In the early centuries of the Church, in addition to the celebration of Mass, it was customary to hold a so-called vigil, a prayer service in three parts, on the night before a feast day. From this vigil service developed three of the canonical hours; Vespers, Matins, Lauds. The first began in the early evenng and the last was held in the early hours of the morning. This was the arrangement already in the days of Hippolytus in the third century BCE and these were the first “hours.” In the Roman office the threefold division of Matins was re-introduced even after the vigil service had split into Vespers, Matins, and Lauds, and the divisions came to be known as nightwatches or nocturns.
The two remaining hours were added later, under the influence of monasticism. The monks prayed Matins during the night and said Lauds (morning prayer) in the early dawn, then went back to bed.Vespers (evening prayer) were said in late afternoon, and then at bedtime there were devotions in the sleeping quarters (lessons, chapter of faults, abbot’s blessing), which developed into Compline, a sort of second night prayer.
The origin of Compline has given rise to considerable discussion among liturgists. In the past, general opinion ascribed the origin of this Hour to St. Benedict, in the beginning of the 6th century. But some researchers trace its source to St. Basil. Vandepitte states that in his retreat in Pontus (358-362) Basil established Compline, which did not exist prior to his time. Dom Plaine also traced the source of Compline back to the 4th century, finding mention of it in a passage in Eusebius and in another in St. Ambrose, and also in John Cassian.These texts bear witness to the private custom of saying a prayer before retiring to rest. If this was not the canonical Hour of Compline, it was certainly a preliminary step towards it and show end of day prayer to be an ancient custom.
One of the main features of Compline is an examination of conscience, not a particularly favored activity these days. The whole office is meant to be contemplative and in our hectic and troubled times a period of quiet reflection might help more people sleep more soundly. Or perhaps not, as the case may be. Traditionally the same three psalms were prayed each night: 4, 90 and 133. Hence, the psalms could be prayed by heart, often in the dark. These three psalms contain clear references to the night, going to rest, dwelling in the shelter of the Most High, protection of the angels, etc., and so are perfect for the end of the day. In many monasteries it is still the custom to begin the “Great Silence” after Compline, as it was in Brother Cadfael’s day, during which the whole community, including guests, observes silence throughout the night until the morning service the next day.
With Compline, the liturgical day marked by Lauds, Sext, None, and Vespers reached the sacred septenary, “septies in die laudem dixi tibi” (“seven times a day I have given praise to thee)”, while for the night office there was the text: “media nocte surgebam ad confitendum tibi” (“I rose at midnight to give praise to thee”).
In the Armenian daily worship there are two distinct services of communal worship which are recited between Vespers and sleep. These are the Peace Hour and the Rest Hour, although in some localities they are combined, with abbreviations, into a single service.But I love the naming of these offices. Far better to end ones day focused on hours of peace and rest than the way so many do.
The symbolism of Compline is perhaps my favorite. The hour begins uniquely without introduction, and at once halts for an examination of conscience and an act of contrition. Thus, the hour expresses earnest petition; contrition, plea for protection, and deepest confidence are its main elements. While there are variations among denominations usually first there is a night-prayer hymn, then a consoling chapter prayer, then the psalms and a verse to be recited called the collect. While their is a certain magic to Vespers, going to sleep with a clear conscience and thoughts of being protected in the night while we are most vulnerable has not only emotional but real health benefit. Sleep is restorative and sleep deprivation is a real problem with people today. The collect verses are very appropriate before going to sleep and you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the thoughts reflected in these examples.
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours
of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and
chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who
sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
Reading especially the second one I am reminded of policemen, firefighters, emergency services people and hospital and care home workers who in fact work, watch and weep in the night. Whether or not you even believe in God there are real people out there who tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying and soothe the suffering. Thinking of them and knowing they are out there certainly helps me sleep better.