A Review of
Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline
Reviewed by Scott E. Schul
Author Kenneth Peterson has an eclectic biography: music teacher, software engineer, early music enthusiast and Benedictine oblate. Perhaps not surprisingly then, his book Prayer as Night Falls: Experiencing Compline is similarly eclectic. One might appropriately categorize it as equal parts history, memoir, travelogue, theology, and music theory.
But at its core, Prayer as Night Falls is a love story – one which slowly builds and evolves throughout Peterson’s life and that builds his faith, binds him to God and connects him to a remarkable “cloud of witnesses” within the Compline Choir in which Peterson regularly sings.
Peterson’s love story with the night prayer office of Compline began in October of 1964 when he first heard the compline choir assembled by Peter Hallock at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle. Soon thereafter he joined the choir and has remained part of the assembly ever since. Peterson’s initial interest in Compline was spurred by the artistic and social qualities of the service and the sense of peace and calm he experienced. Over time, however, the religious component became more a more dominant factor in Peterson’s affection for the service. As he writes, “my own spiritual journey has been framed by this office of prayer, and my lifelong relationship with God has been formed and nourished by it.”
Though books dealing with liturgical and musical history are typically packed with jargon discernable only to experienced insiders, Peterson has managed to write an extremely accessible and very conversational book that I think is as appropriate and enjoyable for the individual who has a long history with Compline as it would be for a newcomer to this prayer office. Even more remarkably, Peterson has crafted a book about a musical prayer office that does not depend on the reader having a background or expertise in chant, singing or music. He accomplishes this in large part by referencing a wide variety of Compline-related music examples that one can hear online at no charge at the book’s companion website www.prayerasnightfalls.com.
I challenge any reader of this book to avoid falling head-over-heels in love with Compline as Peterson gracefully explains and unpacks the service from a wide variety of angles. He sketches out the traditional liturgical components of Compline, discusses its Jewish roots in the Bedtime Shema, and traces the Christian history of Compline, including its beginnings in the early church, its codification and development within the Rule of St. Benedict, and eventually its migration (as part of the 20th century liturgical renewal movement) from its traditional home in Roman Catholic monasteries to the homes of lay Christians and its widespread adoption into Protestant worship books. Though Peterson touches briefly on the Eastern Orthodox services of Great and Small Compline, his own experience with Compline is firmly entrenched within the Western liturgical tradition, and so the book deals predominantly with Compline as developed and celebrated in the West.
Prayer as Night Falls is no dry history tome. Peterson deftly unpacks the central theological themes of Compline using excerpts from the Psalms that have traditionally been associated with and used within this office. For example, as day gives way to darkness, he observes that Psalm 91 guides us to an awareness of the sinful darkness within ourselves and our world. In Psalm 4, however, we are reminded that our brokenness on the Law is not the last word on our condition; in repentance God’s mercy cleanses us with forgiveness and cloaks us in love and renewal. Peterson further notes that in traditional Compline texts like the Nunc dimittis we can approach sleep with peaceful minds, trusting our lives, our world and our burdens to God’s providence. Compline even enables us, in Peterson words, to “offer trust and hope in the face of our death.” He very poignantly amplifies this point in his reflections on his mother’s experience with dementia and the dying process. It is one of many personal experiences he shares as a means of illustrating how Compline helps nourish his faith, strengthen his self-understanding and equip him for life’s challenges.
Life, however, is busy. With so many other activities competing for our attention, why make time to pray the office of Compline? For Peterson, the answer is that “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.”