Guide Us Waking, O Lord, and Guard Us Sleeping
Compline is one of the most well attended services that Christ Church offers. While number of souls in the seats should not always be the determiner of success of a worship offering (I’m not really comfortable even using the word “success” in the context of public worship), it is a good indication of what Compline means to people in this city.
People come to Compline for a variety of reasons. Some are drawn by the intense beauty of the choir and their plainchant tones, or of a gothic church lit only by hundreds of candles at the high altar and throughout the nave. Others are curious about traditions strange to them: clouds of incense wafting through the rafters, statues of saints flanking stone altars, a medieval statue of a woman with a baby at her breast, occupying a place of honor on a glowing shrine (“Is this church Catholic or Protestant?” is a question I imagine living in some visitors’ heads). For many, Compline is the only type of church in the city they can stomach, as the participation-less service draws in the unchurched, those hurt by the church, or those who can’t trust a God who speaks through sinful human beings.
For me, and perhaps for my housemates, Compline means something else. One of our chief responsibilities as members of Saint Hilda’s House is preparation for this nighttime service. From Monday to Thursday, we are scattered throughout the city of New Haven, working at organizations that provide social services to the most needy: the homeless, the hungry, the underprivileged, the refugee. Our work at these agencies of mercy demands most of our time and energy each week, and it is the main reason we are here: to serve the people of New Haven in the name of Christ while developing a deeper sense of vocation as we form an intentional community with one another. It is truly service to God.
But on Sunday nights, we offer God a different service. Amidst the blaring horns, bright lights, and stifling odors of the city, we carve out a peaceful, quiet space where God can be glorified in the beauty of holiness. I go to Compline because in this space we offer prayer for the whole city, within its noise and tumult, and not just for those assembled in the church.
O God, make speed to save us
O Lord, make haste to help us.
Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of thy eye;
Hide us under the shadow of thy wings.
As I hear these words from the prayerbook sung in timeless fashion by the choir, I know the deep truth that God watches over the people of this city, and that He is with them in all their joys and struggles. I am reminded that God calls people to seek and serve Christ in all persons, and I feel part of something bigger, a mission wider than that which we offer the city of New Haven.
I also draw strength from these prayers for the week ahead, knowing that in less than 12 hours I will have gone through the gates and into the city, back to IRIS on Nicoll Street, strengthened by the knowledge of God’s continual presence.
Sometimes, life in the city is hard. People go without food, or sleep on the Green instead of in a safe bed. People are attacked, robbed, and raped. Wherever people gather together in large numbers, the stain of sin seems especially dark. And so we pray:
Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.
The prayers of Compline acknowledge the danger of the night, written in a time before darkness could be dispelled at the flick of a switch. They bring forth our most basic, instinctual fear of the dark and give to God the job of protection. No matter how hard we try to eliminate them, sin, death, and darkness still surround us, and so we return again and again to Compline. We pray, and we sleep ready to get up on Monday morning, knowing that we ourselves can’t outshine the darkness, but God that already has and is continuing to do so in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who promised never to leave us.
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give thine Angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for thy love’s sake. Amen.