In the bleak midwinter

W Bar Ranch, Whitefish MT

Welcome to the first edition of Compline Underground!

I hope that this may be a meeting place for all who have an interest in Compline or Night Prayer, the last of the daily Divine Offices in the Christian Church. Whether you are actively involved in leading, assisting, or attending Compline in your church, monastery, or elsewhere –or especially interested in matters of music and spirituality — I think you’ll enjoy this reflective space.

If you’re unfamiliar with Compline, just click on “About Compline Underground” at any time. I’ll try to throw in some history every now and then about the Office of Compline at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, where I’ve been singing every Sunday night since 1964 (except a few years off in the 1970s) – so if you do the math you will see that I have a fair amount of stories to tell. I’m collecting some of them into a book called Compline Reflections, which will include a CD packed with as much music as possible.

And now on to the topic at hand.

Last Sunday evening we sang the wonderful hymn “In the bleak midwinter”, to the melody by Gustav Holst. You can listen to it on our weekly podcast which just got posted (“The Office of Compline for January 2, 2011” – then click on the “Play” button — the hymn begins about ten minutes into the broadcast). Christmastide comes in the midst of the stillness, the utter bleakness of winter. It’s a definite change of season here in Seattle, even though we hardly get much snow. But for the New Year my wife and I went for a vacation trip on the train to Whitefish, Montana, which was impressive in its drifts with temperatures between five and minus-five-degrees. The picture, taken from a sleigh ride we went on, gives some indication of the great beauty when the world is covered in white.

Yesterday I went out at about six a.m. to walk our dog. My wife usually does the morning stint except for Tuesdays, when she has to get ready for an early-morning session on a Hispanic talk show (she’s an immigration attorney). The temperature was still in the 20s, and because of Seattle’s closeness to the water, the “chill factor” was about the same as Whitefish. There was no rain, but it was quite foggy, with patches of frost on the ground. After a lifetime of singing, I am always reminded of some song or poem, and I kept thinking of a Christmas carol I had sung with an early music group back in the 1970s: “Past three o’clock, And a cold frosty morning, Past three o’clock, Good morrow, masters, all!” The carol reminded me of the cries of the night watchmen, whose profession I had recently been reading about in a book called At day’s close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch. I thought of how we no longer depend on someone appointed by the village or city to “orient” us, to keep us informed of the current hour through “the long watches of the night”. Our independence would be threatened, however, if the electricity failed, and our batteries ran out. If the land-line telephone was next to fail, we would have to go back to mechanical clocks and watches, which are seeming more like antiques every day.

The subject of orientation came up for me recently when I saw a YouTube video of a wedding in which I sang almost a year ago at the Parish of the North American Martyrs, where I go on occasion to partake of the Latin mass (Tridentine Rite). I went from there to a link to an interview on Catholic Radio with the parish priest, Fr. Gerard Saguto. When asked why in the old rite the priest has his back to the people, he made an analogy to a bus trip, something like: “you would expect the bus driver to be facing the road, and not the passengers, wouldn’t you?” Here is a model where the priest, who makes the sacrifice of the mass on our behalf, is, as Fr. Saguto says, “leading us up to the Mount of Calvary”. It’s also a model which lends itself quite well to the hierarchical point of view, with all its flaws.  But it was one of the models present in the early church, including one form of worship I read about that was based on the Jewish temple, with the altar in the west and priest facing east toward the people, except at one part when they also turned to face east — now my head was spinning!  But I finally understood the ship analogy (remember the main part of the church is called the “nave”), because the priest, as “helmsman”, is behind the people!  The modern Vatican II orientation (or some would say lack of it), especially when done “in the round”, reminds us to engage the other, living out Christ’s commandment that we “love one another”.

At Compline in Seattle, Peter Hallock established from the earliest days in 1956 a kind of “orientation” for the choir, even when the office was sung in an empty cathedral.  The choir has always sung from the back corner, so when one enters the cathedral, the altar is directly ahead, but the choir is to one’s right.  The message is clear — the choir is not putting on a show or performance, but simply singing one of the monastic offices as its own act of devotion.  The people that attend are “evesdroppers” as it were, and have no expectation laid on them, except to be in a state of “active listening” (or meditative silence).  There is no one up front “leading” them.  

Perhaps in a way the choir is like the watchman who “tells us of the night”.  At Christmastide we celebrate the miraculous birth in the stillness, the bleakness of winter.  We come to worship the Christ: “Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”


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  1. #1 by Cheryl Gudger on January 5, 2011 - 4:23 pm

    Congratulations, Ken!! What a joy to read. See you at Oblates on Sunday! Blessings, Cheryl

  2. #2 by Bonnie Westmark on January 11, 2011 - 8:10 pm


  3. #3 by Howard Meharg on January 15, 2011 - 8:17 pm

    Thank you, Ken. You’ve definitely got a fan of your blog here. Your material is interesting, informative, and a joy to read.

  4. #4 by Noelle on January 18, 2011 - 7:20 am

    Thank you Ken! What a joy to read.

  5. #5 by jefe on January 21, 2011 - 9:41 pm

    Wow! Your blog is the big time. Keep up the good work for us Compline ‘come-lately’s’. I’ll be anxiously awaiting the next issue.

  6. #6 by jefe on January 22, 2011 - 12:33 pm
    is the website for the now-in-PD Manual of Plainsong of 1902 by Briggs and Frere. This is a vast and wonderful resource for Anglican chants for all occasions, especially for Psalms, every Psalm. In dolling out our Hallock harmonized Psalms, trying to stretch them out, we have resorted to these in giving a ‘harmonic’ rest to the Psalms at Compline. There is a stark and timeless nature about chanted monody.

  7. #7 by Ken Peterson on January 24, 2011 - 12:59 pm

    Yes, it is wonderful to do plainsong psalms from time to time; last night we did psalm 27 from the modern Plainsong Psalter – but we usually take issue with some of the pointing, and change a few places. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, we sang psalms from a little book also called the Plainsong Psalter, but Peter Hallock would have us sing them to more interesting tones. After 1979, when the “King James” language was updated, Peter started writing his own settings, or adapting the new language to plainsong psalm tones.

  8. #8 by jefe on January 27, 2011 - 4:30 pm

    Hi Ken,
    I was trying to readjust the rehearsal schedule for our Compline band, on the phone, emailing, and kept hearing the ‘nut’ phrase that, for me, is Compline. What’s that you ask? It came to me when I was watching a rerun of “The Tudors” on cable, when one of Henry VIII’s wives, from Spain, mumbled something as she passed on. Her words hit me like a medieval dart. It is as close as you can get to this side of your maker. “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meam”. Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. For me, it is the epicenter of the Compline experience. I’ll go even farther to say the office of Compline is the final 25 minutes before you cross over, your last preparations before you meet your God. There is so much symbolism here. The last service of the monastic day; going without apprehension into that dark night; Confession/pardon and remission of sin; one last teachable moment through a Psalm; responses; The Song of Simeon telling about seeing the preparation of the salvation that awaits; final prayers; the optimistic power of the Collects; we will lay us down in peace and take our rest; bless us and preserve us……A-men.
    In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meam.

  9. #9 by Ken Peterson on January 27, 2011 - 4:59 pm

    Super thoughts. I of course have had them as well, and this inspires me to get my book finished! I may send you my chapter on “Death and Resurrection” if I end up not being able to contain myself…New blog posting tomorrow.

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