God guides the humble in doing right and teaches the divine way to the lowly
— Psalm 25:8
There was a hermit who was able to banish the demons. And he asked them: “What makes you go away? Is it fasting?” They replied: “We do not eat or drink.” “Is it vigils?” They said: “We do not sleep.” “Then what power sends you away?” They replied: “Nothing can overcome us except humility alone.”
— Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
When I spent Orthodox Holy Week in Jerusalem years ago, I saw an unusual ritual in the Syrian church on Holy Thursday. The patriarch, imitating the humility of Jesus, girded himself with a towel and knelt at the feet of the clergy to wash their feet. After this, he took his seat. Then the clergy surrounded his chair and lifted it above their heads, for “all who humble themselves shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11). From this elevated position, the patriarch gave us all a blessing.
Humility is perhaps the most misunderstood of Christian virtues. It has been confused with low self-esteem, or suffering devaluation by others without complaint. Religious tropes of unworthiness (“I am a worm, not a person!”) haven’t helped. But humility is foundational to spiritual growth. When the Psalm says that God “teaches the divine way to the lowly,” it means that there is something essential, life-giving and godly which comes only through humility.
In the 4th century, Christian men and women fled the corruptions of a dehumanizing culture in search of a more authentic way of being. In the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, they discovered that humility was not just the first step on the path toward the “divinization” of our humanity; it was the path itself—the self-emptying process which makes room for God to fill us. This is the wisdom the Psalmist promised, and it became foundational for western monasticism, of which every contemporary Christian is a beneficiary. As Thomas Merton put it, humility “empties the soul of all pride and annihilates it in the sight of God, so that nothing may be left of it but the pure capacity for God.” [i]
Humility is countercultural in the age of “selfies.” It is the antidote for narcissism—grandiose self-importance, entitlement, insatiable lust for attention, and self-promotion. It gives glory only to God.
Humility begins with consciousness of sin—our own incompleteness, our distance from what we are made to be. This frees us from having to pretend to be what we are not. We drop the disguises and self-delusion, admit our weaknesses and limitations. We relinquish the need to be in control or make everything about us. We accept our dependence on God—everything is gift, not possession. We acknowledge our need for mercy.
Humility also heals our relationships with others. If we don’t have to be the smartest in the room, or the most important, or always correct, we can shed the arrogance, egotism, fear and competitiveness which disable loving community. We submit ourselves to the presence, influence and “otherness” of others, even when it is difficult to do, because interdependence is the truth of love. We even accept the hard things beyond our control without losing faith. And by not insisting on always having the best for myself, or asserting my rights without reverent regard for humanity or the planet, humility restores the balance of paradise.
Benedictine sister Joan Chittister sums it up this way: “Humility is the total continuing surrender to God’s power in my life and in the lives of those around me.” [ii]
[i] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (182), cited in William H. Shannon, Christine M. Bochen, & Patrick F. O’Connell, The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 216.
[ii] Joan Chittister, O.S.B., Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: Harper One, 1991), 65.
I took the photograph at the Venice Biennale in 2019. The sculpture is “The Guardians of Time” (2018) by Austrian artist Manfred Kielnhofer. The faceless anonymity of the monkish figures and the young woman refute the assertion of self. Even the latter’s self-conscious pose is at least practicing the posture of humility and surrender, if only in play (her act was spontaneous, inspired by the figures). But is not all Christian practice a form of play, where we try out a self we have not yet become?
All of our hearts ask the night this question: Am I safe and am I loved?
— Brother David Steindl-Rast & Sharon Lebell, Music of Silence
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
— Compline Antiphon for the Nunc Dimittis
In The Benedictine Gift to Music, Katharine Le Mée links the musical octave to the progressive sequence of canonical hours. Do is the starting point (Lauds). Re and Mi launch us into the energetic activity of the morning (Prime/Terce). Fa, when only a tentative half-step is taken, is a moment of indecision or uncertainty about the meaning and the outcome of our journey (Sext). Sol, “a bright, triumphant note,” signals our recommitment to the day’s work, wherever it may lead (None). La continues onward, but it is more subdued, accepting a sense of loss as we let go of what is behind us (Vespers). Si is charged with an unsustainable tension, resolved only by our surrender to the resting place of Do (Compline).
