon the important work of Father Weber for the restoration of the Sacred Liturgy, especially sacred music, as it was mandated by the Second Vatican Council, in continuity with the perennial Tradition of the Church.
It is my hope, as a shepherd of the flock, that the Office of Compline will inspire a new appreciation of the importance of the last Hour of the day and a new participation in the public prayer of the Church, at the end of each day. It is my hope that the Office of Compline of the Saint Louis Antiphonary for the Hours will contribute a significant part to the greater sanctification of the time which concludes every day for us, the time before we give ourselves over to sleep. So may we all be safeguarded from the wiles of Satan and protected by the saving grace of Christ through the ministration of the holy angels. So may we all
through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, attain “a restful night and a peaceful end.”
+Raymond Leo Burke
Archbishop Emeritus of Saint Louis
Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura