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The Night Prayer of the Church as a "Rehearsal for Death"

March 5, 2015

030515Some years ago I was addressing a group of young adults at a “Theology on Tap” gathering. I was asked by an attendee of some ways to avoid temptation. Among the things I offered was to meditate frequently on death, especially at night before going to bed. The bar got very quiet and everyone looked at me as though I had just been speaking Swahili. “What did he just say?…Could you repeat that?” Perhaps my remarks were the right answer but the wrong answer at the same time. In these modern, medically advanced times, those in their 20s don’t really relate to death as a concept or near reality. Meditating on death seems strange and foreign to most of them.

But the instinct of the Church has always been to link night prayer to death, by way of a kind of “dress rehearsal.” Consider these prayers:

1. Into your hands O Lord I commend my sprit. This is a reference to Jesus’ dying words, “Father! Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).

2. Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of your people. These are the words of Simeon, who had been promised he would not see death until he had beheld the Messiah. Now that he has held the infant Jesus in his arms he can die peacefully.

3. May the Lord grant us a peaceful night and a peaceful death. This is the concluding line of night prayer just before the Salve Regina, where we ask the Blessed Mother to “tuck us in” for the night.

There are also many beautiful references in the hymns of night prayer. For example,

Guard us waking guard us sleeping;
and when we die,
May we in thy mighty keeping
all peaceful lie.
When the last dread call shall wake us,
Do not Our God forsake us
But to reign in glory take us
With thee on high.

(From the Hymn “Day is Done” – 2nd Verse)

Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed;
Teach me to die, so that I may
Rise glorious at the awful Day.

(From the Hymn “Glory to Thee, my God this night.”- 3rd verse)

These are just some of the references. But night prayer is a time to remember that we will die and to ponder this with sobriety. Sleep is, to some degree, like death; we become “dead” to the world. We are no longer aware of the rhythms, demands, and fascinations of this world. We are “out” to this world, out of touch with it. We lie still as in death, unaware and disinterested, at a kind of comatose distance from the things that obsess us in our waking hours. And though we awake from sleep, one day we will sleep to this world and never awake, never return to its demands. Our coffin, like a little bed, will claim us. It will be closed and this world will know us no more.

Night prayer serves as a gentle reminder of this looming summons. We entrust ourselves to the care of our Lord, who alone can lead us over the valley of the shadow of death. We ask, too, Our Lady’s prayers. We ask that she, as a good mother, console us and assure us that after this our exile we will see the glorious face of her Son and be restored to our Father in the warm love of the Holy Spirit.

Even if you don’t have time to pray the other hours of the Divine Office, I strongly recommend night prayer (Compline). It is brief and beautiful, sober and serene. It is the great dress rehearsal for our death. If we are faithful, this will be the greatest day of our life on this earth. On that day, we will be called to Him who loves us. Surely our judgment looms, but even that, if we are faithful, will usher in our final purification and freedom from the shackles of sin and the woes of this world.

May the Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.

God, who made the earth and heaven,
Darkness and light:
You the day for work have given,
For rest the night.
May your angel guards defend us,
Slumber sweet your mercy send us,
Holy dreams and hopes attend us
All through the night.

And when morn again shall call us
To run life’s way,
May we still, whatever befall us,
Your will obey.
From the power of evil hide us,
In the narrow pathway guide us,
Never be your smile denied us
All through the day.

Guard us waking, guard us sleeping, 
And when we die,
May we in your mighty keeping
All peaceful lie.
When the last dread call shall wake us,
Then, O Lord, do not forsake us,
But to reign in glory take us
With you on high.

Holy Father, throned in heaven,
All holy Son,
Holy Spirit, freely given, 
Blest Three in One:
Grant us grace, we now implore you,
Till we lay our crowns before you
And in worthier strains adore you
While ages run.

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Comments (21)

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  1. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    As a child I reached the age of cognizance having my father, one of my three older sisters or one of my two older brothers, leading me in nightly prayers at my bedside just before going to sleep. We always had the same litany of prayers and ” Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” was a pivotal prayer that emphasized the inevitable circumstance we were destined to face. That our mother had died when I was fifteen months old after a brief battle with cancer, had more significance to them when praying, than for me in my earliest age of reason. I neither had memory of her or the personal emotional attachment that my father and siblings had toward her. However, the focus of their efforts and the “God bless” of all the familial living relatives and a mother who was as mysterious as God Himself, frequently led me to a state of deep contemplation in the darkness as I slipped away from consciousness to daylight. The reality of that prospect came as an epiphany one night at age five with a little devilish help from my eight year old brother who always enjoyed a good prank at my expense, while I was silently praying in the dark, in my bed, with the covers pulled over my head. It was a passive purification.

  2. Peter Wolczuk says:

    As if you haven’t annoyed enough people yet. Now you address the efforts to create a society which is heading into denial about death.
    Good for you.

  3. jt says:

    Do not thou Or God forsake us……

    isn’t that lone of the hymn: Our God……. or Oh?

    On the topic: the age of the living dead, Zombi-zilla & soul sleep… there is much consideration of death, but seldom our own, thus, the very reason I’ve promised my friends that if they have a “celebrationof my life” & not mourn my passing they’ll have a walking dead series not fit for cable viewing.

