Theme Psalm of a Pandemic: Psalm 91

Theme Psalm of a Pandemic: Psalm 91

Each evening, we Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey informally enter their monastic church from two sides, striding calmly to choir stalls for the final prayer service of the day. Compline, as this night liturgy is called, begins promptly at 7:30pm and lasts between 15 and 20 minutes.

Compline is the least variable of the seven daily monastic prayer moments, and for that reason, as well as for its proximity to the “grand silence” of lights out and bedtime, perhaps the most soothing.  Apart from the opening hymn, a very brief Scripture reading and a closing prayer that may vary slightly, everything else in the format remains the same from evening to evening.  And, as with all hours of the Cistercian Liturgy of the Hours, Compline is anchored by the chanting from the Psalter; for Compline, that means Psalms 4 and 91.

By mid-March, however, any bedtime lullaby feeling to Compline had come crashing down with a renewed hearing of Psalm 91 — especially verses 5-7 — in light of the ongoing pandemic catastrophe:

You will not fear the terror of the night,

Nor the arrow that flies by day,

Nor the plague that prowls in the darkness

Nor the scourge that lays waste at noon.

A thousand may fall at your side,

Ten thousand fall at your right.

According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, March 20 marked the day where 10,000 souls had indeed fallen from the coronavirus. The plague is prowling, the scourge is laying waste, with no end in sight.

The prayer leader at Compline concludes with the words, “May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” A few moments later, the superior, using an aspergillum in the same manner he might sprinkle a coffin at the end of a funeral liturgy, blesses each attendee who approaches for the blessing.

Perhaps Psalm 91, especially in these frightful times, is more of a call to fearlessly and trustingly live in the space of its first verse, to “dwell in the shelter of the Most High and abide in the shade of the Almighty.  We can live in God’s trust not only for a good night’s sleep, but amidst the reality of death.  Thousands may indeed fall; our job is not to fear, and to dwell in right relationship, in God’s shade.

Compline and subsequent nightly slumber can then become a peaceful practice run for death’s inevitability. For Maronite Catholics, the closing prayer of the nightly Sootoro, a counterpart to Compline, actually spells out the sleep-death connection: “Especially at the hour of our death, represented now by our sleep, to you we abandon our bodies, thoughts, feelings and all that we are.”  (And, to no surprise, the order of Sootoro also includes Psalm 91.)

Who knows how much of this was on the minds of us monks as we shuffled out of the church toward our rooms during mid-March.  But, if pressed, we could probably admit that something had changed, something was different, if, for no other reason, that during that week of March 16, the time for sunset in Moncks Corner, SC was eerily nestled inside that 7:30 to 7:45pm prayer span for Compline. We had exited the church to a discernably darker world, but may all abide in the shade of the Almighty.