“Shield the joyous.” For a long while I puzzled over that phrase. It is in the first of two prayers at the end of Compline in the Book of Common Prayer (Page 134). Compline, while new to the BCP in the 1979 edition, is not a new prayer form, but is centuries old. It is one of the eight monastic hours, which traditionally concludes the day about 9 p.m. The community silence begins afterwards and isn’t broken until after breakfast the next morning except for morning prayer. I don’t find this particular prayer in any breviaries which include Compline, but it too is of ancient origin, coming from the prayers of St. Augustine of Hippo.
The version in the BCP is:
“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, sooth the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”
The prayer raises up to us, as we tuck it in for the night, that for some, the coming night is not peaceful at all. Some are tossing and turning in pain and in fear from injury or illness, and others are nursing them or performing desperate heroic acts to save their lives. As I pray this I think of the medical personnel in hospitals and nursing homes, the ones on the 11 to 7 shift. It is through them that Lord Christ tends the sick. Others are in spiritual distress or living out their last hours, and priests are at their side, ministering to them. I think of the clergy responding in the dead of night to the ringing of their pastoral phones and rising up and heading out to bless the dying and sooth the suffering.
But what about “shield the joyous?” For a long time I didn’t know what to make of that. Then I thought of all the people out late for a joyous occasion: a dinner party somewhere, or returning from a night at the theater, or just “a night on the town.” The night time has its own perils for them. I used to tell one of my grandsons when he was given to being out til the wee hours playing computer games at an all-night game store, to be especially watchful when traveling home because the only people out at that hour were criminals and their potential victims. So these are the joyous, often oblivious in their revelry and high spirits to the dangers around them. And their shield? Just as doctors and nurses and other health care professionals are the minds and bodies of Christ caring for the sick, just so are public safety professionals, police officers, the minds and bodies of Christ shielding the joyous by preserving a safe environment even in the dead of night.
Think then on those, to draw from the other prayer in Compline, who “work while others sleep,” and be thankful.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 15 July 2014.