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For all of us I’m sure, the quiet moments before sleep are often a time to speak quietly to God and to thank him for the day just past; to ask him to watch over us as we sleep and to prepare us to awake once again to another day.
These prayers can take the formal setting of an office such as Compline, or they can be simple prayers taught by our parents. Of course there are also those which we have come across during our spiritual journeys through life; some perhaps that we have made our own or created to meet our personal prayer needs.
Whatever the form or reason for them, these words before we sleep in the darkness of the night can bring great peace and comfort after the trials of busy days in busy lives.
The traditional monastic night prayer is called Compline. The word comes from the Latin completorium – complement. It ‘completes’ the prayer cycle of the monastic day; the daily ‘offices’.
The first use of the word to describe the final office of the day is widely attributed to St Benedict in his Rule, which describes in detail the order of the daily offices.
In Chapter 17 he says;
‘Let Compline be limited to the saying of three Psalms,
which are to be said straight through without antiphon,
and after them the hymn of that Hour,
one lesson, a verse, the "Lord, have mercy on us,"
the blessing and the concluding prayers.’
The Latin translation being -
‘Completorios autem trium psalmorum dictione terminentur. Qui psalmi directanei sine antiphona dicendi sunt. Post quos hymnum eiusdem horae, lectionem unam, versu, Kyrie eleison, et benedictione missae fiant.’
Before this there was a custom of saying personal night prayers. Prayer before sleep can be traced to the earliest fathers of the church in the 4th century.
Simple childhood prayers such as the rather dark and dismal version (in my view) –
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.
have been taught over the decades.
It is well known to the more mature generations amongst us I’m sure. It is quite accurate in its requests and does sum up our dearest wishes in terms of being protected by God as we sleep and should anything terrible befall us and we fail to wake – then God takes our soul to be with him. But I must admit that it isn’t something that I used with my children as reminding them that they may not awaken in the morning did not make for a restful night’s sleep!
This hyperlink takes you to a discussion thread which gives some delightful alternatives.
Many beautiful prayers have been written for parents to use with their children; some simple words of thanks, others more story based.
As adults we develop our own prayer styles – use of words does for some become less and silence becomes more. We do need to listen in prayer as well as speak. For many the moments before sleep are one of the few truly quiet times in our day.
Simple ‘one line’ night prayers can be taken from verses from scripture; phrases from any of the offices or orders of liturgy, and can become a comfort in the night hours before sleep.
One of the more formal prayers which I find of great comfort originates from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (BCP) and Cranmer’s office of Evensong; you may recognise it;
Lighten our darkness we beseech the O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night, for the love of thy only son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Whilst the theology of the BCP may be discussed and debated, its beauty of language is a matter for universal agreement.
My own contribution to night prayer is one which I have put together over the years and which I use in conjunction with Lighten our darkness.
Lord, into your hands I commend myself and my loved ones this night. May your holy angels guard, protect and watch over us until morning comes, when we awake refreshed and ready to do your will.
Night prayers – whether the formality of the monastic office, or the private and personal conversation with God – these words before we sleep can be of great comfort. I commend them to you.