COMPLINE — Wings of a Prayer

COMPLINE — Wings of a Prayer

Since 1956 the Compline Choir has filled St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, WA with the uplifting holy sounds of chant.  The service happens at 9:30 p.m. every Sunday.  It is only 30 minutes long.

There are no sermons, no priests – just readings of psalms and some thoughtful musings interspersed between an incredible, soothing, peace-inducing sound.

This YouTube video, The Compline Choir at St. Mark’s Cathedral (Seattle, WA), was published in 2014.  It was the first one to be produced and commissioned by the Choir and gives you a taste of what they do.

(The video was filmed by Markdavin Obenza and includes excerpts from the Compline Service for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels on September 29, 2013.)


Chanted prayer is an ancient tradition, one that modern-day science has found is good medicine for the body and for the mind.

Dr. Alan Watkins, a neuroscientist and co-founder of Complete Coherence, a European business leadership development firm, has explored many different ways to help clients maintain high levels of performance during challenging and stressful times.

In 2008, when Watkins was a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London, he announced, “We have recently carried out research that demonstrates that the regular breathing and musical structure of chanting can have a significant and positive physiological impact.”

Watson and his team followed five monks at Heiligenkreuz Abbey, a Cistercian monastery in the village of Heiligenkreuz in the southern part of the Vienna woods, north-west of Baden in Lower Austria.

The monastery, founded in 1133, is the oldest continuously occupied Cistercian monastery in the world.   The monks are famous for their Gregorian chants.

“Heiligenkreuz” by Paula Funnell via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
The scientists followed the monks around and measured their heart rates and blood pressure throughout a 24-hour period.  The heart rates and blood pressure numbers dipped to their lowest point in the day when the monks were chanting.

Dr Watkins pointed to similar previous studies documenting the neurological effects of sound supported their findings that chanting seems to lower blood pressure, increase performance hormone levels as well as reduce anxiety and depression and improve mood.

One remarkable story is the one French audiologist, Dr. Alfred Tomatis tells in a 1978 documentary called “Chant.”  The good doctor was called in to help the monks of a Benedictine monastery who were suffering from deep fatigue, depression and physical illness.

The doctor found that the sad, sick monks had been complying with a new church edict that had halted the centuries-old practice of chanting prayers throughout their day to mark their connection with the Divine.

When Tomatis convinced the monks to re-establish their rituals of prayer, the religious community regained its vitality. The monks were healthier and happier.  Not only is chanting beneficial, but it seems that just listening to chanting can be good for your health.

Some scientists believe music can stimulate the production of endorphins—natural opiates known to generate feelings of excitement and satisfaction.  It’s also possible, they say, that music helps the left and right hemispheres of the brain communicate more effectively and that it creates new neural pathways in the brain.

Benedictine nun, Sister Ruth Stanley, who is the head of the complementary medicine program at Central Minnesota’s Heart Center at St. Cloud Hospitals, found that having her patients listen to chant helped to ease chronic pain.

When you play chant, Sister Stanley said, “about 85 percent of the time, the body goes into very deep healing modes.  It’s quite remarkable.”

Listening to the Compline (and to other forms of chanting as well) can foster inner peacefulness and healing, it seems.


The Compline has its roots in the everyday life of medieval Catholic monastics.  It is the last service in a cycle of “offices” or “hours” sung in the Western Church throughout the day, the prayer before going to bed.

During medieval times, in the Catholic monasteries and convents in the west, the resident monks and nuns spent their days in solitary and communal prayer as well as doing more mundane work.   (For all of them staying mindful of the Divine in their lives was one of their primary jobs, actually.)

Residents in the monasteries were more isolated from the world than those living in convents and friaries, who spent their days doing good works in their communities, but all of them prayed separately and together throughout the day, reciting formal sets of prayers and meditations created by the leaders of their various orders.

The timing and the formats of the monastic prayer services that marked the divisions of the religious day evolved as leaders of the various religious groups set up rules for how their followers should live and work and pray.  Much of it was pretty much standardized for the different religious communities in the west by the fifth century.

“St. Benedict” by Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
During medieval times (and pretty much into the 20th century) each religious day was divided into eight parts (also known as canonical “hours”).  The set prayers for each of these divisions made up the Liturgy of the Hours.

Lauds (morning prayer) sanctified the morning, preparing the inhabitants for the day.  In medieval religious communities, that day started very early.

Terce (mid-morning), sext (midday), none (mid-afternoon) were known collectively as the “Little Hours”.  They were celebrated with short prayers intended for use during  breaks in manual or scholarly work.

