Sunday, April 10, 2016

Psalm 88 in the Roman Office

Pray Tell: Does Psalm 88 Make Sense at Compline? by Liborius Olaf Lumma

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?

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