By Michelle Francl-Donnay
With His pinion He shelters you, and beneath His wings you take refuge, a shield and a buckler, His truth. You shall not fear from the terror of night. – Psalm 91:4-5a
We waited until it was almost dark to leave, for the first tendrils of the cool night air to flow down the ravines. Swinging the kids up into their saddles, we rode up the canyon in the growing dusk of a summer’s evening. The coyotes were already stirring, their howls providing an edgy counterpoint to the rhythmic clip-clop of our horse’s hooves on the hard ground.
Finding a flat spot far down the canyon, we stopped for the night. After dinner cooked over a fire, we rolled ourselves in the blankets we’d brought along and settled to sleep on the ground. I lay on the hard ground, contemplating the sweep of stars brushed across the velvet expanse of the night sky, the dark mounds of the foothills spread in every direction beneath us. There was no one within miles of us. No road. No cell phone service. Nothing but what God had made.
I felt incredibly small.
I woke in the depths of the night to the sound of the horses stomping restlessly, and the rustling of coyotes moving in the brush nearby. I was suddenly aware how vulnerable we were on the ground, without even the semblance of safety a tent might provide. Memories of lambs gone missing in the night from my father’s flock danced in my head. I pulled the boys in between Victor and myself, shielding them under my wings. And I prayed – Psalm 91, “you shall not fear from the terror of the night.”
This is the iconic psalm of Night Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. It properly belongs to Sunday night, but the instructions offer it as an option for any night. Some communities pray the whole of that Hour, from memory, in the dark.
People have been praying Psalm 91 in the face of the night for millennia. Scripture scholar Yair Hoffman suggests that the ancient Israelites used Psalm 91 as an “amulet psalm,” a ritual way of reminding themselves of God’s sure protection. And long before St. Christopher was invoked by travelers for their safety, early Christians wore the first lines of this psalm on medals around their necks.
The tradition of completing the day with prayer, Compline or Night Prayer, goes back to the very earliest days of the Church and continues unbroken to this day. St. John Chrysostom enjoined Christians to pray each night, asking them, “With what hope will you come to the season of night? With what dreams do you expect to converse, if you have not walled yourself round with prayers, but go to sleep unprotected?”
A few years ago there was an exhibition of medieval books of Hours at the college where I teach. These books, some gloriously illuminated with gold and painstakingly lettered by hand, are now considered works of art, but they were first books of prayer. As I wandered the exhibit one afternoon, I was awed to find one copy of the Hours where its owner had used it to pray Compline so often the ink had been worn off on the corners of those pages. We, none of us, it seems wish to sleep unprotected.
That night in the California hills sharpened my understanding of Psalm 91 in ways that no commentary ever could. I know with what hopes I come to the unknown, and what dreams I desire. I grasp more deeply that even the physical walls that surround me at night are an illusion of protection. I look instead for shelter within God’s Word – the rampart that Night Prayer erects for us each night.
More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands. – A reflection by Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe, after he suffered a severe stroke
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.