By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Among the treasures contained in our monastic hours of prayer, none is more precious to me than Compline, also known as Night Prayer. Its Latin name, Completorium, identifies it as the concluding communal prayer of the day, chanted in the evening twilight or, in the winter months, when the sun has already set.
The monks, tired in mind and weary in limb after an honest day’s work, process silently into the church and take our places in our respective choir stalls. The first order of business is a reading from the Rule of St. Benedict, the daily reminder of our monastic roots. Following the Rule excerpt is a period of silence. This blessed space allows for a calm examination of conscience. During this time, I often marvel at the simple fact that an entire day, or another week, or another anniversary, has passed, and that I have returned to the same place to repeat the centuries-old process yet again. Within the stability of the monastic life, however, abundant varieties of conversations, lessons, worries, and hopes are scattered throughout the days, months, and years. This is the time to process them briefly: what have I done with this present day? What have I failed to do? Where was God in my thoughts, words, and actions? Why did I reside so long amid memories of past regrets? What will be the burdens and graces that tomorrow brings?
The Abbot then rises and gives the signal to begin Compline proper. As the designated monk intones the opening lines, we fall naturally into the rhythm of prayer that so marks our days, our years, our lives. The structure of Compline is steady, the path well worn: the chanting of a hymn and a psalm, then a reading, then a short responsory. Next comes the greatest gift of Compline for me. A lovely antiphon blends the approaching night with our eventual permanent rest as we pray: “Protect us, Lord as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep; that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace.”
That antiphon introduces a song of praise known as the Canticle of Simeon. In the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph bring the newborn Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem “to present him to the Lord.” Simeon, a righteous and devout man, has been “awaiting the consolation of Israel” for his entire life. He had been told by the Holy Spirit “that he would not see death until he had seen the anointed one of the Lord.” Prompted by the Spirit, Simeon comes to the Temple that day, sees the Christ child with his parents, takes him into his arms, and blesses God. The words he utters in the presence of his infant Lord are the words that we dare to make our own every evening:
“Now Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
Compline turns us into a group of Simeons in the evening twilight. His song makes you think of death – his own, our own. Having held the Lord’s fulfillment of the promise in his arms, Simeon is free to depart this life full of grateful consolation. Compline brings a related consolation to us, reminding us that we have indeed seen our salvation today: we have held the Eucharistic Lord in our hands, and shared him with our students, friends, and confreres. That privilege prepares us to be dismissed from this life if God so wills it.
After a concluding prayer, all lights in the church are extinguished except two large candles. Two radiant beams illuminate the statue of Mary on the back wall of the sanctuary, and we chant the Salve Regina. Near the end of the song, we ask our Mother for the ultimate grace of showing us, after our earthly exile, “the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Another period of silence follows. Then, at the Abbot’s signal, the monks calmly process out of the church one by one, each of us prepared to go gentle into that good night.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas in Irving.