The whole service is a kind of precautionary exorcism of the terrors of the night

From Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence – an edited compilation of letters he wrote in the 1950s while staying in retreat at a few monasteries. This is from his time at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Wandrille. The translations are mine so no blame attaches to Fermor.

Compline, the office that finishes the monastic day, belongs more than any of them to the world of the mediæval church. Only one lamp is lighted, enough for the monk who reads aloud from the Rule of St. Benedict or the Imitation of Christ. “Fratres,” a monk intones, “sobrii estote et vigilate, quia adversarius vester diabolus tanquam leo rugiens circuit quærens quem devoret: cui resistite fortes in fide! [Brothers, be even-minded and watchful since your enemy the devil, like a roaring lion, circles about seeking whom he may devour]” The faces of the seated monks are hidden in their hoods, their heads are bowed; and they themselves are only just discernible under the accumulation of shadows. The solitary voice reading aloud seems to issue from an inner silence even greater than the silence that surrounds them. The reading comes to an end; the single light is extinguished; and the chanted psalms follow one another in total darkness. The whole service is a kind of precautionary exorcism of the terrors of the night, a warding-off of the powers of darkness, each word throwing up a barrier or shooting home a bolt against the prowling regions of the Evil One. “Scapulis suis obumbrabit tibi,” the voices sing; “et sub pennis ejus sperabis.” [With his shoulders he will protect you and under his wings you will have hope]

“Scuto circumdabit te veritas ejus; non timebis a timore nocturno,

“A sagitta volante in die, a negotio perambulante in tenebris, ab incursu et daemonio meridiano.”

[as a shield his truth will surround you; you will not fear the night’s terror, the day’s flying arrow, trouble roving in the shadows, assault, and the noontide demon.]

One by one the keys turn in the wards, the portcullises fall, the invisible drawbridges touch the battlements…

Procul recedant somnia
Et noctium phantasmata.
Hostemque nostrum comprime
Ne polluantur corpora.

[Let dreams withdraw far off
and nighttime’s phantoms.
Restrain our enemy
So our bodies not be made unclean.]

The windows are barred against the lurking incubus, the pre-eighth-century iambic dimeters seal up any remaining loophole against the invasion of the hovering succubi. Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo et mundabor, lavabis me et super nivem dealbabor [Sprinkle me, lord, with holy water and I will be cleansed, wash me and I will be white beyond snow] . After a long, silent prayer, the monks were roused by a soft tap from the Abbot, and the rustle of their habits as they left the church was the last human sound, until, again in pitch darkness, they reassembled at four o’clock for Matins.

Daemonio meridiano I’ve taken here as ‘noontide demon’ to connect it to accedia. There’s a truly worthwhile book on the history of this idea in European culture as it passes from its monastic origins to a secular/psychological sense – Reinhard Kuhn’s The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature.

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