Saturday, February 19, 2022

Byzantine Compline

The Greek word for Compline, ἀπόδειπνον (“apodeipnon”; повечерїе (“povecherije”) in Church Slavonic), means “after dinner”, and derives from the tradition that monastic communities would only take their principal meal after they had celebrated Vespers in the early to mid-evening. Even to this day, the blessing of meals is placed in Greek liturgical books between Vespers and Compline. The earliest occurrence of the term is in the life of a Saint named Gregory, whose term as bishop of Agrigentum in Sicily overlaps with that of his most famous namesake in Rome (590-604), with whom he corresponded. The author, an abbot called Leontius, puts it in the plural (ἀποδείπνια), as does St Theodore, abbot of the Studion monastery in Constantinople, two centuries later. (Lampe, Patristic Greek Lexicon, p. 191). This may very well reflect the fact that the older form of it results from the conflation of more than one service.
The emergence and evolution of Compline in the Byzantine Rite is a very complex matter, which I do not propose to delve into here. Suffice it to say that it currently exists in two forms, known as Great and Small Compline, since the former is very considerably longer than the latter.
Great Compline was formerly celebrated more often than it is now; the current rubrics limit it to the ferial days of Lent (but excluding Friday among the Greeks), Tuesday and Thursday of this coming week, which is known as Cheesefare, as part of the preparation for the arrival of Lent, and the first two days of Holy Week. With certain modifications, it is also said on the vigils of Christmas and Epiphany.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that Small Compline is a later abbreviation of Great Compline. It is now appointed to be said on all the days apart from those listed above, and apart from Easter week, when it is replaced by a service known as the Paschal Hour. In order to present them both in a more manageable form, I will describe Small Compline in this article first, and then the three parts of Great Compline in three separate articles. As with all things Byzantine, exceptions and variations abound, and this does not pretend to be a comprehensive explanation.
Small Compline is a minor Hour, and like the others (Prime, Terce, etc.), is celebrated as what is called a reader’s service; a single reader does almost the whole of it, with a priest saying only the conclusions of the prayers and the blessings. Its structure is largely the same as that of the other minor Hours, but with a few significant and lengthy variations.
The Repentance of King David, the episode which, according to the title of Psalm 50, led to its composition, “when the Prophet Nathan came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” (2 Samuel 11-12) At the upper right, the hands of the personification of Repentance indicate contemplation, as David prostrates himself below her. (Illustration from the Paris Psalter, ca. 950 AD; Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des manuscrits. Grec 139, folio 136v.)
Like the other minor Hours, it begins with a group of prayers helpfully called “the Usual Beginning”, which segue into three Psalms, in this case 50, 69 and 142, in the traditional numbering of the Septuagint. (This is the fourth occurrence of Psalm 50 in the ordinary daily course of the Hours, and on some days, the fifth.) At the other minor Hours, the three Psalms in the analogous place are followed by the simple doxology, three repetitions of “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, glory to Thee, o God!”, “Lord, have mercy” three times, and the doxology again. At Compline, however, they are followed directly by what is called the Small Doxology, to distinguish it from a slightly longer version said at Orthros called the Great Doxology. Both versions are almost the same as the Gloria in excelsis of the Roman Mass, but with a number of Psalm verses added on to them; the Byzantine Rite does not treat this extremely ancient text as something reserved for feast days as the Roman Rite does.
“Glory to God in the highest… unto the glory of God the Father. Amen.
- Ps. 144, 2 Every day I will bless thee: and I will praise thy name for ever; yea, for ever and ever.
- Ps. 89, 2 Lord, thou hast been our refuge from generation to generation.
- Ps. 40, 5 I said, ‘O Lord, be thou merciful to me: heal my soul, for I have sinned against thee.’
- Ps. 142, 9-10 O Lord, to thee have I fled: teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God.
- Ps. 35, 10-11 For with thee is the fountain of life; and in Thy light we shall see light. Extend thy mercy to them that know Thee.
- Deign, o Lord, to keep us without sin this night.
- Dan. 3, 26 Blessed art thou, O Lord, the God of our fathers, and praiseworthy and glorious is Thy name is forever. Amen.
- Ps. 32, 22 Let thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have hoped in Thee.
