Monday, February 1, 2010

My Prayer Language

I was Pastor of a congregation which had become involved in the charismatic movement (many years before my time) and there were still folks there who use its lingo. Once I was asked if I had a prayer language. I knew what the person meant but delighted in answering "King James English..."

It was a joke, a poor one, and not well received... but the answer was not too far off. I learned to pray from reading the collects of the Church (both those within the propers and the classic collects). It is not that I pray so much in the thees and thous of the Elizabethan tongue. It is that the form of the collect and its elegant and eloquent phrases have taught me well. I have many of them committed to memory. Once when I was praying at a parish occasion a member told me that I sounded like a prayer book when I prayed... I do not know if it was meant as a compliment but I took it as one...

Early this morning (very early, about 6 am) I began my devotional time by listening to the BBC Evening Prayer from last week. Soon I heard the wonderful and elegant language of the collects... first the collect for peace...

O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both, our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that, by thee, we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Then an additional collect for the week...

O Lord, we beseech thee favourably to hear the prayers of thy people; that we, who are justly punished for our offenses, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

One writer explains the collect form in this way:

Now let us begin to dig into this Collect and see what we can discover, always remembering that such meditative study has as its end, not knowledge for its own sake, but a growth of a sense of the wonder and the glory even such a small part of our worship life contains. There are those (they are very numerous) who would try to convince you that beauty is meaningless. We need to be reminded that beauty is one of the attributes of Cod, one of the radiances of His glory in this transitory life. Beauty is attractive; that is, it draws us toward the beautiful. The beauty of the liturgy and of its parts draws us toward our God.

Every Collect begins with direct address to God Himself, sometimes quite an elaborate invocation, sometimes, as here, just a simple title, 'O Lord.' Following the invocation comes the heart of the prayer, the part we want to look at tonight. Sometimes, as here, the heart of the Collect follows the pattern, 'we beseech thee,' sometimes it is put in the imperative, calling on God to 'create,' 'make,' 'send,' etc.

The verb 'beseech' is a little old-fashioned, as is much of the language of the Prayer Book. This verb means, not just 'to ask' but 'to ask with urgency.' This urgent petition ends at the semicolon: '0 Lord, we beseech thee favourably to hear the prayers of thy people.' What follows the semicolon, in this Collect, sets forth the reason for our urgent plea and the end to be attained: 'that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy Name.' The Collect closes, as every Collect does, with praise of the One through Whom we are able to ask the Lord God to hear us: 'through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.' The last word is both our assent to the prayer and a little prayer in itself: 'Amen,' so be it, may it be so.

It is an economy of words that produces a rich and full petition and supplication. Just 57 words... It occurs to me that my prayers tend to be wordy but without the compactness of the collect form. So this form is my teacher. It teaches me how to pray. When I learn its form well, and how to pray without just many words strung together, it is much easier for me to order my devotional life...

Our hearts do not naturally desire to pray or know how to pray... We must be taught. I urge you to spend some time with the collects of the Church... they are good teachers...

4 comments:

revalkorn said...

My vicarage Bishop has a cartoon on his door. It's a conversation between a woman and her pastor. The woman says something like, "Pastor, the liturgy doesn't say what I mean." The pastor replies, "You must learn to mean what the liturgy says."

Pastor Peters said...

Good one! Oh that we would learn it well...

Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

How rich the Liturgy of the Church! I am constantly amazed and humbled at it's beauty (visual artists do love beautiful words and music, too). It is the beauty and simplicity of the Word Himself!

I am also ashamed. Ashamed of the years I spent thinking Liturgy was just dead repetition. Shame on most of evangelicalism for teaching countless thousands that it is so. They have refused it in the beginning, and now have lost sight of it completely. It is excoriation in it's worst form.

Jonathan said...

Pastor,

I was especially intrigued by the writer you quoted on the meaning of the collect, he is obviously a Norse Lutheran because he writes:

"We need to be reminded that beauty is one of the attributes of Cod...."

So true. We should indeed at all times and in all places give thanks for glorious Lutefisk.