Sing Compline for Lent

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.

24 Replies to “Sing Compline for Lent”

  1. Those who are attending the Musica Sacra Saint Louis Conference this week will be singing from this work, directed by Fr. Samuel Weber, OSB. We hope to make a recording available.

  2. "Chalk that up to yet another unfulfilled aspiration of a Council nearly swept away in a cultural tidal wave after it closed."

    Actually, I chalk it up to clericalism. Plus, a failure to reform the Hours more deeply, and make it available in a simpler format, like the ancient cathedral office, instead of along the lines of the monastic practices. Thinking that a tradition from cloistered life can be tinkered with, then lapped up by parishes strikes me as rather conceited and unimaginative.

    We also can't discount the Catholic attachment to the Eucharist. Which is a good thing.

    "Today the office is so unknown that parishes with limited access to a priest invent new services just receive the Eucharist in the absence of a priest(sic). It never occurs to anyone that a gathering to say the Office might be just the thing."

    I say this as a friend: if you believe this, you really need to get out more. The Office is nowhere near fully implemented, but it's not hard to find parishes that do evening prayer during Lent and Advent.

  3. P.S.

    Catholic bookstores, being what they are in Los Angeles, don't seem to carry this so I ordered online. THEN, while on a business trip to DC, making a side trip to the grand Basilica . . . there it was, prominently displayed front and center in the bookstore.

    It's always been an awe-some sight to see Muslims throw it all aside to set their rugs and pray. In the middle of Tahrir Square! We should inspire too!

  4. From what I understand of the cathedral offices, they were often just as complicated as, if not more than, the monastic office, but that is beside my point.

    I am making available online recordings of Compline according to the Liturgy of the Hours and Lauds, Vespers, and Compline from the Breviarium Romanum. In most cases, it is just me singing, and in all cases it has a rather quaint, rough sound to it, but I hope it can be of great help to people.

  5. ThePres…

    Nice recordings! Please keep up the work… i know how hard it is to keep recording and postring things consistently!

    And even though it is possible to find parishes who indeed celebrate Evening Prayer during Advent and Lent, it is far easier to find parishes that celebrate invented or "made up" liturgies, or such substitutes as "Taize" prayer services.

  6. Secular Franciscans, like myself, say the hours daily. I have also chanted them in at a visit to the Desert Nuns in their chapel. In the last two churches I attended, the Pastor led Lauds before Mass. The Book of
    Christian Prayer/Liturgy of the Hours is one of several ones available for the common faithful to use in joining the Church in daily prayer.

  7. "And what do Catholics know of the Psalms? Very little apart from the paraphrases one hears in pop songs at Mass."

    Surely, you discount the effect of Catholics hearing the responsorial psalm between Reading and Gospel at each Mass in recent decades. (Though I wouldn't want to exaggerate it either, as one who prays the whole Liturgia Horarm daily, and also vernacular morning prayer at my parish each morning.)

  8. The pity of it, with a few exceptions, everything outside of mandatory Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation has to be dumbed down to less than 15 minutes. Otherwise, they skip it altogether by arranging to stand out in the parking lot until the introductory office is over.

    We've reached a new nadir in western Catholic spirituality when "cathedral office" comes to mean little more than lighting a lamp, singing a hymn, then Psalm 141 while someone throws a few grains of incense into a barbecue pit, followed by a short collect, and they call this "Vespers"?

  9. For those readers who are already familiar with the English/don't mind Latin, there is already compline for the entire year online-
    This document contains the entire ordinary, psalter, and common tones. It is relatively short, only 66 pages, and of that you'll only need a fraction of the pages on a given night. Plus it's free! Unfortuately there are setbacks- 1. It's entirely in Latin, including rubrics, so unless you and the family are already familiar with Latin and/or the rubrics themselves, it'll be diffucult to catch on. 2. The notes are in square notation, so could be slightly more difficult to read, particularly as you get to Holy Week/Easter season.
    On the other hand, these problems can be easily overcome by purchasing the more user-friendly books advertised above. As someone who already sings Compline nightly I highly recommend this practice to all the faithful, for use in groups or alone.

  10. I use the Angelus Press' Officium Divinum just for a taste of Latin on Sundays and the weekday small hours, but mainly use the 4-Volume LOTH in English for Weekday Readings, Morning and Evening Prayers.

    The OD is an elegant little book and has Compline psalm tones in nuemes, (but horrors!- it's SSPX!)

    Do you think I should junk the Angelus Press OD in favor of this new kosher Compline book by Ignatius Press?

  11. Officium Divinum is a good book, and I see no reason to ditch it, unless you really want to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. Now, concerning OD, I have no idea why it includes Prime, but that's another story.

  12. I and several of my brother seminarians have picked up this book and begun singing Compline together. Whenever we invite someone new along, they're always impressed by the beauty of it.

    As a chant enthusiast myself, I must say this book one of a few post-Vatican II music books that has not cut any corners. For example, Fr. Weber included all of the seasonal settings of the hymns and responsories.

    My one reservation is this: Why did he use the Mundelein tones for the English Psalms instead of the same Gregorian tones used for the Latin? The Gregorian tones are far more beautiful and would have made going from Latin to English more consistent. If anyone has an answer to this, I would be very much interested in hearing it.

  13. you can see from the book that there were good reasons for the choices in every case. Try the English text using the Gregorian tone on the left side of the page. The terminations are wrong and the text doesn't fit – it ends up being a rather random placement of syllables rather than liturgical cantillation. If you are sensitive to the priority of the text, the G tones in many cases are very awkward. Just as every European language has its own variety of tones to match the language – most famously created by Dobzsay in Hungary – so too Fr. Weber has made these tones for the English language. You can see that he only uses them when the mode requires it.

  14. Ah, the Cathedral Office! To recapture the days when the laity flocked to the glorious local liturgies, before the dastardly Roman Breviary ruined everything!

    I agree with the comment above reflecting the anemic paraliturgies of today that go by the name "cathedral office" while reflecting none of their old substance (or attendance).

    The secret of the success of these long extinct rites, I suspect, was what happened as soon as they were finished. After the canons were done chanting the big Office by themselves, the laity, who had been filtering in up to this point, joined the clergy in chanting the Little Office of Our Lady, which was much more amenable to lay participation due to its repetitive nature, and could be more ornate and beautiful since there were not new tones to learn for each day.

    This option is still open to us today. The Little Office of 1961 is not very different from the Little Offices chanted in the cathedrals of Europe and Britain before Trent.

    That said, the book recommended above is truly excellent. The reformed Compline of 1970 is a great improvement over the that preceded it (concocted in 1910) insofar as you now have the option of praying the Sunday office every day, making for a simple and reflective liturgy which is easy to memorize and participate in. The fact that it is wholly bilingual, and that the English chants are almost as lovely as the Latin are, is also a nice feature that is very newbie friendly, whereas the Little Office is an acquired taste unless you already know Latin. I've been chanting this book with my family for months now, with excellent results.

  15. Ah, thank you for that explanation Jeffrey, that's very good to know.

    It's really catching on here at our seminary; we just received 10 more copies for the bookstore.

  16. Thanks for the recommendation. I actually started praying compline for lent because of the suggestion. Having loved it so much, I'm going to keep praying it after lent. It's been awesome!

  17. Great, but I can't just look at the neumes and start chanting. I need to hear it, learn it by ear. Where can I hear compline being chanted so I can follow the texts in this book? Without being able to hear it being sung, for me it would be like a book on color theory to a blind person.

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