A few days ago, Bruce Clark, who blogs under the name of Erasmus for the Economist, put up a post about the Compline service that packs them in every Sunday night at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle.
Compline is the divine office that concludes (completes) the day in the ancient Christian tradition of canonical hours. It’s a somber penitential exercise that the officiant starts off with First Peter’s warning to “be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” Congregants confess that they have “sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, through our fault, our own fault, our own most grievous fault,” and ask God for mercy, forgiveness, and everlasting life.
Because Seattle sits in the heart of the country’s None Zone, and it’s mostly a bohemian-cum-hipster crowd that attends, Clark interprets Compline at St. Mark’s as a quintessential manifestation of the “spiritual but not religious” sensibility in America today. Maybe so, but the service is itself a well-established religious institution dating back to 1954, when a dozen music students from the University of Washington created a study group to sing Gregorian chant. Its success has led to the establishment of Compline services at mainline Protestant churches around the country.
You can even find one on Thursday nights at Wesleyan University’s Memorial Chapel in Middletown, CT. Among the choristers is my son Isaac, a music major who was inspired by the experience to use Compline as the frame for his senior recital, which he titled “From Monophony to Apocalypse.”
Last Sunday evening, 100 students, faculty, and a couple of proud parents turned out for the performance, which might have been subtitled “Compline Plus.” Along with the prescribed prayers, the chant, and some beautiful polyphonic Elizabethan hymns, Isaac interpolated a little process theology, a homily about the dissolution of the self, and, in the concluding Collect, a secular analogue to the Prince of Darkness: “Either the Devil has come amongst us having great power, or there is a causal explanation for a disease common to economics, science and art.”
The audience, which had the liturgical words and music in hand, joined the choir in the performance as if it were a congregation. Midway through came Isaac’s own electronic composition, which he performed on a laptop with the SuperCollider audio synthesis programming language. The piece, coming through six ambient speakers, ranged from the sweetest of bell sounds to a cacophony indicative of the climate apocalypse that is much on the minds of the millennial generation. As Isaac explained afterwards:
The elements that I composed for the SuperCollider piece were intended to induce a contemplative state within a structure that was shifting between tranquility and chaos. Looking back on the performance it seems to me that the piece, then, relates to the penitential character of the Compline service in that it gave me (and hopefully the audience) the occasion to question the legitimacy of the received Truths that Compline offers as easy solutions to our earthly problems.
The received truths of Compline have to do with individuals throwing themselves on the mercy of God. By comparison, securing enough societal penitence, wisdom, and commitment to repair the earth can seem like a very hard road.