Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The goal of faith is to what?

Lutherans were caught in a dilemma when attempting to translate German into English.  The wisest course was not to attempt what had already been done, lest the great works become as pedestrian as the collects of the 1970s in the Roman form.  So they borrowed.  From Cranmer.  It was not a decision made lightly but it was the better course to follow.  So we kept the original well-crafted words of the Latin collects in an equally well-crafted and eloquent (but accessible) English.  Consider:

O God, the Protector of all that trust in You, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us Your mercy that, You being our Ruler and Guide, we may so pass through things temporal that we finally lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord; who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Lutheran)

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen. (Cranmer)

The Latin:

Protector in te sperantium, Deus,
sine quo nihil est validum, nihil sanctum:
multiplica super nos misericordiam tuam;
ut, te rectore, te duce,
sic transeamus per bona temporalia,
ut non amittamus aeterna.

The problem with this collect, however, is not the language (as wonderful as it is).  The problem lies with what is prayed for.  Although committed to memory, my memory often fails me and I have prayed for just the opposite of what the printed collect says.  I have prayed that I might pass through things eternal so that I lose not the things temporal.  Even when the prayer is prayed rightly on Sunday morning (Trinity 3 in the one year series or Proper 24A in the three year series, LSB), I am sure that the people may be praying opposite the collect as well.  For it is our great temptation to value the things temporal more highly than the things eternal and it is our great weakness that we hope not to lose anything of this moment while at the same time holding onto the eternity which is ours in Christ.

But my insight into this is not original.  Remember C. S. Lewis who refers to this Collect with great skill when, in his sermon, “A Slip of the Tongue” (from Screwtape Proposes a Toast), we read:

Not long ago when I was using the collect for the fourth Sunday after Trinity in my private prayers I found that I had made a slip of the tongue. I had meant to pray that I might so pass through things temporal that I finally lost not the things eternal; I found that I had prayed so to pass through things eternal that I finally lost not the things temporal.

Lewis uses this occasion to speak in greater depth on the subject of prayer:
I come into the presence of God with a great fear lest anything should happen to me within that presence which will prove too intolerably inconvenient when I have come out again into my “ordinary” life. I don’t want to be carried away into any resolution which I shall afterwards regret … Even repentance of past acts will have to be paid for. By repenting one acknowledges them as sins – therefore not to be repeated. Better leave that issue undecided.

Our desire for the unknown things of eternity is well balanced by our fear of losing the things of this moment.  We often pray that we may have the best of both worlds, reducing eternity to the pie in the sky when you die and living in this moment as if faith did not matter and we mattered most.  There may have been a time when people lived in great expectation and anticipation of the day of the Lord but that is certainly not today.  Even when we pray "Thy kingdom come" we do not really want it to come -- at least not until we get done what we want to do, experience what we hope to experience, and spend down what we put away in our retirement accounts.  No, we want to possess eternity but a loose hold on eternity which will not keep us from fully indulging ourselves in the present moment.  We hold to the idea in principle but we live the rule of exceptions which are the norm.

Cranmer's well crafted version of the Latin collect, well preserved in Lutheran service books, reminds me of another favorite prayer.  This one is not a collect but the artfully written words of W. Harry Krieger.  He put the sentiment slightly differently in words but along the same plain of thought:

Teach me, O Lord, not to hold on to life too tightly.  Teach me to hold it lightly; not carelessly, but lightly, easily.  Teach me to take it as a gift, to enjoy and cherish while I have it, and to let go gracefully and thankfully when the time comes.  For the gift is great, but the Giver greater still.  You are the Giver, O Lord, and in You is the life that never dies; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen


Dr.D said...

I really do not see the problem, unless we say that people do not take their prayers seriously and actually mean the words that they pray. If that is the case, then we need a lot more teaching about honesty, sincerity, and truthfulness.

I am surprised at what you quote Lewis as having said. That seems out of character for him (I am not challenging your quote, only making an observation about it.) I don't think I have ever had this particular difficulty, so I find this hard to understand.

Perhaps this is a carry-over from daily life where people often say to one another things that they do not really mean, but only say them to be polite or sociable. From there, it is a short step to saying "polite" but insincere things to God. Oh, the trouble that can lead one into!!

I am inclined to think that that sort of thinking would reflect a real lack of faith, a doubt about the reality and omnipotence of God. If you do not really believe in Him, then there is little difficulty in being insincere and deceitful with Him. On the other hand, if you really believe that God is God, then you would not dare to do such a thing.

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Janis Williams said...

Isn't this the great problem in evangelicalism (including evangelical Lutherans)? The Word of Faith Heresy has reached even many conservative denominations (Baptist, for one).

The desire to be God is so obvious. Speak the correct positive words. and you will receive. Money, health, good kids, good jobs, good relationships are all the results of what we speak.

God is at our command. If we don't take charge of life, we tie God's hands.

Fr. D, I don't think it's so much that we don't believe; we don't believe enough. Like the man with the demon possessed son who cried, "Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!"

May God cure us of this idolatry. Those who expect their "Best Life Now" are facing Hell if they get what they want.

Unknown said...

Problem with the Latin. In the last line ut non should be ne as it is a negative purpose clauses. Ut non is for negative result clauses. I hope someone got fired for that.