Last Sunday found me singing Compline, but not with the Compline Choir in Seattle. My wife and I were participants in the 2011 Winter Chant Retreat given by the Center for Sacred Art. This annual event (there is also a Chant Retreat in July) takes place at St. Andrew’s House, an Episcopal diocesan retreat center on Hood Canal, a fjord that defines the western part of Puget Sound; it’s about two hours from Seattle. The picture was taken on Monday (Martin Luther King Day) as we were heading home. We stopped at Twanoh State Park for a sentimental visit, as I am from this area of the world; when I was in kindergarten I went wading in the little salt-water pool you see pictured in the foreground. Although the sun had come out, it was quite cold and windy, with glimpses of the Olympic Mountains — quite different weather than the steady rain during the first two days of the retreat.
My wife and I had gone to the Chant Retreat in the Summer of 2007, so we knew what to expect, and were not disappointed. The retreat is built around singing the Divine Hours, and we sang the chant, in Latin, for eleven offices: Vespers and Compline on Saturday, Lauds-Terce-Sext-None-Vespers-Compline on Sunday, and Lauds-Terce-Sext on Monday. On Saturday we sang Vespers from the chants for the Virgin Mary; many of the people had been to Joseph Anderson’s workshops and knew these chants well, so this was a great way to jump-start those who had never sung a note of chant before. We met before and after Vespers to get ready for the next day’s chanting. The chants for the next two days were selected according to the theme of the retreat. In 2007 the theme had been St. Francis and St. Clare, but this time the theme was “The Contemplative Path”. Joseph, through music, and his wife Victoria Scarlett (who directs the Center), through several presentations of visual images, evoked the contemplative path in Christianity as well as other faiths. During our free time, the film Into Great Silence was shown (in two parts); I highly recommend it if you have never seen it before.
It was during Victoria’s first slide presentation that, toward the beginning, she showed an image of John Cassian (ca. 360-435). I didn’t know much about him, and was very interested to learn how influential he had been on the thinking of St. Benedict. Cassian had, as a young man, spent about 15 years in Bethlehem and in Egypt, and brought back to the West much of the teachings of the Desert Fathers. A particular concept was “continuous prayer”, in order to keep God in one’s thoughts all the time — this was aided by the repetition of a phrase from Psalm 70:2: “Come to my help, O God; Lord, hurry to my rescue”. Cassian’s idea has been formative for the Christian Meditation and Centering Prayer movements, where it and other “mantra-like” phrases are used to encourage mindfulness. In the sixth century, St. Benedict placed Cassian’s phrase at the beginning of every office, and we began each of our 11 offices with this (translation in parentheses):
Deus in adjutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina. (O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me).
The first phrase (“Deus in adjutorium…”) is always said or sung by a leader or cantor, and everyone answers with the response “Domine, ad adjuvandum…”. This can get quite dramatic, as in the opening of concert performances of the Vespers (1610) by my favorite composer, Claudio Monteverdi (d. 1643). We really have St. Benedict to thank for including it at the beginning of every office. He mentions it in five different chapters of his famous Rule, including chapter 35, for those who begin their weekly service in the kitchen by saying “Deus in adjutorium…” three times. Obviously, St. Benedict was striving to teach his monks the importance of always relying on God for help, especially every time they prayed. The response is said or sung at the very beginning of every office except Vigils (Matins) at the beginning of the day, and Compline at the end of the day. Because Vigils comes after the “Great Silence”, it begins with “O Lord, open my lips, And my mouth will show forth your praise”. Compline, because it comes before sleep, “a little death”, begins “Turn us Lord to our health, And avert your wrath from us”. This last response is the monastic way of praying Compline, and most orders of Compline (which derive from the cathedral or parish form) don’t have it. The Order of Compline we use in Seattle comes from that used in the Church of England in 1928; here the Deuis in adjutorium is translated as: “O God, make speed to save us; O Lord, make haste to help us”. The archaic language gave me some amusement back in 1968 when I had to take a physical exam for the draft during the Vietnam war. I was lucky enough to have a knee injury that gave me a deferment, but I remember one of my college mates who resorted to taking an amphetimine (or “speed”) in order to fail the physical. “O God, make speed to save us” indeed!
But now when I sing or say this little response, I know how important it was to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Cassian, and Benedict — that when we ask God to be with us, we ask for it quickly, often, and right now! In the contemplative path, the only real time of importance is in the present moment, and this little mantra keeps us ever mindful.
O Lord, make haste to help me!