Vespers (evening prayer) was for coming together to give thanks for the blessings received during the day and for work done well.

Compline (night prayer) was designed to be said as the last prayer before going to sleep.  It starts with an examination of consciousness and includes a contemplation of mortality and a prayer for inner peace.

This service of quietness and reflection before rest completed the day for the religious.  In certain monasteries, it marked the beginning of a period of silence observed by the whole community (including guests) throughout the night until the morning service.

The Night Offices (also called Vigils, and, in more modern times, Matins) were performed very early in the morning while it was still dark.  During this time you were supposed to contemplate the mysteries of salvation.

In some of the more rigorous monasteries, the monks were supposed to get up in the middle of the night to recite these prayers and to meditate.

There was one other “hour” called Prime, which was celebrated between Lauds and Terce.

Around the year 382, it seems that in at least one monastery there were some monks who couldn’t get up for their morning prayers after spending half the night doing their Vigil practice.

To keep the monks from staying in bed until mid-morning instead of getting up to start their day, all of the monks were called together for Prime when they prayed together before heading out to do their tasks.  The practice proved to be effective and was adopted by other monasteries.

(Prime was abolished by revisions of the Second Vatican Council when church leaders looked at ways to make the practices of a contemplative religious “more humane.”)

Until the 20th century, the Compline was pretty much unknown to the general public and worshippers who were not a part of a monastic community.


St. Mark’s Compline Choir and the Compline Service was the brainchild of American composer and liturgist Peter  Hallock (November 19, 1924 to April 27, 2014) who was organist and choirmaster at the St. Mark’s Cathedral from 1951 to 1991.

“St. Mark’s Cathedral Organ” by kaoruokumura via Flickr [CC BY-ND 2.0]
When he attended the Royal School of Church Music in England, from 1949 to 1951, Hallock was one of the few American students allowed to chant the Office of Compline with fellow classmates in the crypt of the Canterbury Cathedral.

“Canterbury Cathedral Interior: Arches in the Nave” by barnyz via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
When Hallock became the organist at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, he invited twelve music students from his alma mater, the University of Washington, to gather at the St. Mark’s to study and sing plainsong.  Their text was from the Proposed Book of Common Prayer (1928) of the Church of England, set to medieval chants.

By late 1956, this study group evolved into the Compline Choir.  Not all of the choir members were religiously oriented.  They were, however, excellent musicians and they loved liturgical music.

The all-male group grew in number as they began singing the Office of Compline for others on Sunday nights.  It was the first offering of the Office in English on a regular basis (outside of Anglican monasteries) in North America.  For a number of years they sang to an empty church.

Starting in 1962, the St. Mark’s Compline service was broadcast live over the radio on KING-FM.  Perhaps that is why when the “Summer of Love” in the late 1960’s turned young people’s minds towards more spiritual practices, colorfully dressed young people discovered the beauty and peacefulness of the Compline, and began attending the service at St. Mark’s in droves.

The congregation grew, practically overnight, from zero attendance to several hundreds packed into the church.

Hallock led the Compline Choir from 1956 to 2009.  (The choir is now directed by Jason Anderson, who joined the choir in October, 2004.)  The services continue to be well-attended and thousands more tune in to the radio broadcast or listen via the Internet.

“view above the altar in St. Mark’s Cathedral” by robryan65 via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]
As time went on, a renewed interest in plainsong and other forms of liturgical music as well as the Compline grew.  Over fifty groups now offer a regular Office of Compline in the United States and Canada.

The once-obscure medieval religious service has become a regular spiritual practice for many modern people.  It is also a lovely way to help yourself get to sleep.


Composer Peter Hallock talks about his music and his experiences at St. Mark’s Cathedral in this YouTube video published by Markdavin Obenza in 2013.  The video features session footage and music from the Byrd Ensemble’s CD release, Peter Hallock:  Draw On Sweet Night.

Here’s a poem….


It’s a soul thing.


World sometimes gets at you

With all the needs and wants

Pulling at you, dragging at you

Making you sink down

Under the weight of so much

Gimme, do me, want me, honey!


Real is something else:

A quiet place that sits there

Waiting for you to come and rest

Your weary self by waters

Gently flowing like soft music

Melting down your heart, yeah!


It’s a soul thing, don’t you know?

The ebb, the flow of this thing

We are doing together that

Seems like everything and nothing

Much at all, at all.

But we keep doing it, yay!