  4. Michelle says:

    Msgr. Pope, today, like everyday, I thank the Lord for your blog. The artwork you chose to go along with your posts are so fitting, and beautiful. I copy off so much of your writing, and share it with others. Seriously, Msgr., you are a true blessing, thank you!

  5. Richard Connell says:

    Sometimes, I like to contemplate all the billions of people in the world, all of us have hope and dreams most of which won’t come true and most of us will be almost completely forgotten after we die. It is an antidote to the age of surveillance and celebrity.

  6. Bob in Maryland says:

    On more than one occasion I have been startled by hearing some young person (I’m in my 60s) confidently say they do not believe that they themselves will ever die – that “science” will do away with death long before they reach old age.

  7. Joe says:

    Very beautiful prayers, I’m sure our Lord is pleased.
    Peace be with everyone.
    Thank you Msgr. Pope

  8. Daria Sockey says:

    This is great, Monsignor! Compline was my introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours back when I was in college. By coincidence–given this post of yours–this morning I learned that the wonderful priest who first encouraged me to come to compline in the student chapel passed away yesterday. His name was Fr. Gerard Steckler, S.J.

  9. stefanie says:

    During Lent, I always introduce the Compline (Night) prayer to my RCIA students. Compline is actually my favorite prayer of the day, but I rarely make the time to pray it of late. Gotta get back into that! Thank you for this reminder, Monsignor. Bless you!

  10. KateJames says:

    Thank you Monsignor for the afframation that the habit I started is your recommended practice. I purchased the Divine Office app last summer and daily partake in the morning and night prayers. The liturgy of the hours has brought great solace into my prayer life. God bless all your work and thank you for your writings.

  11. Professor says:

    THis is one of the most moving posts I have read in a long time. I usually only to morning and evening prayer, but I think I have just been convinced to do night prayer.

    Am I nitpicking here if I say I don’t appreciate the citation for ‘martin luther college’ in the video. Im not big on praising heretics. And one who is credited with or opened the door for others to cause major fragmentation of the Church, dilution of teachings and introduction of false doctrines.

  12. Doug says:

    Thank you, Monsignor, for your words of wisdom. Too bad that Stefanie, the RCIA instructor, just doesn’t make the time anymore to set a good example for her students. Oh, what shall we do with people who need a constant reminder to do what seems to be important to them (As long as the pay is adequate, no doubt?) How much you want to bet that the Our Father is old school to her also?

  13. Maria says:

    My mother always sang “Good Night Sweet Jesus” to us. Here is Perry Como’s version, though of course I prefer my mother! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgGJtxGl9JM

  14. Mary Berglee says:

    Monsignor Pope, thank you. I haven’t heard this song, for a long, long time and enjoyed it. I always enjoy your blog; it is forward to me by New Advent. I don’t, however, always enjoy the responses.

    So to Doug, I say, get off your high horse. In our parish at least, RCIA instructors are volunteers. Don’t make assumptions about whether they are worthy to be good examples to their students, especially if you are not willing to be an instructor and set yourself as an example. Criticism like yours is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to get laity to serve in the parish; they’ll be subjected to scrutiny and criticism. Be merciful to your fellow Catholics. Perhaps follow Pope Francis’ example of Mercy.

  15. Mary Carolyn Mitton says:

    I was reared Protestant. My earliest memory of prayer at night was:

    “Now I lay me down to sleep,
    I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
    If I should die before I wake,
    I pray the Lord my soul to take.
    Amen.”

    As a Catholic since 2000, the above childhood prayer works for me.

  16. Doug says:

    And so the beat goes on. How can you, Mary Berglee, assume what is best for whom, if you’ve never walked in anybody’s shoes but your own? Everybody has a right to get their noses out of joint, if someone gets under their under skin on certain occasions. Criticism like mine was merely a reminder to not forget to do what seemed proper to me to continue a proven system of prayer that really works. I was always taught that thoughtful words of constructive criticism were helpful. Apparently, your own horse is too high at the moment for you to get down off of, in order to actually help. Besides, I’ve always tried to follow every Pope I am familiar with by following their examples of mercy. Have you, or do you assume everybody should simply think like you, in order to get anything accomplished? May God have mercy on your soul.

  17. Ryan says:

    Who painted the two little girls at their bedside praying? Beautiful.

  18. cken says:

    The problem of our generally held concept of death is that it is the end. The end of self. In fact death should be thought of as an exciting new beginning for “self” – your true self. We are after all, in the sense of our true self, a soul, not a body. The body is simply the temple.

  19. cjones1 says:

    Sir Thomas More wrote extensively to his daughter(s) about placing more emphasis on eternal life than the relatively short span in our mortal coil. Many of the prayers noted emphasize that death is nearer than we imagine and to pray for protection and guidance. This article certainly spurred many to savor the meaning and intent of those prayers listed.

  20. Maura says:

    Perhaps the choir at the basilica in Washington, D.C. could be persuaded to sing the hymn; a video thereof could show the marvelously beautiful church. As long as I’m imagining, clearer audio than in the video here would be great.