“The key to the completion of the octave,” says Le Mée, “is our willingness to give up any personal desire to know exactly what should happen and our claim to and control of the results. The last step, therefore, is one of surrender, the point of second awakening, where synthesis and integration take place.”[i]
Before you go to bed tonight, try singing the octave syllables, ascending slowly and deliberately from Do to Do, visualizing the progress of the day in those seven steps. Notice particularly the relaxing of tension as you make the final half-step. Just so does Compline complete[ii] the circle of the hours, inviting us to cease our strivings and rest in the arms of grace. “Entering the fullness of night, we return from song back into the silence.” [iii]
Designed for tired bodies, the Compline rite is short and to the point. It begins with the most succinct of bedtime prayers: The Lord Almighty grant us a peaceful night and a perfect end. The iambic rhythm of its three last words (two pairs of syllables with the stress on the second of each) replicates in sound the sense of an ending: a-per-fect-end. It’s like a gymnast sticking a landing—emphatic and conclusive. And so it should be, since “a perfect end” expresses multiple levels of cessation: the end of the day, the end of life, and the end of time.
Of course, when Christians say “the end,” we are speaking about more than termination. We are speaking about purpose. What is the purpose of a day, or a life? What is the meaning of time and history? We don’t always know exactly where a path leads until we reach its end; it is only at the end that the journey’s meaning is fully revealed. Still, we get hints and glimpses of our ultimate future—our “perfect end”—along the way, so that we might, with God’s grace, proceed in hope rather than dread.
The connection between sleep and death is an ancient and enduring one. When someone dies, we pray for “the repose of the soul,” that the deceased may “rest in peace.” The two states share an outward resemblance, and a subjective one as well. When we go to sleep, our eyes close, and the conscious mind becomes “dead to the world.” From the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, a recumbent figure was a common feature on European tombs. When stone sepulchers went out of fashion, the corpse itself was arranged to imitate the sculpted sleepers of the old tombs: lying peacefully on its back, with hands joined or crossed.[iv]
Every sleep is a practice in letting go, a rehearsal for the inevitable dispossession of death. You can’t take it with you. What’s done is done. Surrender control. Plans, projects, worries, hopes—let it all go. Exit the visible world and sink into the abyss of the dark unknown. It’s rather amazing that most of us do this routinely every night. But our mortal bodies don’t really give us a choice. Whether at the end of the day or the end of our life, surrender is how the game is played.
Surrender is best done willingly. If we believe there is something beyond oblivion, we can lie down in peace. Under most circumstances, we all believe in tomorrow morning as a matter of course. We usually do it without thinking. We go to sleep … we wake up … life goes on. But when we meet the hour of our death, can we still trust in the morning after?
In their reflections on the canonical hours, David Steindl-Rast and Sharon Lebell express the existential mixture of anxiety and faith faced by the thoughtful soul in the Compline experience:
Night is at once threat and grace: threat, because when night falls, we stand at the edge of chaos – the neat little world that we have created for ourselves throughout the day now threatens to fall back into chaos; but grace also, because the protection, the divine nearness to which we have become accustomed through the chants and prayers throughout the day, will not abandon us.[v]
We should “keep death daily before our eyes,” says the Rule of St. Benedict.[vi] Only so can we maintain clarity and perspective about our existential situation. If you forget death, you won’t know who you are or where you stand. We are creatures who will die; pretending otherwise will give us less life, not more. As Teresa of Avila reminds us, “Don’t be troubled. Everything passes, but God stays. One who has God lacks nothing.” [vii]
Mark Barrett, O.S.B., tells of a fellow monk serving as headmaster of a posh British school. At a gathering of parents and donors, he told them that the school “prepared its students not for Oxbridge, the City or the Guards, but for death.” Barrett doesn’t report the speech’s effect on enrollment. [viii]
In my essay on Vespers, I wrote about practicing the Examen, a prayerful review at the close of day. “From the perspective of the end, we can look back on the story of the day as a whole: How did it go, for good or ill? … Where did God meet us—and did we notice? … When did we remember—or forget—to be our truest selves? … And, most importantly, did we say yes to Love?” The Examen may also be done at Compline (which includes a brief confession), though on the threshold of sleep any interrogation should be brief. The hour is made for letting go, even of the critical work of mending the soul. As Elizabeth Yates puts it in her Book of Hours:
This is no time to dwell upon the disturbing, the unattained, the imperfect. To do so would be to find sleep elusive … By an act of will, that which may have marred the day must be given over to God to enable thinking to be anchored fast in that which is good. Rest will come then, and with it the restoration that is sleep.[ix]
Lord, it is night. The night is for stillness. Let us be still in the presence of God. It is night after a long day. What has been done has been done; What has not been done has not been done; let it be.
