“Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979
For those not familiar with the use of collects, I’ll get back to that in a moment, but for now, let me just say that this prayer, little altered from its earliest known form in the late fifth century is one of my favorites.
When I am deciding what to do, I mainly want what I want – and I sometimes (far too often) choose based not on what I understand God to say, but on what I, at that moment, desire. And yet, as a Christian, I affirm that what God commands is in a real, deep, and ultimate sense, “For our own good.” The Promises of God lead to an existence where all true joys are to be found – and any other joys are either phantoms and snake-oil promises, or they are imitations and partial visions of the true and lasting joys which He desires to give us. So why do I do that?
In part, it’s because I want what I – AT THIS MOMENT – want. For example; I want to lose another 30 lbs (or is it the same 30 lbs?), and it would bring me joy and health to do so. But right NOW, I want a slice of pie. That is simple enough to understand. Anyone who has parented a young child, or been one, will understand.
The other part is a bit more subtle. Sometimes I want what I want simply because it is forbidden. My desire is fueled by the knowledge that an authority (parents, God, “society”) disapproves. The power of the desire comes from the wish to assert that “I AM IN CHARGE OF ME!” Again, anyone who has spent time with young children can identify with the inner child. St. Augustine of Hippo related a rather famous story of passing a neighbor’s pear orchard as a young man, and being driven to steal some pears. Why? He wasn’t hungry; it was not that they were enticingly good pears – he said he had better pears on his parent’s trees at home. And yet the pull was compelling. The only answer that seemed to fit was that it was because these pears were forbidden. The pull was to demonstrate that he was not subject to some rule made by someone else. He was in charge of himself. We still do that.
The first cause, the pressure of “NOW” is almost innocent – we live in the now, and it is in “now” that reality exists. Of course pleasures now are more potent than pleasures delayed. But by giving in to that pull, we lose the greater pleasure later in exchange for gaining a lesser pleasure now. We give away future happiness for a little taste now. It’s quite sad, and quite silly.
As I understand it, though, ultimately “now” may be expanded to the eternal now, with all times equally present, all part of now. If we will be trained by it (now), we will find an unending delight later.
The other cause is more serious, as it is a purely spiritual disorder, but it too has a redemption. The preference for “ME” is of course the heart of sin. There is only one King of all, and I am either a subject or a rebel. There isn’t much to be said about that, except to note that God has provided a time-line of progress for me, and for Augustine, and (I believe) for all of us.
First, we were under that compulsion. By the power of Jesus’ death and resurrections, that power has been, or can be, broken (if it has not, ask Him to break it –He delights to give good gifts). Now, however, my situation sometimes feels worse – I am free to choose; I cannot claim compulsion, and yet I still often choose badly. But the bad choice is, now, fully mine. I still want what I want. The good side is that I now also want to please God, to please the one I love. I always have the opportunity to lay down the thing that I want, now, to prefer that I please my beloved. Marriage is a good lab section for that sort of thing! But still, there is another step.
What I ask for in this prayer is that God grant us grace, not just to be obedient for our own good, but that we actually want the things that are good for us; that when He promises unity with Him, that unity would be the true deepest desire of our heart … because only there will we find all true joy.
For those not familiar with the liturgical use of Collects:
Collects are short prayers used in a service in some Church traditions (mine is Episcopal, or Anglican). They are written prayers, and typically are prescribed for particular Sundays throughout the year, often coordinating with themes present in the appointed Bible readings, or in the life of Jesus corresponding with that season –like Christmas, or the Transfiguration. They are short, almost always having one central, focused petition, and from a literary viewpoint, are highly stylized, like a sonnet. Many are of great antiquity. One of the prime collection of these, and arrangements for use through the year, is in the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican tradition, through its various editions, and first compiled by Thomas Cranmer in 1549. A few of the prayers were authored by him. For many centuries, the written prayers in the Book of Common Prayer were considered one of the authoritative standards for the teaching of the Anglican Communion. If one wanted to find out what these folks believed and taught, one went to the BCP and studied. That was my question, and my resource back in the mid 1970s.
I would refer anyone curious to that source, easily available on the web. For a more thorough look and the collects themselves, I highly recommend a little book by C. Frederick Barbee and Paul F. Zahl called The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, which is arranged with both historical and meditation notes of each prayer.
As a proselyte from the Baptist Church in my twenties, I first had a hard time with the idea of pre-written prayer. It seemed much more like delivering a speech, or reading a part in a play, than authentic conversation with God! And I still feel the weight of that argument. It must never replace pure extemporaneous prayer, where I simply talk to God, opening my mind and heart to Him. And yet, during that time of transition, I reflected on another practice of mine, which was memorizing some fairly large blocks of Scripture, such as the Psalms. While I was doing the work of memorization, a particular Psalm would be dusty dry to me –like memorizing a part in a play. But as I learned it, and began to internalize it and what it meant (say, Psalm 51), it became the words I wanted to use – David had said far better than I what was on my heart. Also, some Psalms, (like Psalm 23) would have me say things that I believe, but didn’t fully feel. They would lead me and teach me. The parallel I see is when my daughter takes my grandson’s hand in hers and guides him in writing a note to me. I am thrilled to receive it – I do not think badly of my grandson because he used help for the writing, or even for the words themselves. So God received my use of the Psalms in prayer.
I do not think there is any reason why written prayers cannot fulfill the same role – This collect both guides my prayer, and helps me meditate on the gift of God and my rebellion. Others instruct me as to the nature of my sin, and of God’s mercy, even as I pray.
Yes, written prayer can be abused, misused, and substituted for spontaneous prayer born of a desire for true relationship. But the possibility of misuse is not an indictment, but rather a recognition of a tool’s potency. I highly commend these collects!