Last night I turned to the last prayers of the day, which are focused around a couple readings from the Psalms and a Biblical passage. The night prayer in the monastery is called Compline. When I visit a monastery, I think it may be my favorite part of the day. It “finishes” off the day of worship and work and the monks head to their rooms and a night’s sleep.
When I visit one of my favorite monasteries, Gethsemani in Kentucky, Compline comes at 7:30pm. It is not a long service. This is understandable when you realize the monks will be up again and in the sanctuary at 3:15am! What’s interesting is that for much of the year, the monks begin in the darkness and conclude in the darkness. I like Compline during those months when the sun has already gone down and the monks and the visitors gather in the soft lights for the last service. As the service is ending, the lights are turned out and only one or two lights make the exit possible. That truly does give one a sense of peace for the night to come.
Of course, it is not the same thing when I am sitting in my easy chair. I read the texts for Compline on my computer, so the screen is brighter than any spot in a monastery would be. And when you are by yourself, it is not the same as being with 60 monks and assorted visitors. But it is still significant for me to join in spirit with the monks and be ready to welcome the night.
I appreciate some monks somewhere choosing the readings for the various worship spots throughout the day. It should not be surprising that the Psalm themes for Compline focus on peace, on rest, and protection from the Holy One as one gets ready to pass into the sleep mode. I always laugh and think of the child’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep…” Perhaps Compline is the adult version of that!
One of the Psalms I read for last night was Psalm 143. Let me pick out a few lines from that Psalm to develop these inspirational reflections. The Psalm is a conversation between the Psalmist and God. The Psalmist says, “I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands.” (143:5-6) I appreciate the reminder of the Psalmist here that I, too, should take some time to think about the Divine Deeds, some of which have come to me. I am thankful for another day and the graces that come with it.
Some days are better than others, but probably no day goes by without some form of grace. I am grateful for friends and can pray for those who make my life more difficult. I hope they pray for me when I am a hassle rather than a helper! I want my day today to find me more graceful and less grumpy. I want to bring peace rather than blast things to pieces!
The Psalmist meditates on the works of God’s hands. It is easy to see this as an invitation to pay attention to nature. Even if we believe in some version of evolution and hold somehow to God’s patient hand in the evolutionary process, we can still gives thanks for the creative power and majesty of God’s handiwork. Mountains may not have been made in one day, but they are there nevertheless and no less amazing. Thanks be to God!
And then the Psalmist moves to the line that gave me the title for this reflection. The Psalmist says, “I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.” (143:6) This sentence conveys great imagery. Stretching out my hands is symbolic. It is symbolic of openness and desire. The outstretched hands, in effect, are saying, “come to me” or “receive me.” The outstretched hands are a petition for relationship.
Contrast this image with arms folded across the chest and hands disappeared in those folded arms. This symbolizes independence or, even, defensiveness. It certainly is not a request for relationship. I want to spend more time today with hands and arms outstretched and less time defending myself or my opinions.
The Psalmist finishes that sentence by switching imagery. The Psalmist says that the soul “thirsts” for God. Sense language is being used metaphorically. Everyone knows what it is like to be thirsty. This is a good imagery to convey the soul’s desire for God. And the Psalmist adds one more piece to this imagery.
The soul’s thirst is like parched land. Again in days of drought, the imagery of parched land is powerful. We know what that looks like: hard, brittle, lifeless, colorless and sad. So can a soul be without God’s Presence. No doubt, this is why the Biblical tradition so often uses water as the image of Presence.
So Lord, water me today. My soul thirsts for you.