The Night Prayer of the Church as a Rehearsal for Death

Some years ago, I was addressing a group of young adults at a “Theology on Tap” gathering. One of the attendees asked me to recommend some ways to avoid temptation. Among the advice I offered was this: meditate frequently on death, particularly before going to bed at night. Suddenly it got very quiet. Everyone looked at me as though I had said something in Swahili. “What did you just say? Would you repeat that?” Perhaps my remarks were the right answer and the wrong answer at the same time. In these modern, medically advanced times, those in their twenties don’t really relate to death as a near reality. Meditating on death seems like a strange idea to most of them.

The instinct of the Church has always been to link night prayer to death, considering sleep to be somewhat of a dress rehearsal for death. Consider these prayers:

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

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. Once he had held the infant Jesus in his arms, he could die peacefully.

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, in which we ask the Blessed Mother to “tuck us in” for the night.

There are also many beautiful references to night prayer in the hymns. 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. 

— (Day Is Done, verse 2)

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.

— (Glory to Thee, My God, This Night, verse 3)

These are just some of the references. 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 uninterested, at a kind of comatose distance from the things that obsess us during our waking hours. Although we awake from sleep, one day we will never awake, never return to the demands of this world. 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 also ask Our Lady for her 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 if we are faithful it will usher in our final purification and our release 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.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Night Prayer of the Church as a “Rehearsal for Death”

2 Replies to “The Night Prayer of the Church as a Rehearsal for Death”

  1. I can’t believe you left out the most classic and basic prayer contemplating death that was taught to post war catholic baby boomers. My brothers and sisters had me learning and saying this prayer nightly ever since I could talk after my mother died when I was fifteen months old.
    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.
    Try meditating on that one from the earliest age of reason. Simple pictures are the best. Amen.

  2. Thank you for this post, Msgr. Pope! This reminds me to slow down when Night Prayer and contemplate death more intently. And I usually choose to end Night Prayer with a Hail Mary, asking her to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” (See John 19:25ff).

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