Recently on my pilgrimage to the monastery, the students and I participated in one full twenty-four hour round of the Divine Office, as it is called. The first aspect of that is Vigils, which happens at 3:15 am. Vigils is a good name, coming from the Latin meaning, “to keep watch” or “vigilance.” At the other end of the cycle is Compline, which obviously has the sense of “completing.”
I loved Compline. Because of the time of the winter season when we were there, it was already dark outside when we entered the sanctuary for Compline. The darkness led to a more mysterious sense for us as we walked through the darkness in silence into the sanctuary. Because we had been up so early, it was easy to understand why the day did seem like it was nearly complete. It was easy to know that if we followed this schedule on a daily basis, as the monks do, we would have to head to bed fairly soon after Compline. No 11:00pm news and Jay Leno for monks!
One of the things I bring back with me from Gethsemani is the ability to participate in the Divine Office as I wish. So in this new day, I thought I would go directly to what will happen tonight at Compline. As with most of the short worship spots throughout the Divine Office (from Vigils to Compline), there are readings from the Psalms. In fact, at the monastery, the monks work through the entire book of Psalms (all 150 of them!) every two weeks! No wonder they know that book so well.
So tonight part of the Psalm which will be used comes from Psalm 143. Let’s listen to part of the Psalmist’s words. “Come quickly and hear me, O Lord, for my spirit is weakening.” (Ps 143:7) I can resonate with these words. I like the first two verbs in the sentence: come and hear. I like the audacity of the Psalmist as he addresses the Divinity: Come! Listen!
If we were to imagine how the Psalmist said these words out loud, how would we imagine? Would the Psalmist use a booming voice---almost in a demanding fashion? “Come!” “Hear!” I think this is my choice. I almost snicker when I think the Psalmist says to God something to the effect, “Come here and listen!” But in faith this is exactly what we can do.
The Psalmist continues by saying, “Do not hide your face from me, do not let me be like the dead, who go down to the underworld.” (143:7) That seems like a legitimate prayer as we head into the night and to sleep. In effect, it is a prayer to be “watched over.” We probably all have that feeling that at night when we are asleep, we are not in control. We can be taken places via our dreams, etc. “Watch over us,” we pray to the Divinity.
The next line follows wonderfully on the previous thought. “Show me your mercy at daybreak, because of my trust in you.” (143:8) This petition assumes we will make it through the night. It assumes God will watch over us and bring us back into a new day. And to ask for mercy at daybreak seems like a pretty smart move on the part of the Psalmist.
I realize how easy it is for me to enter the night with a little fear and, then, get scared at night with the darkness, nightmares, and so on. But when morning comes, I feel ok and ready to be in control. It is as if I don’t need God anymore!
The Psalmist is smarter than I am. The Psalmist asks for mercy at daybreak. The Psalmist is smart enough to ask for mercy so he is not on his own…he is “on mercy.” It is as if the Psalmist says “God be with me.” “God be with me through this new day.” “God be with me in every way.”
I know how it works. I have been to Gethsemani and many other monasteries. But knowing how it works…and doing it are two different things. But I am ready. I am heading into Compline tonight ready to tell God to come and hear. And I will pray with the Psalmist to show me mercy at daybreak.