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I will lay me down . . .

12 September 2014

Kenneth V. Peterson on compline

WE COME to compline seeking many things - communion, forgiveness, strength, enlightenment - but perhaps most of all, we come to find peace.

In its most elemental form, peace is protection and safety from harm. But we also seek release from pain, anxiety, and from fears of many kinds - such as failure or death. At the end of the day, we pray to let go of our cares, fold ourselves under the wings of the divine presence, and enter into a quiet night.

One of the parts of compline that speaks of lasting peace is Psalm 91. It is one of the appointed psalms for the Office not just because it refers to "terror by night", but also because it describes the peace that comes within the resting presence of God: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, abides under the shadow of the Almighty. . . I will protect him, because he knows my Name" (Psalm 91.1, 14).

In the second of the verses here, God speaks of a great covenant: because we know the name of the Nameless One, and are bound together in love and faith, we will be safe from harm. Compline reminds us to face our fears, give thanks for our protection from harm, and pray for restful sleep and good dreams, releasing our trust to the Almighty.

In our time, we are deepening our sense of the feminine face of God. There has been a slow evolution in our thinking over the past five or six decades towards this idea. Carl Jung (in "An Answer to Job") saw the promulgation of the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1950 as a sign of symbolic acknowledgment that divinity was both masculine and feminine.

We have been moving towards a greater awareness and integration of the aspects of the Divine Mother: wisdom, compassion, intuition, and nurturing of the planet. Care for the planet is more urgent now than at the time the following was written: "Unless we wake up to the full reality of what we have done and are doing to the planet, it may be too late to alter the course of events we have unwittingly set in motion. In response to this crisis, the Divine Feminine is activated in the depths of our soul to help us see what needs to be done and to do it" (Andrew Harvey and Anne Baring, The Divine Feminine, Conari, 1996).

One last part of compline that resonates the most with me when I think about finding lasting peace is the short response sung just before the Nunc dimittis: "Keep me as the apple of an eye. Hide me under the shadow of Thy wings."

This little mantra, which could stand on its own as representative of all of compline, always says to me something like: "God knows us all as unique beings, unique as the imprint of our iris." We need to let ourselves rest in that loving care, under the shadow of the Almighty.

When we enter into that mystical communion with the divine, aware and vigilant, repentant of our sins, resting in the eternal presence that is with us and in us all, and found in so much beauty - then we have found all that prayer at the end of the day has to offer.

Then, with the psalmist, we can say: "You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase. I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety."

This is the last of four edited extracts from  Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing compline by Kenneth V. Peterson, published by Paraclete Press at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-61261-376-5.

Reviewed, Books, 17 April.

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