Sunday, April 20, 2008

Easter IV

The collect for the fourth Sunday after Easter reads as follows:

O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Why is this such a great collect? I'm gilding the lilies even to talk about it, but I feel that not enough attention is paid to the great collects of the Prayer Book and that they deserve that we should stop and think about them and, of course, pray them.

Verbally, it is one of those works of liturgical genius which really cannot be improved upon--or at least can't be improved upon anymore. Cranmer translated it from the Latin, but in 1662 the Restoration Prayer Book revisers added the invocation "O God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men." As is so often the case with the Prayer Book, it is amazing that men spaced hundreds of years apart in history should have worked so well together to create the final product. Any sensible person nowadays should shudder at the words "liturgical revision." But the 1662 guys could put something in that really worked.

For the rest of the collect asks God to do something for us that we know from experience is very hard to do. Do we most of the time love and desire what we are commanded by God to love and desire? "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness..." Oh, bother the kingdom of God and righteousness! I want another cup of coffee! I want some potato chips and a fun book! I want some time to myself. I want lovely weather. I want a day off. I want, I want, I want. Not bad things. But not the kingdom of God, either. "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above....Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." (The epistle reading for Easter Day.) But how can I seek those things which are above, when I can't even picture them? I don't know what heaven will be like. I don't know what I'll be doing. I don't know what, exactly, it means to desire union with God or the Beatific Vision. So how do I set my affections on them and not on things on the earth?

And so forth. So the revisers were on to something when they put that bit in there about how God is the only one who can order our unruly wills and affections. And Cranmer describes, then, what we want God to do for us--make us love the things that God commands, and desire what God promises. To fix our hearts there where true joys are to be found.

What does God promise? That he will wipe away all tears from our eyes; that there will be no more death nor crying. That he will make us holy and like himself.

Sometimes we have to take it on faith that these are the true joys, because we don't naturally feel that way. Other times, it's easy. It doesn't matter. As Lewis said, our feelings are only things that happen to us. But our hearts are more than our feelings. Our hearts include our unruly wills. And that's why God sends so many sundry and manifold changes into the world. Or at least allows them. They make us long for the patria: "They confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. Wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he hath prepared for them a city."

What that means is that praying this collect may be inviting some unpleasantness in life, as unpleasantness does, unfortunately, seem sometimes to be required in order to make us love what God commands and desire what he promises. But part of the genius of the collect is that it works, like all great rhetoric, upon the emotions and will. Praying it quiets one's heart and makes one realize that, yes, indeed, true joys are to be found somewhere else, and we should desire to have them, whatever that takes.

So I offer you the collect for the fourth Sunday after Easter, which the editors of The Collects of Thomas Cranmer call "one of the high points of Anglican theology." And I hope it will be of value to you.


Vlastimil Vohánka said...

Thanks for this, Lydia.

Here's my favourite poem in return!

Lift Me, Lord

Lift me, Lord, for I fall and nothing stays me, loveless and heedless, without faith or fear. I long to rise but lie unmoving here: the very self that wishes disobeys me.

Though one, my self divides and then betrays me: at once both dead, alive; sad, full of cheer; not able—though I can—to persevere, I flee the sin that tangles and delays me.

So obstinate am I, so steeled in will, that fear of being lost and fear to lose you have never yet dissuaded me from ill.

Work, then, your power and mercy so I choose you, since I know some who mend each day—and still find in myself but fresh desire to bruise you.

Fray Miguel de Guevara, c. 1585-1646 Translated from the Spanish by Rhina P. Espaillat

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Vlastimil. It reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And also of the souls hanging around the outside of Purgatory in Dante's Purgatorio--those who delayed until the last moment. Belaqua, I think is the name of one that he meets.

Lynn said...

This post and the poem in the comment make me think of these lines I love from the hymn "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing."

O to grace how great a debtor Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness like a fetter Bind my wand'ring heart to Thee;
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, Lynn, that's the kind of connection I really love--between liturgy and hymnody. Excellent connection, and one I hadn't thought of before. Sorry for not responding sooner!