Men raise their voices for Sunday evening prayer
By Enedelia J. Obregón
Compline is a feast for the senses that simultaneously allows us to enter that quiet, sacred space we often overlook.
Those seeking such an experience can find it Sundays at 9 p.m. at St. Louis Parish in Austin, the only parish in the diocese that offers this service.
“It’s one of the best kept secrets in Austin,” said Beth Leary, a parishioner at St. Louis who has been attending regularly since last October. “It’s a great way to end and begin the week.”
She recently attended with daughter, Kelly, 17, and college-aged sons Matthew and Paul.
“When you’re stressed out, it brings a great sense of peace,” Kelly said.
Matthew said he enjoyed participating in a long-standing Catholic tradition.
Each week 50 to 125 people come to the chapel, with its stained glass windows behind the altar that catch the last rays of the setting sun. The lights are turned off except at the altar, where they are dimmed so the choral group can see the music sheets and the director, Father Larry Covington, pastor of St. Theresa Parish in Austin, who also sings baritone.
Candlelight and incense greet worshipers, who have chairs with kneelers to use throughout the service. Father James Misko, pastor of St. Louis, who sings bass, serves as the presider.
As the men walk to the choir stalls behind the altar and the chanting and singing begin, one is transcended to a mystical place. Father Covington said that is why he started the compline service five years ago when he was pastor at St. Louis.
“The senses all come to bear on the perception and majesty of the glory of God,” he said.
While at St. Louis, Father Covington had been looking for new ways to evangelize and attract people, especially those who have no background or experience in church.
“Mass can be intimidating for a lot of people,” he said. “In terms of worship it can be confusing when to stand, when to kneel and when to sit.”
A compline service with its gentle Gregorian chants and prayers, and no homily or offering, can be inviting and non-threatening. The service is offered late in the evening in keeping with the Liturgy of the Hours, a traditional form of worship that also includes morning prayers and vespers –– the evening prayers.
The late hour works for teenagers whose body clocks are skewed to late nights, Father Covington said. Several youth groups from other Christian denominations have attended compline and a few non-Catholic adults who have attended compline eventually converted to Catholicism.
The English word compline is derived from the Latin “completorium” –– or complete –– as in completing the day. The word was first used in the sixth century by St. Benedict in his Rule –– a book of precepts written for monks living in community under the authority of an abbot. It developed in southern Europe and the Middle East and was mainly offered by monastic communities. In keeping with the monastic tradition, those in the compline choral group are all men.
Father Misko said prayers change with the liturgical season. New music is sung every week. Singers learn the evening’s music during the two-hour rehearsal prior to the service. Singers must know how to read music because many of the songs and chants are polyphonic with complex harmonies.
To maintain the integrity of the music, some of the singers are professionals and receive small stipends. Antoine Garth, who is not Catholic, has been singing with the group for three years. He also sings at the parish’s Sunday 9:30 a.m. Mass.
“Music is an aspect of worship,” he said. “It’s invisible but palpable. We are very affected by hearing the music, seeing the icons, smelling the incense. It elevates us.”
Sean Lee and Trevor Heim are music majors at the University of Texas.
“When Mass is set to music, it adds to the spiritual journey,” said Lee, who grew up Catholic in South Korea.
On the second Sunday of each month, a healing service is offered during the compline. Father Misko said many people come for the healing service and often become regulars.
“This is the kind of music you can only get on a CD,” Father Misko said. “When you hear it live you can’t even explain why it’s so beautiful. It’s a priceless experience.”
For samples of some of the music, visit www.st-louis.org/sung-compline. The choral group is seeking volunteers with music backgrounds. For more information, contact Father Misko at (512) 454-0384.