We keep on doing, doing, doing it….

by Netta Kanoho

Header picture credit:  St. Mark’s Cathedral (on Seattle’s Capitol Hill as viewed from the Center for Wooden Boats on Lake Union) by sea turtle via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]



(Click on each of the post titles below and see where it takes you…)


Thank you for your visit.  I’d appreciate it if you would drop a note or comment below and tell me your thoughts.


16 thoughts on “COMPLINE — Wings of a Prayer

  1. Interesting , chanting helps with the mind? Maybe it’s related to a certain frequency achieved towards each chant.

    Even though the only chants music I’ve really related to are from a video game call Halo, I hear it every time I feel depressed and somehow it alleviates the depression and gets me in a better mood.

    Michael Donnell mixed instrumentals with chords because chords would give a ancient mysterious vibe. Pretty cool.

    1. Hey Erick:

      Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I’m glad the post was intriguing to you.  You might want to check out other examples of chanting and see whether it gets you peaceful.

      Please do come again….

  2. I happen to come across your site, and i must say that, I’m thrilled.

    I learnt to chant and sing melodious sounds during personal prayer moments. It always felt good and relaxing, i never knew about the science and the research already done on it.

    Thanks for the information you’ve shared. You practically informed me about some of my experiences.

    The time spent was well worth it, thanks once again

    1. Hey Festus:

      Thanks for visiting my site and for sharing your experience with the chanting.  I really do appreciate it!  I’m glad you enjoyed my post.

      Please do come again….

  3. Marsha & Michael Powell says:

    Such a beautiful topic – well written and easy to read.  I’ve never been lucky enough to experience this, but it would be a true balm to the soul.  You included lots of history and beautiful pictures. I wish we lived closer to hear this.

    The video was wonderful. My opinion? I hope you write more like this. 

    1. Thanks for visiting, guys.  I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post.

      Please do come again….

  4. I do believe that chanting helps with our mental health. Even though, there is no scientific proof to that, but when you take a look at all the religions, they always have some kind of chanting involved. It is like an incantation, where you keep praying and what ever you wish for will come true. 

    I do sing in the church every Sunday if I can make it. It is very soothing and it is such a great energy to be around.

    1. Thanks for the visit and for your thoughts, Nuttanee.  

      There actually has been a lot of neurological research into the beneficial effects of chanting.  Everything seems to point to it being a blessing for your body as well as for your soul, it seems.

      Myself, I get such a buzz when I am in a crowd of people singing or chanting from the heart.  The energy that builds up as a result of it makes me feel like I’m flying.  Really cool!

      Please do come again….

  5. Hi Netta,

    Very interesting article! I had no idea that chanted prayer could be so powerful. 

    It’s pretty rare that I hear it anywhere but when I do, I can’t help but stop and admire the beauty of it. There’s just something about chanting that really makes you stop and pay attention. 

    It’s very interesting to hear that chanting lowered monks heart rates and blood pressure. Gives a lot of insight to how powerful it could be for us living in the modern world. I’m sure it would have huge benefits. 

    Beautiful poem at the end as well. Thank you for the great article!

    1. Thanks for your visit and your comments, Dan.  I do appreciate them and am glad you liked the post. 

      Please do come again….

  6. Thank you for the awesome post!  I love this post mostly because I was a psychology major in college.  One of the things we learned is that Catholic Nuns, who spend a lot of time in deep meditative prayer and chant a lot, have different brain compositions in a good way!  They tend to live longer as well.  It’s interesting to see what prayer and chanting can do to help people.

    1. Jessie, thanks for your visit and for sharing the tidbit about Catholic nuns.  There was also a very well-publicized recent study about the brain structures of Tibetan Buddhist monks.  The monks spend LOTS of time chanting and in meditation and their brains look and work differently as well.  Hmmm….

      Please do come again.

  7. stem child says:

    Thanks for the historical perspective . Prayer , praise and worship is a sacred connection between the soul and God. These moments are most important for wisdom, peace, healing and direction. As it was then so it remains today. The human soul cannot operate outside of the spiritual as man becomes empty. Prayer keeps the soul alive.

    1. Stem child, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I’m glad the post resonated with you.

      Please do come again.

  8. Great post! I truly love the way you write, so easy to read. I like how you incorporate the history of the places you write about into your articles.

    It is also quite fascinating how the music lowered the blood pressure of the monks chanting. I do believe that this type of music/chant is soothing to the soul. 

    Keep up the amazing work and excellent articles.

    1. Paul, thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts.  I agree with you that standing in the middle of a room full of prayerful chanting can be a most peaceful experience.

      Please do come again.

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