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Prayer for the week

02 August 2013

Adrian Leak commends the personal and comforting words of compline

Keep me, O Lord, as the apple of an eye;
Hide me under the shadow of thy wings.

from Compline (BCP 1928) and Common Worship Night Prayer (Traditional)

"The apple of an eye: a symbol of that which is most cherished,"The Oxford English Dictionarydeclares in its stern, matter-of-fact way, but there is no disguising the beauty of this most lovely of phrases. Moses used it in his song of delight, celebrating the Lord, who saved Jacob from the howling wilderness, guarding him as the apple of his eye and covering him beneath his wings (Deuteronomy 32.10). The Psalmist sang the same words of comfort (Psalm 17.8).

Centuries later, they found their way into the monastic office of compline, revived for Anglicans by theCuddesdon Office Bookin the 19th century, then by the 1928 Prayer Book, and now byCommon Worshipunder the title Night Prayer.

As a sixth-former, I found myself, rather to my surprise, attending compline one evening in the school chapel. I knew that some of the more pious boys would disappear at 9 p.m. on Fridays in Lent. I went along out of curiosity, not expecting much.

"The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end. . . Whoso dwelleth under the defence of the most high shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty."

The quiet, reflective tone struck me - it was so different from what I was accustomed to in chapel. Here were words of deep refreshment. Amazing stuff! It was not a Damascus-road experience, and it certainly did not happen all at once, but it was a beginning (there were many others).

There was more than bland reassurance. There was something darker too: a hint of menace to set in relief the words of comfort. "Be sober, be vigilant, the devil as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour; whom resist steadfast in the faith." What 18-year-old does not know the devil within, or has not sensed his or her own howling wilderness? "Hide me under the shadow of thy wings."

Then there was that rare use of the first person singular. Not "keep us," but "keep me as the apple of thine eye." Most of our public praying is in the plural, as you would expect in common prayer, but now, at bedtime, we revert to our private childhood moment when we were tucked up by mother. "Sweet dreams, darling. Sleep well." Just her and me, the apple of her eye.

Did the monks, I wonder, find solace in that memory, and see in it a foreshadowing of God, as they entered the "greater silence", and filed off down a draughty cloister to a bleak dormitory? Perhaps it redressed the relentlessly corporate nature of community life.

"Before the ending of the day, Creator of the world we pray." In case I forget, just in case I am carried away by my private moment with God, the words of the compline hymn bring me back in line. And there is the miracle: that the one who cherishes each of us as the apple of his eye, the one who calls us each his darling, is the God of all creation, the Love that moves the sun and stars 

The Revd Adrian Leak was, until his recent retirement, Priest-in-Charge of Withyham in the diocese of Chichester.

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