Sunday nights invariably find me doing the same thing: closing my books at the Green Library on the Stanford campus, and taking my weary butt over to the darkness of Memorial Church (Mem Chu) to hear the achingly beautiful, seemingly disembodied voices from the choir loft on high. Lit only by the candles on the altar and a distant light in the choir loft, Mem Chu becomes ever more a sanctuary when the first voices pierce the darkness at the 9:00 PM weekly Compline service.
The Stanford web site defines this experience as a “reflective 30-minute service of hymns and chant sung in the tranquil candlelit ambiance of Memorial Church.” Every week during the academic year, a different vocal group performs the Compline service. Recent performers include choirs from Trinity Lutheran, Christ Church in Portola Valley, Palo Alto High School, as well as the Threshold Singers, Early Music Singers, and various Stanford student choirs. The approach to the material ranges from rich medieval polyphonic harmonies to spare solo voices.
The name Compline refers to a particular canonical hour for prayer. Canonical hours (also called offices) refer to the eight times during the day when monks stop to pray. Dating back to at least 525 CE, and well established by the ninth century, the canonical day begins with Vespers at sunset, following by Compline at bedtime and continues at intervals throughout the night and into the following day. As Reverend Joanne Sanders explains, the word “Compline” relates to the word “complete.” The Compline service expresses our gratitude for living through another day. These good night prayers recognize that our day is complete and guide us into our sleeping hours.
Talking with Reverend Sanders, she emphasized “the experience of Compline transcends whatever your practical belief may be in the Divine. Going beyond any particular faith, there’s the sense of being rooted in an ancient tradition that is just so compelling. It draws us to a center which is why this practice still feels relevant.” Coming to Stanford in 2000, Reverend Sanders immediately knew that she had to reproduce some of the majesty of the Compline service for which St. Mark’s in Seattle is rightfully famous. Starting with just a few Stanford choirs several times a year, the program has expanded to a weekly offering throughout the academic year.
There are three more Compline services before the program stops for the summer and restarts in October. Free and open to the community, the Compline experience at Stanford is worth exploring.