Thursday, January 26, 2017

Te lucis ante terminum

Through the miracle of time I have rediscovered the office of Compline. Although it was the first hour I really learned to say on my own accord I fell out of the practice of saying it in the years since finishing school and finding my life regulated by the daily and monthly pulse of American corporate finance, month end close, and quarterly reports to the Street. I began Vespers several years ago and anticipate Mattins and Lauds for Sundays and major feasts, but the non-major hours (horae minores are during the day???) rarely appear in my life, save Sundays and long vacations.

I was introduced to the old Latin liturgy long ago in the form of the "Traditional Latin Mass," but did not discover the Divine Office until 2011, when I went to Oxford and found the Office to be the pulse of St. Aldate Street. The Dominicans said the full Liturgy of the Hours in English daily while the Oratorians, where my shadow haunted for latria, used the 1962 Vespers for Sundays and the eve of major feasts. At some level I grew to love the Office more than the Mass if only because the Mass is required out of obligation, whereas a layman only attends the Hours out of devotion. Upon return to the States I began saying Compline according to the Tridentine form before going to bed. For a tired mind looking for an evening blessing, Compline is more focused than "Bless mommy, bless daddy, good night, Lord."

Compline is an altogether different sort of Office, both in structure and purpose, from the rest of the hours in the Roman breviary. The major hours (Vespers, Mattins, Lauds) descend from the vigil of psalms and readings that took place at night before the Eucharistic sacrifice in ancient days and which solidified in their extant, pre-1911 form by the age of St. Benedict, if not earlier. The daytime hours (Terce, Sext, None) grew out of non-cleric devotion in the major Roman basilicas by those who wished to pray and sanctify the entire day; because those who sang it were commoners unable to print book on demand, the psalter remained fixed for these hours. Prime and Compline have their origin in the monasteries around Jerusalem and functioned as "fillers" for gaps in the day when a monk might lapse in his prayer. St. John Cassian remarked during his 382 AD visit to Bethlehem that Prime had not yet been adopted everywhere in the East. Similarly, he knows nothing of the tradition already practiced by St. Basil of reciting psalm 90 (Qui habitat in adiutorio) before bed. When Benedict left Rome and brought the basilica psalter with him, he may have brought a newly settled custom of praying other psalms with psalm 90 before sleep.

Compline's distinction in structure and repetition in text makes it an easy hour to commit to memory and hence very suitable for those tiresome moments before bed when creative thought and reflection fail. The words themselves carry a weight of reassurance and tenderness:
Procul recedant somnia,
Et noctium phantasmata;
Hostemque nostrum comprime,
Ne polluantur corpora.
For a brief while I attempted the Divino Afflatu rendition of this hour, but found the variable psalms and antiphons antithetical to the very purpose of this Office. Indeed, Compline helped me realize that Pius X and Paul VI's overhaul of the Roman Office was far more radical than what the latter did to the Missal.

Compline represents a marvelous entry point into the Roman Office and deeper liturgical prayer. This prayer for a safe rest under Our Lord's watch, like an "apple to His eye", is approachable in its brevity and constancy while being less mundane than the horae minores of the day: a Confession, a few psalms, a short hymn, a canticle, and a prayer to Our Lady; most remarkable to me, at least in the Tridentine Office, is that the last words on the Christian's lips before sleep are the Pater, the Ave, and the Apostles' Creed. Seven Office sanctify the day, but only one the night!


  1. In st. Benedict's version there is only Psalms 4, 90 and 133 without antiphons; hymn, reading, versicle, Kyrie x3, Pater noster and the blessing. That's what st. Benedict envisions. No confession, no Nunc dimittis, no In manus tuas, no Marian antiphon. Nothing. The reason why the "Fratres sobrii estote" crept in into the beginning of that hour is because st. Benedict says that there should be a spiritual reading while brothers are gathering in the church, but he did not regard that as the part of the office itself.

    Also, he puts the Compline as one of the 7 offices that sanctify the day while Matins is the night office.

    I've been working on st. Benedict's psalter and office for a week now and it is ready to go into print for my personal use.
    I stuck to the Rule in everything.

    1. The Monastic Office is wonderful and the office of Compline might be my favorite hour. Praying the same Psalms every night is really comforting.

    2. For a while, my wife and I would pray the pre-Pian Compline every night from printouts courtesy of the project.

      These days, I just stick to the Little Office of the BVM (1960). We worship in the Ordinariate, so praying the old Roman breviary doesn't make sense calendar-wise. I also simply wouldn't have time to say most of it. But the LOBVM is both ancient and venerable, and keeps the form of the traditional Roman Office, but not dependent on sanctoral calendar, shorter and more invariable so it is well suited to the lay family life. And you get to honor the Mother of God in a very special way every day... What's not to like?

      In fact, I've come to love it so much, I have begun writing some reflections on it at

      I welcome your feedback.

      The Little Office's Compline is similar in some ways to the Benedictine practice inasmuch as the "Fratres," confession etc are similarly absent, and its three invariable psalms (128,129,130) are also without antiphons, chanted in directum.

      My other personal favorite feature: the year-round Nunc dimittis antiphon outside Advent/Christmas/Easter is the "Sub tuum praesidium," dating back to the 3rd century.

    3. Imperialreaction, what I also like about the LOBVM is that the Gradual Psalms are prayed at Terce, Sext and None everyday. This sort of mirrors the Monastic Office where those Psalms are prayed at the same hours from Tuesday to Saturday.

  2. A wonderful Post, The Rad Trad.

    Thank You.

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  4. Great reflection, Your Traddiness!

  5. One of the beauties of Compline is also that it is entirely suitable as a way to introduce the Office into a family's prayer routine - we must liturgize the domestic! My two older children had, more or less, memorized Compline after two years of regularity.

    1. After spending time at Clear Creek Abbey, I agree. I'd add that Prime is also a good one and a parish having it right before morning Mass would be a good way to introduce the Office to the laity.

  6. And Compline was also my first expose to the Divine Office at the ripe young age of 14. In an entirely out-of-character relaxation of clericalism, two SSPX priests allowed me to sit alongside them and taught me "how to Compline" in actu. Sad that their confreres' reaction in the following years to my wanting to chew on more parts of the Office was met with disdain and false notions of "vocational distraction".

  7. I'm a regular with Lauds, Vespers and Compline. Sometimes I do the Little Hours and rarely pray Matins, all in Latin from the 1962 Baronius (I'd love a 1945 Benziger reprint), though I modify Vespers to always commemorate 1st Vespers of the following feast, though following 1962 precedence.