There have been many joys in returning to New Haven—seeing old friends, visiting old haunts; making new friends, discovering new places. One of the deepest joys, however, has been attending the Compline service at Christ Church, New Haven again.
Compline is meaningful on a number of levels, and it seems worth writing a few words reflecting why. First, it is uniquely beautiful. It’s a full-on sensory experience of candlelight, darkness, incense, music, and silence. Even if you only go to Compline once, you’re likely to remember it for quite some time. Indeed, you may well find yourself referring to it a long time later as one of those moments when you’re sure that you encountered mystery in a church.
A significant part of this beauty, however, is that attendance isn’t a one off event. I’ve been to concerts and plays which have affected me profoundly, for example, and which have in small ways changed the way I’ve thought or felt—but these will always be one-offs (and are no the worse off for it!). But a part of the beauty of Compline lies in the fact that it changed the way I lived; not just in terms of thought and feeling, but in terms of how I approached the beginning in the end of the week, in terms of how I approached time during that week, in terms of how I understood the rhythm of the days. The stillness of Compline can carry through the busiest of weeks, sometimes making it significantly easier to live life as prayer.
A third level of significance is slightly less obvious: it lies in the awareness of the people who set Compline up each Sunday evening. I’m not sure many people who walk through the doors at 9:00pm know what Saint Hilda’s House is, but it is the members of this community who—as an act of spiritual hospitality—make it possible for others to find stillness in the candlelight. I still remember laying out the candles and swinging the thurible on my first Sunday in New Haven, all the way back in August 2012. And I remember coming back throughout the year after a week of working out in the city, walking into the sacristy with two or three others who had dedicated themselves to serving in homeless shelters and refugee agencies, and quietly placing the candles in patterns that only we would really see, but would create beauty nonetheless. Compline is Sunday was the first I’ve attended outside of Saint Hilda’s House, and so the first that I was really able to appreciate the significance of this; that behind even the obvious beauty and the pattern of the ritual, there lies the service of a small community of young adults seeking Christ in Church, in the city, and in each other.
Which brings us to the final reflection here—the fact that the beauty of compline is finally grounded in its movement through time and history. When the words ‘into your hands O Lord, I commend my spirit’ resonate through the building, we are hearing words which have been spoken for millennia. We are hearing words which have been repeated and prayed through the Psalms, which are read off the lips of Jesus on the Cross, which have informed the shared life of service and prayer for Christians as long as there have been Christians (and others long before). This beauty is not a new beauty, this ritual not a new ritual. Nor is it new for such a time to be centred within the time of a servant community. Rather, this pattern has persisted through time, sustaining the very time which it has occupied. And as we sit in the candlelight, listening to the prayers, and stilling our selves in the presence of God, we are joining with countless others throughout time—those countless others who have gratefully encountered the love of Christ in myriad different ways.
All these facets of beauty point to the mystery which lies at the heart of Compline—the mystery of God with us, and God with us in Jesus Christ for those who are Christian there. This is not a mystery which can be explained, and here is not the place to try and articulate a version of it. All I can say here is how profoundly moving it is to occupy the space of this service again; a space of beauty, ritual and prayer, prepared by hands which serve, shared with others all through time, and given to us by God.