- Ps. 118, 12 Blessed art thou, O Lord: teach me Thy justifications.
- Blessed art thou, O Lord: give me to understand Thy justifications.
- Blessed art thou, O Holy one; enlighten me with Thy justifications.
- Ps. 137, 8 Thy mercy, O Lord, endureth for ever: despise not the work of Thy hands.
- Praise becometh Thee, a song becometh Thee, glory becometh Thee, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages Amen.”
A Church Slavonic version of the Great Doxology as sung at Orthros
This is followed by the Nicene Creed, which is also said every day at the Midnight Office, and at every celebration of the Divine Liturgy. All of these elements (the three Psalms, the Small Doxology and the Creed) are also said at Great Compline, but in a different order.
After the Creed, there is supposed to be said every day a canon, one of the most complex features of the Byzantine Office, which I have described elsewhere. The default is a canon of the Virgin Mary, which varies from day to day, but that of a Saint on the calendar may be said in its place, especially when his canon cannot be said in its normal place at Orthros. On Mt Athos, however, the custom has been for many centuries to say every day a famous hymn to the Virgin called the Akathist, the hymn “for which one does not sit.” Particularly on Saturday evenings, a special canon of preparation for the reception of Holy Communion may be said. The canon may also just be omitted.
Regardless of whether a canon is said or not, there is then said the same text which serves as the default hymn of the Virgin Mary during the anaphora of the Divine Liturgy. “It is truly right to bless thee, o Mother of God, the ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, who without corruption gavest birth to God the Word, the true Mother of God, we magnify thee.”
At this point, Compline returns to follow the order of the other minor Hours: the Trisagion prayers, which are the same as Usual Beginning, omitting the first two parts and the last part, are said, and then a series of chants called tropars. The liturgical books give the following as a fixed group for daily use, but they are replaced by those of the day on Sundays and major feasts.
God of our fathers, who dealest with us ever according to Thy goodness, put not Thy mercy away from us, but by their prayers, govern our life in peace.
Adorned in the blood of Thy martyrs throughout the world, as in purple and fine linen, Thy Church through them crieth out to Thee, o Christ our God: Send down Thy mercies upon Thy people; grant peace to Thy community, and great mercy to our souls. Glory to the Father…
With the Saints, give rest, o Christ, to the souls of Thy servants, where there is no toil, or grief, or sighing, but life everlasting. Both now… (This text is also sung as a prominent part of the funerary service.)
Through the intercession, o Lord, of all the Saints and the Mother of God, give us Thy peace, and have mercy on us, as Thou alone art compassionate.
There follows a series of elements also said at the other Hours except for Vespers and Orthros: Kyrie, eleison 40 times, the Prayer of the Hours, Kyrie, eleison 3 times, Glory be, a brief prayer to the Virgin (the same given above, starting at “Higher than the Cherubim…”), a conclusion said by the priestly celebrant, and then in Lent, a very well-known prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian, accompanied by three prostrations.
At this point, the other minor Hours conclude with a single prayer, which at Prime and Terce is quite short, at Sext and None, rather longer. Compline, on the other hand, concludes with several prayers, some of them very long indeed. The first of these is addressed to the Virgin Mary, and was written by a Saint called Paul, who founded an important monastery known as the “Evergetis” in the suburbs of Constantinople on the European side, in the mid-11th century.