— Night Prayer, A New Zealand Prayer Book
Compline is grounded in deep trust. Entering the darkness, we renounce our fear. The Psalms of Compline tune our awareness to the protective Presence which will carry us through the night:
O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us. (70:1)
Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings. (17:8)
I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety. (4:8)
Into your hands I commend my spirit, for you have redeemed me, O Lord, O God of truth. (31:5)
These are images of profound sweetness, sinking us into the embrace of the Divine Beloved. Every night, including our last, we “fall asleep in Christ.” But the act of complete surrender to the Divine Other is not lightly done. Jesus spent his last breath commending his spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46), so when we ourselves say the same words we are connecting to something far deeper than a good night’s sleep. The sacred words commit us to the Paschal Mystery of dying and rising. What we have been will be exchanged for what we must be. It is a costly Way, but we never walk alone—or entirely in the dark. Come what may, we remain in the protective shelter of God’s love. This is the central meaning of Compline.
Our ancient night prayers, composed centuries before electricity, strike matches of faith in the endless black: Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night … protect us through the hours of this night … illumine this night with your celestial brightness … preserve us in peace, and let your blessing be upon us always.
These are beautiful and consoling prayers on the verge of sleep. However, at the end of any given day, not everyone is having a peaceful night and a perfect end. There are many “who work, or watch, or weep this night.” Our own day is not truly complete until we gather them also into the blessing way. A movingly earnest prayer, attributed to St. Augustine, does this work by putting emphatic stresses on a series of beseeching verbs:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.
Compline draws to a close with the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s valedictory canticle from Luke’s gospel. The long and varied symphony of the canonical hours resolves into a peaceful diminuendo: with this quiet song of surrender, the day’s music fades away into the Great Silence.
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior …
Old Simeon has waited all his life for the moment when a lifetime of longing would find its perfect end. When he sees the infant Jesus brought to the Temple, he recognizes the child as the salvation of the world, “a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people Israel.” In this revelatory moment, to which all his years have led, he makes his own personal Compline. Now his “day” is over. His story is complete. He does not cling to the moment, for it is gift, not possession. He knows how to walk away and let go.[x]
Since the fourth century, the Song of Simeon has been sung by countless voices at the close of day. Its calm, accepting spirit supplies a perfect end to our daily pilgrimage from Vigils to Compline. The canticle also prepares us for the hour of our death, teaching us to end our days with gratitude and trust, that we may, at the last, depart in peace.
In his deeply informed and formative book on Compline, Prayer as Night Falls,[xi] Kenneth V. Peterson balances the “little death” of Compline and sleep with the divine promise of an ultimate awakening. A longtime member of the celebrated Compline Choir at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Cathedral, Peterson describes a choir pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in the year 2000. After singing Compline with a congregation in the great medieval church, the choir descended in procession to the crypt. There, in the company of sleeping saints, they sang a text by John Donne, conveying in the gloom a foretaste of resurrection morning:
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening Into the house and gate of heaven, To enter that gate and dwell in that house, Where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, But one equal light; No noise nor silence, but one equal music; No fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; No ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; In the habitation of thy glory and dominion, World without end. Amen.
Donne’s text, from a sermon in 1628, was adapted by Eric Milner-White (1884-1964). The music was composed by Peter Hallock, founder of the Compline Choir, in 1991. You can listen to it here. For more on Compline (including a directory of Compline services in North America, and links to lovely musical examples), visit Kenneth Peterson’s rewarding websites:
[vii] The 16th-century saint, who knew her share of turbulence, said this in a famous poem, “Nada te turbe,” which has been set to a Taize chant in both Spanish and English. Thirty years ago I sang it with 2000 pilgrims in the candlelit Taize church, experiencing deep calm as a lightning storm raged outside. “Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten …”
[viii] Mark Barrett, O.S.B., Crossing: Reclaiming the Landscape of Our Lives (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2002), 106.
[ix] Elizabeth Yates, A Book of Hours (Noroton, CT: Vineyard Books, 1976), 49.
[x] Barrett’s commentary on the Nunc Dimittis cites a poem by Cecil Day Lewis about “his experience as a parent of ‘walking away’ from his son on the boy’s first day of school.” Lewis says, “… selfhood begins with a walking away, / And love is proved in the letting go.” (Crossing, 108)
[xi] Kenneth V. Peterson, Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2013). Peterson’s thoughtful exploration of the history and meaning of Compline is, as Phyllis Tickle has said, “a totally satisfying experience for mind and soul.” And the book’s website, cited above, provides beautiful musical examples.