More than anything, perhaps, it is an act of defiance – of light defying the encroaching darkness, of silence insisting on peace amid the crashing noise of a world chasing madly after temporal rewards.
It is the sounds of medieval polyphony rising, like a cloud of incense, into the vault of a darkened Appleton Chapel. It is the tiny, brave candlelight borne by each member of the congregation. It is the jarring warning of Scripture – “Be watchful, be vigilant; because your adversary, like a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” It is the voices of the faithful, of the uncertain, and of the merely curious joined in hymnody. And it is the comforting words of the last collect: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night.”
It is Compline, the ancient service that closes the monastic day. In his “Rule” for the monasteries of his order, St. Benedict gently directed that after Compline “no one shall be allowed to say anything from that time on.”
From the Latin complementorium, complement – denoting its role as completing the seven Hours of the day, after the Morning Office, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Vespers – Compline remains, even today, the last sound of a monk’s day.
Inspired by hearing the service sung during a tour of England some years ago, the University Choir instituted its own tradition of singing the service on the first Thursday of every month in term. No doubt it would surprise both St. Benedict and any number of late Harvard presidents to know that, so long after the abolition of compulsory prayers at the close of the day, Compline at Harvard has become something of an interfaith phenomenon. When the bell in the tower of the Memorial Church calls the faithful, the interested, and the weary through the darkness and toward the glow of the candlelit chapel, those responding to the summons come from every faith tradition – and, just as frequently, none at all.
But whatever the beliefs that animate their lives, the 20 minutes of Compline provide those most precious of refreshments – a place of quiet and serenity, a time set aside once again to meet and explore another, equally compelling and equally challenging veritas.
Mark D.W. Edington is Epps Fellow and Chaplain to Harvard College in the Memorial Church, and senior administrator in the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. The University Choir will sing the service of Compline at 10 p.m. on March 7 (with music of Gustav Holst), April 4, and May 2 in Appleton Chapel.