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?
Liborius 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).