It’s early in the morning, the houses all wrapped round in the November mist. My husband has gone out to play golf with some combination of Mike, Andy and Ed, and I’m still sitting in bed writing — haven’t even brushed my hair or washed or cleaned my teeth. Though I’ve had a Frankincense pill and a cup of nettle tea.
I was thinking about prayers I knew from long ago.
The abbot gives the knock, the community rises, and Compline, the last office of the day, opens with the prayer:
May the Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end. Amen.
Then, when Compline ends, the day is over, the community enters the Great Silence, and they go their separate ways to rest.
It offers a metaphor of how a wise life aspires to end: quietly, prayerfully, recollectedly. And there was a beautiful Buddhist word I once loved, "mindfully", though I've gone off it a bit now it's been seized by word-peddlers and made into a Thing right up there alongside aromatherapy and colouring books. But that, anyway. With reverence, chanting, silence. That was how my husband Bernard's life ended. I had a CD of sacred chant, just one chant but forty-five minutes long, that he loved and I often played. Once they set up a syringe-driver with morphine to hold his pain, he descended into a sedated state, remaining there the last few days — longer than I thought it would be, about five days. On the last morning, as his breathing began to change, I put on the CD with the sacred chant, forty-five minutes, the family gathered quietly, and he took his last breath with the very last chord of the singing. We played it again as the people gathered for his funeral. Chant is very supportive to reverence, peace and wellbeing. I recommend it. I heard of a monastic community in France who, in obedient response to Pope John 23rd's encouragement to engage with modern life and get out and mix more, cut down their hours of chanting in chapel. But they were a bit radical in their trim, more of a savage prune really, and overdid it. They had to adjust back up when the men in the community began to get sick — under-chanted!
So I was thinking about Compline and that prayer, "May the Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end," and about how it touches upon an aspect of life it's easy to lose track of in the modern world.
If you read books on ageing, they (without exception in what I've read so far) focus on the contribution you can still make, the engagement you can still have, the things you can still do, the illnesses and ailments you can defeat. "Life in the old dog yet" kind of books.
And the old people I have known (not all, but many) have tended to take comfort in materialism and consumerism; while the light lasts, going shopping and having cruise holidays and coach trips and days out and buying things and involving themselves in deep layers of pastry — cream teas, afternoon tea, meeting friends in a café for morning coffee. "We've retired. Hooray! Let's go out for a meal and take in some shopping." Hips replaced, false teeth in, cataracts removed, orthotics in place, hearing aids switched on, we elderly go forth, eager to take refuge in the pleasures of the flesh that still remain, with a hunger for life and a delight in living that defies the lengthening shadows and the creeping cold.
The last office of the day is Compline, and the one before it, around tea-time, is Vespers, which is a cardinal office — called so from the Latin word cardo, meaning "hinge". The other Cardinal office is Lauds — so Lauds and Vespers are the hinges that open and close the day, then Compline takes you down into silence, a model of death. And the frantic whirl of shopping and holidays, the bumper stickers joking "We're spending the kids' inheritance", the taking refuge in pastry, is the creaking hinge of a Vesper as the day draws to its close — not yet the whispering chill and the advancing dusk, but the avid desire to soak up the sun's last golden rays.
This pattern of ageing belongs to consumer society, relying heavily on the support of money and manufacturing. There's nothing wrong with it — it exudes a joyousness and zest for living that I admire even though I do not share it. But it is quintessentially modern.
When I think back to the collects of the Book of Common Prayer, I trace the heart-patterns and preoccupations of a different age.
The prayer (Trinity 4) made to "God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy," to "increase and multiply upon us thy mercy," that "thou being our ruler and our guide we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.”
The prayer (Trinity 7) that God will “increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same”.
The second collect from Evening Prayer, asking God to “give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness”.
And so many others. Prayers from the days before antibiotics and germ theory, when death took so many so young, when any position of power or acquisition of wealth brought with it the fear of intrigue and violence — everything from politicians to footpads — and when those who stepped out of line were burned alive or decapitated or hung by the neck until dead. The collects of the Book of Common Prayer are redolent with sickness, violence and death as close presences, never far away.
Again and again, Cranmer begs his Lord for rest and quietness, for the necessary peace to lead a quiet life, and the recollection to keep our eyes resolutely on heaven and our hearts held safe in truth.
The Book of Common Prayer set for Evensong every day the lovely canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation . . .
This cardinal office to close the day is a different kind of hinge from the modern sort. Isn’t it?
When it comes to food, you will no doubt be acquainted with the hunger of under-nourishment. The sugar crash. The more . . . more . . . more . . . drive of refined carbohydrates. The food that makes you steadily hungrier the more you eat. And, conversely, the serenity that pervades the body once the liver is allowed to put down its toxic load and the lumen of the gut receives high quality nutrition. Real nourishment does give energy, but a quiet, steady kind, not the restless festination of the overstimulated.
I suppose, in my quest to find a way back Narnia, at the moment I’m groping through the encompassing darkness inside this wardrobe, pushing aside the enfolding furriness of so many stored coats to get to what lies beyond.
Chant, and quietness, and good nutrition, habits of recollection, silence, solitude and simplicity, will help me, I think.
May your day be blessed.