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‘Peace, and joy, and rest . . . within’

22 August 2014

Kenneth Peterson reflects on confession in the late-night office of compline

COMPLINE stands at the threshold of light and darkness - a "liminal" time as the clear images of the day fade, and night approaches with its connection to fear, vulnerability, and evil.

Over hundreds of years, light and darkness have been symbols for other pairs of opposites: good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, safety and fear. And so at nightfall, it is natural to consider these opposites, and respond with awareness, self-examination, and a renewed yearning for right relationships with ourselves and others. In spite of our intentions to do what is good, we are imperfect. Through inattention or ignorance, we fail to know or do the right thing. As St Paul puts it, "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. . . . I can will what is right, but I cannot do it" (Romans 7.16, 18b).

As night falls, it is appropriate to review the events of the day; examine our thoughts, words, and actions; and ask for forgiveness and the time to make changes. A verse of Psalm 4, one of the psalms appointed for compline as well as part of the bed-time Shema, may contain the origin of the Office itself: "Tremble, then, and do not sin; speak to your heart in silence upon your bed."

In most orders of compline, a confession of sin is included. It provides an opportunity for this reflection to take place. Our music at compline often includes texts about repentance at the close of the day. Sometimes, we sing a simple prayer, such as the hymn "Dear Lord and Father of mankind". It sums up a desire to enter into the silence and reverence of the rest to come, forgiven and renewed.

Jesus showed us by his teachings and his very act of sacrifice a resolution for our sinful state. This is wonderfully expressed in a 17th- century text that was originally set to music by John Danyel (1564-1626), and later adapted for the Seattle Compline Choir by its founder, Peter Hallock.

The first stanza likens our minds to a house with many rooms, in which the room with memories of our misdeeds cannot be shut away from the room of our consciousness:

If we could shut the gate against our thoughts
And keep out sorrow from within:
Or memory could cancel all misdeeds,
And we unthink our sin,
How free, how clear, how clean our hearts would lie,
Discharged of such grievous company.

It is only through meditation on Jesus's example and through repentance that we might truly become free.

O Saviour, who our refuge art,
Let thy mercies stand twixt them and us,
And be the wall to separate our hearts,
So that we may at length repose us free:
That peace, and joy, and rest may be within,
And we remain divided from our sin.

This is the second 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.

The book was reviewed in the Church Times on 17 April.

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