Does Psalm 88 Make Sense at Compline?

by Liborius Olaf Lumma

Compline in the Rule of Saint Benedict contains Pss. 4, 91, and 134, every day without exception. In the late first millennium, Ps. 31:2–6 was added (after Ps. 4), and this order remained for about thousand years (with Quinones’ sreformist breviary as a short-lived exception in the 16th century). There were just small variations in Roman Compline, but they all depended on the liturgical season, not the day of the week.

This principle was disestablished when the reform of the Roman Breviary by Pius X took place in 1911: A weekly cycle of psalms was introduced. In 1970 this order was again extensively changed, but remarkably the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, article 88, now permits the daily use of Pss. 4 and 134 (regularly on Saturdays) or Ps. 91 (Sundays), which leads back a bit to the old principle of Compline’s immutability.

The current Roman order uses Ps. 88 on Fridays. The mood of this psalm is totally different than that of all the other ones. While Pss. 4, 31, 91, and 134 express confidence and trust in God’s guidance, Ps 88. definitely does not. It is a lamentation and a petitionary prayer, rather in terms of desperation than in terms of hope.

In my eyes (and in the eyes of all scholars I know on that point), the meaning of Compline in the old monastic tradition is to express and practice imperturbable confidence in contemplation of death (sleep being an image of death of course). Ps. 88 can be seen as an imitation of Christ’s despair on the cross (cf. Mt 27:46 and Ps 22:1). One might argue that this is exactly why this psalm is a good choice for a Christian night prayer on Friday, but I would argue that this is not what Compline is about. Reading Ps. 88 transforms Compline into something it was not meant to be: it turns from a rite of peace, silence, and confidence into a late-medieval affective and almost painful imitatio crucis (imitation of the cross). And this does not even fit with General Instruction no. 88 which claims for Compline on weekdays that “psalms are chosen which are full of confidence in the Lord.”

The Church of England adopted most of the Roman cycle for Compline, but not on Fridays: They prefer Ps. 139 (and I think they had good reason).

Especially (but not only) in Easter season I would strongly suggest not saying Ps. 88 at Compline. What do you think?

LiboriusLiborius Olaf Lumma studied theology and philosophy in Munster, Munich, and Innsbruck. He holds the degrees of Doctor theologiae and Privatdozent (habilitation) and is assistant professor in Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at Innsbruck University. His major research fields are Gregorian Chant, Liturgy of the Hours, and Ecumenical Theology. He is a member of the Ecumenical Commission of the Austrian Bishops’ conference and board member of the German section of the International Association for Studies of Gregorian Chant (AISCGre).

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8 comments

  1. I can’t recall another psalm of lament that doesn’t contain the usual expression of praise and trust in God. Psalm 22, though: an expression of despair? Or was the Lord quoted just in part as he prayed the whole psalm, including its glorious conclusion of confidence?

    Maybe a Scripture scholar could speak to the idea that the 89th Psalm, as the final piece of Book III, somewhat covers the matter. I don’t think Psalm 88-89 as a unit is any more appropriate for Compline, however, on the virtue of its length. I think a case could be made that if Psalm 88 is used, that Psalm 89:2-5 provides a balance appropriate to Compline. I could support the idea of Psalm 139 on Fridays.

  2. One might, alternatively, say that, because it is a cry to God, Psalm 88 is a model of how near despair can avoid becoming actual despair.

    It’s wonderful thing to see the Psalter grapple in such a pointed way with near despair, because it’s something many people really do experience. Eliding that reality is not necessarily better than a regular reminder of it.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      I didn’t get that Dr Lumma was advocating the excision of Psalm 88 entirely. Friday Morning Prayer comes down rather heavily on Psalm 51, so I wonder if the 88th isn’t a better choice for a shared place of honor with the Miserere there. Considering the purpose and place of Compline in the Hours, I can envision a better choice there. I might actually prefer the older use of 4, 91, and 134–that’s been my experience at monasteries.

  3. Perhaps not on its own, but together with another psalm it can be effective. In the breviary of Pius X, Ps 87(88) was the first psalm at Saturday Compline and is followed by Ps 102(103), which is completely different in character. It is as if one is being invited to praise and have confidence in God precisely in the midst of the moods of discouragement or even despair that we all experience from time to time.

  4. Thanks for the remarks so far! I just want to make clear that I am absolutely in favor of the use of Ps 88 as a Christian liturgical prayer. And I agree that one might argue that the combination of Ps 88 and 103, or 88 and 89, or 88 and the Nunc dimittis gives an inspirational context to Ps 88 and creates a useful Christian night player. I just want to point out that this is not the original meaning of Compline.
    I would suggest the use of Ps 88 e.g. in the Noon Prayer on Friday or in the Vigils on Friday or Saturday rather than in Compline.

    1. @Liborius Lumma:
      Interestingly enough, Ps 87(88) was the eighth psalm in Mattins of Friday in the pre-1911 schema, where it was, of course, sung in sequence with those that went before and after it in the Psalter. The redistribution of the Psalter in 1911, whilst reducing the length of the office, had the unintended effect of altering the character of the Little Hours and Compline, an effect which was only partially mitigated in the post-conciliar reform. Papa Sarto was more of a radical than we sometimes give him credit for. A return to an invariable psalmody for Compline would be something greatly to be desired.

  5. According to Dutch liturgical poet, Ps 88 is ‘the most depressing and miserable psalm in the entire Psalter’. How can we ever hope to escape the confines of Sheol if, in fact, we no longer exist? Wiped from God’s memory as no longer deserving of Shabbat, I would not wish to retire to my humble bed at night confronted with such irredeemable gloom! Even the cry for release, ‘turn your heart to me, seems to fall in deaf ears. And in Oosterhuis’ text, the final line ‘turn my heart in me’ makes one wonder if it is not all too late. Night prayer is reflective and calming and I see no place there for a psalm such as this.

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