Article

Praying Compline

An Introduction to Liturgy & Ritual
by Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards

Like my family growing up, and like many families, I suppose, my family struggled for a while to find a pattern of praying together daily that would work for us. We knew we wanted to have such a pattern, but neither my spouse nor I could draw on effective models of prayer from our own growing up. Yes, our families had tried. But the typical family devotional process of Bible reading, conversation, and prayer just didn’t seem to work for us.

So we tried something else: the night portion of the daily office, called Compline in some traditions, including the Book of Common Prayer. You can find the whole service here: http://www.bcponline.org/DailyOffice/compline.html

A word about the daily office, for those who may be unfamiliar with this term. The daily office consists of set times for prayer and set kinds of prayers, readings, hymns, psalms, or canticles throughout the day. Monks in the Western church developed seven specific times for prayer. Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century combined elements of several of these to provide for prayer in the morning and the evening, and John Wesley provided a version of these orders for early American Methodists to use on Sundays each week. Further research into the value of these orders of prayer from early Christianity led several traditions, including the Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church, to provide for four “hours” for prayer each day, at morning, midday, evening, and night. The idea is to stop and pray throughout the day to “hallow” (or make holy) all of our time, day by day.

We started with a very abbreviated portion of Compline when our older son was just a little over two years old. We did the opening words, the confession and pardon, a brief Scripture reading, and the closing prayers at first, straight from the prayer book. It was not long; and it was easy, even for our two-year old to begin to memorize. This was working!

I think part of what worked about it was we weren’t making any of it up. While there was time built in for intercession, which could be a bit more extempore, this never took away from the sense we were joining something that was beyond us and joined by others, too. We were using the words very like those others were using and had used in prayer for centuries. We were part of something bigger than ourselves. We didn’t have to expend much —if any — energy to sustain it. We simply needed to allow ourselves to show up with each other and join in, as we were able. And being night prayer, the last office of the day before bedtime, it made for a lovely and simple bedtime ritual.

When our younger son was born two years later, we had already expanded our practice somewhat with our older son (then four). We decided not to start over, but let our younger son become acclimated to our practice of night prayers as it had now evolved with our older son. As he was able to do more with the prayers, we expanded the practice further, ultimately praying the entire office together every night by the time our younger son was in kindergarten in 2001.

In fall 2005, I began a position in Nashville as Director of Worship Resources with what is now known as Discipleship Ministries that would take me away from my family, who still lived in Indiana, during the weekdays. But the practice of praying Compline together was something we didn’t want to lose. So we continued this practice every night I was available, first via phone and later via Skype, as the concluding action of my nightly calls home. This was not a substitute for being there, I must say. Not even close. But it was a way to continue something that had become a well-practiced custom for us for many years.

We continued to pray the Compline every night, whether in person or via Skype, for the next five years. After that, both of our children were so actively involved in afterschool activities, often into the night, that praying Compline daily became impractical for much of the school year. Still, we made every effort to carve out time for it during Advent (in connection with lighting the Advent wreath) and Lent, at least, through the high school graduation of our older son.

We are empty nesters now, with our own kinds of work in various places and hours. Our older son is an EMT in Indianapolis. Our younger son is a sophomore in college. My spouse is an Episcopal priest with a lot of evening meetings. And I continue at Discipleship Ministries, primarily working from home (first in Indiana, now in Georgia).

I offer my family’s story as a simple testimony of something we found that worked for us for many years. Perhaps it, or something like it, may work for your family in some way, too.



The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, an elder in the Indiana Conference, continues as Director of Worship Resources with Discipleship Ministries.