Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The wisdom of Compline

The Lord Almight great us a quiet night ...

Keep thy watch around us while we sleep ...

Guard us while sleeping ...

Defend us from all perils and dangers of this night ...

Protect us through the silent hours of this night ...

Let thy holy angels dwell herein to preserve us in peace.

There is a sense in which the prayers of Compline could be taken to reflect a pre-modern fear of the time of darkness.  The 'giveness' of the darkness of night has disappeared in modernity.  The great cities of the globe do not sleep and do not experience darkness.  For those of us in the developed world, a flick of a switch banishes darkness.  Social media provides for constant communication, making the 'break' provided by night obsolete.  And so the prayers of Compline can seem archaic.  Why pray before sleep "defend us from all perils and dangers of this night"?  Night, after all, is an irrelevant, arbitrary term and sleep merely an interruption.

Today's Guardian carries a story reminding us that drawing a close to the day and receiving the gift of night - the purpose of Compline - significantly contributes to our well-being:

Getting too little sleep for several nights in a row disrupts hundreds of genes that are essential for good health, including those linked to stress and fighting disease.

Tests on people who slept less than six hours a night for a week revealed substantial changes in the activity of genes that govern the immune system, metabolism, sleep and wake cycles, and the body's response to stress, suggesting that poor sleep could have a broad impact on long-term wellbeing.

The changes, which affected more than 700 genes, may shed light on the biological mechanisms that raise the risk of a host of ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, stress and depression, in people who get too little sleep.

"The surprise for us was that a relatively modest difference in sleep duration leads to these kinds of changes," said Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, director of the Surrey Sleep Research Centre at Surrey University, who led the study. "It's an indication that sleep disruption or sleep restriction is doing more than just making you tired."

Here we see something of how modernity's rejection of the gift of night and sleep is a rejection of a given means of human flourishing.  It also points to the wisdom of Compline, of a prayerful receiving of these gifts.  Catholicity and covenant has previously reflected (here and here) on the place of Compline as a counter-cultural practice in the prayer of Christian communities. 

Whether the corporate praying of Compline later on a Sunday evening or a week-night (perhaps preceded by contemplative prayer or eucharistic adoration), encouraging groups of individuals in a parish to pray Compline at a given time for the parish and local community, or introducing it in catechesis to those for whom praying the Daily Office is incompatible with the commitments of family and work, there is a sense in which the praying of Compline can reintroduce us to gift and giveness in the rhythm of day and night - a rhythm which contributes to the flourishing of persons and communities.

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