The final "hour" of Christian prayer is the office of Compline. The word comes to us from the Old French, complie, to complete or finish. Compline is quite different than the other hours, but perhaps its strangest feature is that it ends with the act of contrition as opposed to beginning with it. Most Christian liturgies begin with a confession of sin, but Compline builds up to it. The final act of prayer in the day is one of contrition and repentance. Christian prayer sees sleep as a "little death" as it brings the day (a little life) to an end; Compline is a sort of "little Viaticum."
Julie Moore, an American poet, suffered an extremely painful break up of her marriage. She thought everything was going brilliantly but came home one day to a message that her husband had left her. In my experience one of the most painful elements in this sort of experience is the way history itself become rewritten in blood and tears. In Moore's words, memories become "hazy specters, prowling the hallways of her heart, their long fingernails raking its walls." All those memories that meant something good, now take on a sinister quality. The time he told me he loved me, did he mean it? That trip to Spain last year that seemed so wonderful, was he already planning to leave? And the "once sure vows, now dead." Moore brings out the depth of the agony and fury that emerges in times of such existential dread, and there are no holds barred.
In this poem, prayer is revealed in one of its driest forms: when all that is left is the words, "just words, and barely sung." The beauty is that the words are still there, even though she doesn't feel them, or perhaps even believe them. The words of our prayers, even as dry formality, become anchors for our minds and hearts in times of doubt and darkness.
by Julie L. Moore
Forgive me my faults, my faults, my grievous faults,
she recites with the Benedictines preparing
for evening’s darkening shroud--
her husband’s figure standing erect
in her memory, his finger pointing at her,
threatening her, his once-sure vows
now dead, their hazy specters
prowling the hallways of her heart,
their long fingernails raking its walls.
While she chants—words, just words,
& barely sung—the Lord’s Prayer
stumbles onto her tongue: forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Not even an hour, nor is it sweet,
this prayer that arrests her,
exorcising the ghosts of promises past,
their furious, furious haunting.