There are days when I believe that the Order for Compline should be the primary worship experience of every Christian. Eucharist has its Jesus-God-incarnate-sacrificial-in-remembrance-of-me thing going on, which is nice. It also comes with tasteful snacks. However, Compline has the potential to do the most good for the most people. I am talking about sleep. I ask you, would not better, deeper, more restorative sleep actually cure many of the ills of the world?
The Augustine prayer (Keep watch, dear Lord) and the Song of Simeon (with its antiphon) that close Compline are at the center of my hypothesis. Simply put, Augustine’s prayer relieves me of my obsessive night watch duties and the Song of Simeon reminds me that I have ministered enough for one day… or perhaps, even for a lifetime.
I can remember the feelings I had when I first encountered Augustine’s nocturnal bidding. It seemed a welcome misfit in the services of Evening Prayer and Compline that rolled by daily in seminary. While all the collects of our prayer book flow with grace and truthful character, one could observe that they lean toward a formal theology and literary structure. Trinitarianism, atonement, and separation by sin abound. In this rendering of Augustine’s fifth century appeal, we step away from theological formality into human reality. I find it so real, that I was flabbergasted to learn it came from an ancient and honored Father of the Church. I was certain that the BCP crafters had allowed a humble, yet weary, middle-aged WASP on to the editorial board.
This prayer was obviously written by someone who had worked a night shift. Or who had spent a night in worry and tears. Or who had run out of blessings, tender loving care-giving, and pity. Or, certainly, by someone whose gift of temporal or spiritual joy had been destroyed by an envious sour-graper. Someone like you and me – a modern, well-intentioned, compassion-fatigued, multi-tasker. The prayer spoke/speaks to me. Admiringly, the person who sincerely prays this prayer turns each of these needs over to the Lord. At least for the night. Well placed, we’d assert.
The Song of Simeon has a similar effect. While the antiphon bids God’s kindly oversight of both our waking and sleeping hours, Simeon’s proclamation of divine fruition acknowledges that there will come a time when our time has come. Not by frailty or chronology, but in the blessedness of fulfillment of God’s promise to each of us: God with us now, God with us after now.
Back to my theory. Really, if we could each find the true rest (which is peace) that comes from letting go and allowing God, which Compline asks of us for only one night at a time, our human sleep could serve us as it’s meant. CPAP machines and aging bladders notwithstanding, we might arise each day more able to re-take up our crosses.
Of course, they’d be smaller.