What do average Catholics know of the Divine Office? Virtually nothing, I’m sorry to say. And what do Catholics know of the Psalms? Very little apart from the paraphrases one hears in pop songs at Mass. Indeed, Mass is pretty much the only liturgical experience that Catholics know now, and they are completely unaware of the full range of the history of Christianity prayer as embodied in what is now called the Liturgy of the Hours.
The Second Vatican Council hoped to inspire a new movement in parishes the world over that would embrace the Divine Office. Chalk that up to yet another unfulfilled aspiration of a Council nearly swept away in a cultural tidal wave after it closed. Today the office is so unknown that parishes with limited access to a priest invent new services just to receive the Eucharist in the absence of a priest. It never occurs to anyone that a gathering to say the Office might be just the thing.
Well, rather than making this yet another long complaint about what might have been that didn’t happened to come to be, let’s turn this in a positive direction. A resource has become available for Catholics that has not previously been available in modern times. It is a simple and inexpensive book that allows any individual, family, or group to pray Compline or Night Prayer in a manner very close to the way it has been prayed since the 4th century.
It strikes me that it would be a wonderful thing for Catholics to get this book and start using it during Lent this year. The book is called Compline and it is published by Ignatius Press, as prepared by Fr. Samuel Weber, O.S.B., in parallel English and Latin, each with musical staff and completely pointed Psalms for singing. It is a small and very beautiful book. Ignatius should be commended for publishing it, for there are far too few Catholic music publishers putting out quality work like this.
Compline can be sung by the family after dinner or before bedtime. Or it can be sung by just one person alone. It is not necessary that a priest be present to receive the graces that come from singing compline. It might feel strange at first but after forty days, it will become a normal part of life, the Psalms beginning to become part of your daily routine and the hymns associated with the Office part of the music that enters your daily spiritual reflections.
The idea of compline is to complete the day with final prayers in hope of a peaceful sleep. It includes beautiful words that remind us of eternal life, with sleep as a kind of metaphor for mortality. All told, singing these night prayers takes about 10 minutes but it is very valuable use of time, a way to remember what is important at the end of a busy day and before we close our eyes. In the monastery, compline often signals the beginning of the great silence that lasts the remainder of the evening until morning prayer.
Sometimes people are reluctant to begin something like this because it is an unfamiliar routine. We do not know the songs and we do not know the drill and how it works. We find ourselves turning here and there in the books, confused about what to do next. I know of several enthusiastic converts to Catholicism who bought the multi-volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours with every good intention of developing a daily prayer life. But then confusion sets in and the person bails out before getting the hang of it.
This is why Compline is really the best beginning for saying the Office. Its structure is more simple than Lauds or Vespers, with fewer changing parts. It seems easier to approach, and this is especially true with Fr. Weber’s book.
For those with a musical inclination, it has been very difficult to find notated versions of anything in the Liturgy of the Hours. Thankfully, this has started to change. An English book came out a few years ago called the Mundelein Psalter. Then last year, Solesmes released its Vespers book for Sundays and Feasts. More are coming out in the years ahead.
But truly, this Compline book from Ignatius is a blessing. It has Latin on the left and English on the right throughout. Where the antiphons and Pslam tones could be maintained and fit with the English, they are maintained. Where this is too awkward, Fr. Weber uses special tones designed to make the terminations work in English while maintaining the feel of the Latin. This approach is in keeping with the hermeneutic of continuity emphasized in this pontificate, helping everyone to see the relationship between the old and new.
Learning the music is a snap. The clef is a C clef so you can easily go to the piano to learn to navigate the pitches — or, for that matter, you can download a piano key application for the iPhone or go to anyone website that gives pitches. This way you can learn the hymns and the prayers. After just a few nights, it will become easy and be a wonderful part of your evening.
I’m sorry that it has taken forty years for such a book to appear and be made accessible to laypeople, but we are blessed to live in times when such resources are now available to us. We should not take this for granted. We should snap up these books and use them, integrating them into our lives and helping to revive the sound and feel of Catholic liturgy as it has always been known to Christians – and that means more than just weekly attendance at Mass.
It is not just Muslims who face an obligation to turn to the Lord throughout the day. They got this idea from us. Lent is a great time to begin to revive this beautiful tradition.