O stainless, undefiled, uncorrupted, immaculate, chaste Virgin, Bride of God and sovereign Lady, who didst unite God the Word to men through Thy glorious child-bearing, and didst join the nature of our race to the heavenly things from which it has been driven back; only hope of the hopeless, and help of the beset, the ever-ready protection of them that hasten unto thee, and refuge of all Christians: do not abhor me a sinner, accursed, who with shameful thoughts, words, and deeds have made myself utterly useless, and through slothfulness of mind have become a slave to the pleasures of life. But as the Mother of God Who loveth mankind, in Thy love for mankind have mercy upon me a sinner and prodigal, and receive my supplication, offered to Thee out of my defiled lips; and with thy great confidence as Mother, entreat Thy Son and our Master and Lord that He may open even unto me the depths of His goodness and love for mankind, and, overlooking my numberless offenses, turn me back towards repentance, and show me to acceptable as one who doth His precepts. And be Thou ever present to me as one who is merciful, compassionate and well-disposed; in the present life a fervent intercessor and helper, repelling the onslaughts of adversaries and leading me on the way to salvation, and at the time of my departure, taking care of my miserable soul, and driving far away from it the dark countenances of the evil demons; and on the dread day of judgment, delivering me from eternal torment, and showing me to be an heir of the ineffable glory of Thy Son and our God; to which may I attain, o my Sovereign Lady, most holy Mother of God, through Thy intercession and protection, by the grace and love for mankind of Thine only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ, to Whom belong all glory, honor and worship, together with His Father that hath no beginning, and His Most Holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
A icon of the Virgin of the Passion, by the Cretan painter Emmanouel Tzanfournaris (1570-1631); public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The next prayer is by a monk called Antiochus, who lived in the Lavra of St Sabbas near Jerusalem, one of the most famous monasteries in the East, in the 7th century. 
And grant to us, o Master, as we go to sleep, rest of body and soul, and preserve us from the gloomy slumber of sin, and from every dark and nocturnal sensuality. Give pause to the assaults of passions, quench the fiery darts of the evil one that are treacherously hurled against us, restrain the rebellions of our flesh, and put to sleep our every earthly and material thought. And grant unto us, o God, a watchful mind, chaste thought, a sober heart, a gentle sleep, set free from every satanic illusion. And raise us up at the time of prayer strengthened in Thy precepts and keeping steadfastly within us the memory of Thy judgments. All the night long grant us the praise of Thy glory, that we may sing of and bless and glorify Thy most honorable and majestic name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
An aerial view of the Lavra of St Sabbas. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Andrew Shiva, CC BY-SA 4.0)
These are followed by three brief invocations without indication of authorship in many editions of the liturgical books; the third is attributed by some books to a sainted hermit and opponent of the iconoclast heresy named Joannicius (762-846).
Most glorious, Ever-Virgin, blessed Mother of God, present our prayer to thy Son and our God, and ask that through Thee, He may save our souls.
My hope is the Father, my refuge is the Son, my protection is the Holy Spirit: Holy Trinity, glory to Thee!
All my hope I place in Thee, Mother of God, protect me beneath Thy shelter.
From this point forward, there is a divergence between various editions of the Horologion, the book which contains the basic structure of the Office, and also between the Greek and Slavic traditions. I will continue following a Greek version printed by the press of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1900. There is now said another hymn to the Virgin, the same which is sung during the Divine Liturgy when the anaphora of St Basil is used, followed by a prayer to one’s guardian angel.
All of creation rejoiceth in Thee, o full of grace, the choirs of Angels, and the race of men, o sanctified temple and rational paradise, the glory of virgins, from Whom God was incarnate and became a child, He that is our God before the ages. For He made Thy body into a throne, and Thy womb broader than the heavens. All of creation rejoiceth in Thee, o full of grace: glory to Thee!
This chant as it is sung during the Divine Liturgy of St Basil in Church Slavonic.  
Holy Angel, who are set over my wretched soul and lowly life, do not forsake me a sinner, nor depart from me because of my wickedness; and give no place for the evil demon to rule over my mortal body with its might; take my wretched and feeble hand, and lead me along the path of salvation. Yea, holy Angel of God, guardian and protector of my wretched soul and body, forgive me for everything by which I have saddened you all the days of my life, and any sin I have committed this day; shelter me in the coming night, and protect me from the ill-treatment of the adversary, that I may not anger God with any sin; and intercede with the Lord on my behalf, that He may confirm me in the fear of Him, and show me forth as a worthy servant of His goodness. Amen.
Last of all is a hymn called a kontakion, taken from the Akathist to the Virgin mentioned above.
To Thee, the champion and commander, I, Thy city, inscribe victorious anthems of thanksgiving, as one delivered from terrible things, o Mother of God. But as one that hast power unassailable, deliver me from all manner of dangers, that I may cry out to thee, “Rejoice, unwedded bride!”
This is traditionally said to have been composed in 626 to honor the Mother of God, after a fleet of Persian and Avars which was bearing down on Constantinople was wrecked just off the shore near one of Her most important churches in the city.

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