Remembering Compline



Remembering Compline

“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)

I studied for my undergraduate degree at St.  Andrews University in Scotland. The University was founded in 1411 and is located in St. Andrews, a beautiful small medieval town, complete with cobblestones, rampart walls, a ruined castle, and the shell of an enormous cathedral built in 1158 and mostly destroyed during the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century – the largest church in all of Scotland then and since.  St. Andrews as a town is also chock-full of churches, old and new, as well as the University Chapel.  On a still Sunday it was normal to hear the pealing bells of several churches at once, as if to underscore the main preoccupation of many in the undergraduate population – theology.

St. Andrews Cathedral today – source:

Me, I only rarely went to the University Chapel, which despite its heavy stone Scottish gravitus was more about scholarly sparing and theological one-upmanship than anything spiritual.The one church and service I did attend, however, was at St. Leonard’s Chapel – compline, held once a week at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday evenings.  St. Leonard’s is a tiny chapel owned by the university located in the walled dark grounds of St. Leonard’s Girls’ School.

St. Leonard’s Chapel was first built around 1400, and though, like most churches in the UK, it has gone through various architectural alterations, it still retains the ambience of its origins.  It is a modest small grey stone building, seating about sixty people with pews that face one another. The lighting for compline service was by candles, and there was a very small choir that sang, in my recollection, evocative old hymns in Latin.  The service was ecumenical and conducted by different ministers and priests throughout the year.

St. Leonard’s Chapel– source:

I never missed a service in my last year of University.  The academic program was such that my entire four-year degree was based on ‘finals’ – eight three hour exams written over ten days at the end of the four years.   I, like most other fourth-year students, needed more than anything to detach myself from the stressful secular world of my academic studies and have the respite offered by prayer and God.  So, at 9:30 every Thursday evening, Alison, my girlfriend, would find me in my quiet corner of the library, and we would go hand-in-hand together to compline at St. Leonard’s Chapel.  It was located on the south side of town.

We would walk a few blocks (past many noisy small pubs) into the quiet walled garden of the girls’ school that led to the chapel.  Compline service is used in a number of Christian denominations, and denotes the completion of the working day.  It is, just like St. Leonard’s Chapel candlelit in the darkness of the walled grounds, a kind of anachronism based upon a long liturgical tradition.

Me, I am not one to confuse religiosity and church liturgy with authentic faith, and yet, it was a poignant moment for me when the following well-known prayer was recited:

Before the ending of the day, Creator of the world, we pray that You, with steadfast love, would keep Your watch around us while we sleep. From evil dreams defend our sight. From fears and terrors of the night; tread underfoot our deadly foe that we no sinful thought may know. O Father, that we ask be done through Jesus Christ, your only [begotten] Son and [Your] holy Spirit, by whose breath our souls are raised to life from death.

These words resonate with me still.  I realize it is a rote-learnt prayer, and yet, exhausted from the day’s work as a student, unable to focus and to think of my own, unique prayer, this wonderful rhyming end-of-my-day prayer beseeching God’s protection and love, meant (and still means) peace to me. And I realize too how important it is for me to pray before passing over to sleep.

To acknowledge the good of the day, to express gratitude for the wonderful gifts of people and things, to ask for forgiveness and to forgive others, to reflect on my own spirit and on God’s grace.  Those things and so much more – indeed, the everything of our existence – merit bedtime prayer.

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