Monday, March 17, 2008


Compline (pronounced /ˈkɒmplɪn/; also Complin, Night Prayer, Prayers at the End of the Day) is the final church service of the day in the Christian tradition of canonical hours. The English word Compline is derived from the Latin completorium, as Compline is the completion of the working day.

Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and certain other Christian denominations with liturgical traditions prescribe Compline services. Compline tends to be a contemplative Office that emphasizes spiritual peace. In many monasteries it is the custom to begin the "Great Silence" after Compline, during which the whole community, including guests, observe silence throughout the night until the morning service the next day.

I went to Compline services at Christ Church on Broadway in New Haven last night for the first time in a few weeks. And this morning as I was loading up the car to go to work, my daughter, Isabel, was taking more time than is strictly required to get some socks from her room and to eat her breakfast of cheesy toast. Normally, her delay would have me at a low boil. With my jaw set, I would be repeating (ad ridiculum) “Time for us to go, daughter.” But today I just took a deep breath, went out to the car, and sat waiting for Isabel with an actual smile on my face.
It may have been the sunshine and the promise of spring that had me responding with calm, cool, collectedness. But I think my equanimity is traceable to another cause. I am fairly certain my time in the dark at Christ Church is what allowed me to shrug off her lack of focus and our late departure for school.
Don’t get me wrong. For those of you who have read my thoughts on God and religion, don’t think that I am coming back around to subscribe to any particular brand of belief. Before I even try to explain what the Compline service did for me, let me just describe the setting in purely sensual terms. (It is the same each time I go, so I am going to make the editorial decision to keep the description in the present tense.)

As you walk in the doors of the church a robed singer is there to greet you. Even though it is dark outside, you realize that the streetlights, signs, store lights, and headlights of Broadway are brighter than you would have thought. It is dark inside the church. There are no electric lights at all, save the mandatory EXIT signs over the doors. It is hard to see anything at first except for the many candles flickering all around the church. You stop and stand still for a second, just to get your bearings and allow your eyes to begin the adjustment to real darkness. After a moment you can make out the rows of chairs and you choose one for yourself. If you have come in alone, as many of the congregants have, you sit alone, respecting the envelope of quiet each person comes quickly to occupy.
Speaking of quiet, you notice that the quiet of the church is deceptive. There is no radio, no background organ music, no lector reading announcements, no low hum of conversation. The traffic going by outside is three or four removes away. But still, the space is full of sounds. A woman clears the tickle in her throat. A man shifts his weight and his chair responds. Someone shuffles up the aisle to her seat and the sliding soles of her shoes sound almost like human speech. The building itself shifts its weight ever so slightly in a breeze. Your own breathing fills your ears and takes you by surprise.
Once you realize that you can hear your own breathing, you can’t help but focus on it, listen to it, claim it. You exercise control over it, making it deeper and slower. And then you realize that each inhalation is coating your olfactory bulb with a complicated incense. Because you have been in the dark for a few minutes, you can now see much better. Your eyes pick out the cloud of smoke rising from the altar and you can tell where the thick-but-not-unpleasant scent is coming from.
Just when you have settled into the quiet and forgotten your purpose for even being in the perfumed dark to begin with, four voices in harmony slide out of a side balcony and through the cloudy darkness and into the very middle of your consciousness. You realize that the minutes spent getting acclimated were essential to hearing the song in just the way it was intended to be heard: as the sound the Universe makes when given the chance to just be its best self.

I realized last night during a particularly beautiful “Amen” that as soon as the voices start, my other senses beat a hasty retreat, leaving my hearing to enjoy its moment in the sun. The candles, the incense, my awareness of other people, and even my own breathing all vaporize as the first ripples of sound waves set my eardrums to vibrating in natural sympathy with the music of the angels.

I emerged last night from Christ Church somewhat dazed and woozy, but certainly exponentially more calm than when I had entered. The feeling faded slowly, but it did not disappear the way a dream can upon waking. Instead, it faded into my background. When I woke up this morning and then started to move toward work, what rose up to take control was not the usual clock-focused dictator but instead the calm, centered church-sitter from last night. It was a real lesson for me in the value of meditation. I know reacting to stress with a deep breath and a smile is not something I can do each time, but it was nice to realize that I am capable of it once in a while.

See you at Compline?

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