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Almighty and everlasting God,

you are always more ready to hear than we to pray

and to give more than either we desire or deserve:

pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy,

forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things

 which we are not worthy to ask

but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

A friend pointed out last week that the collect prayer being said during the office was particularly striking, and on reading it more closely (as well as hearing it said at Mass), I noticed the way it plays with the generic structure of a collect. It’s an unusual genre, requiring that a series of elements and verbal “moves” be worked through during a single sentence.  This example challenges and enacts ideas about prayer itself during the saying of it, in ways that we might be more used to encountering when reading poetry.  A collect usually consists of:

Almighty and Everlasting God

An invocation, addressing God and making clear which person of the Trinity the prayer is directed towards.

you are always more ready to hear than we to pray

and to give more than either we desire or deserve:

An acknowledgement, mentioning particular aspects of God which are connected to the purpose of the prayer. This is often phrase as “O God, who…”, though in this case it is addressed directly to God “you are…

pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy,

The petition, in which those praying ask God for something, or to do something.

forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things

which we are not worthy to ask

An aspiration, showing what we hope might happen as a result of the petition.

but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

The pleading, in which Christ is brought into the prayer, as part of the tradition that Christ is a “mediator” in God’s relationship with humans. It also connects with the idea that Christians pray “in Christ”, and that part of prayer is the Holy Spirit rising up through them and drawing them towards God.

Amen.

The response of those praying.

This collect both follows the standard generic structure, and uses it to make some variations. On a basic level, the line “which we are not worthy to ask” shifts subtly between the aspiration (what the prayer hopes will happen as God’s mercy is poured out, and describing the good things which will be given) and the pleading (part of the definition of those things is that they cannot be asked for except through and in Jesus).

The acknowledgement also highlights a tension in what we’re doing in praying: the verbal structure of petition can sound as if we’re borrowing a tenner from a friend or asking for a favour. We’re used to organising requests around what we want, why we need it, how thankful we would be, and what we might do in return.  Here, the prayer almost forestalls itself by acknowledging God as having reversed the social conventions of asking, hearing, and giving.  It suggests there might be things which prevent us from wanting to pray and stand before God: feeling awkward or uncertain, perhaps, or unsatisfied with ourselves and our lives.  It is the asker who is a bit hesitant or ambivalent, not the giver.  This is underlined by the chiasmus of “more ready to hear” and “to give more”, in which “more” becomes both an attitude and a quantity, both the situation before the prayer begins and the potential results of it.

This disruption of the normal understanding of a request makes clear that whatever else might be going on during prayer, it isn’t a transaction. We’re not swapping our time and attention for something we want, or trading in virtues for favours.  It also gesture towards the idea that we aren’t the initiator of this process, that our turning to God in prayer is a response to what is already going on.

Within the parallel structure in the acknowledgement – the lines about hearing and giving – is contained another parallel, set up by the verbal echo of “desire or deserve”. Both verbs relating to asking again, and like the “more”, associated with both sides of the asking process, with what we might want before asking, and how we might measure up after we’ve asked.  The similarity in sound brings them together in an ironic tension: their sonic closeness underlines how far apart we probably feel them to be much of the time.  When pronounced, they both start from that same sound, but “desire” opens up the mouth on vistas of possibility and leaves the lips apart, whilst “deserve” pulls the muscles back in, closing off the motion and muffling the end of the final syllable with teeth tucked into the lower lip.  The tension between these two words stages verbally the problems involved in asking and giving, and sets them aside as something which God’s grace has rendered irrelevant.

The unspecified “things” on our conscience connect to the odd suggestion of unwillingness in asking, and the use of “afraid” is a shrewd touch. Not things which our conscience contains or is weighed down by, which we have measured and understood and evaluated as bad to a certain and unpleasant extent.  Things which our conscience is “afraid” of, which it hasn’t really faced up to, which we can’t bring ourselves to enumerate or fully acknowledge until we can do so in God’s mercy and presence.  The collect dramatizes this feeling by refusing to name or specify them, allowing each individual to recognise them silently in themselves (or not) whilst sketching the situation out loud.  “Forgiving those things” is paralleled by “giving us those good things”, with the syllable taken away from “forgiving” added in “good things” balancing the lines metrically whilst implying the rhythm of taking and giving which the collect hopes will flow from God.

The good things are left as undescribed as the ominous things threatening the conscience, but for a slightly different reason. Whilst the ominous things are unspecified to highlight the way this prayer is itself part of coming to terms with them, the good things are not detailed because the prayer asserts, “we are not worthy to ask/ but through the mediation and merits/ of Jesus Christ”.  Once again the collect’s form enacts what it claims to refer to, insisting via its structure that whatever we are not worthy to ask for won’t be mentioned in the process of asking.

That bridge line, “which we are not worthy to ask” ensures that the pleading is not merely the “yours faithfully” of a formal request, but part of the prayer’s dynamic shape. The mention of the name and action of Jesus Christ grammatically supplies the meaning which has been left suspended through “those things” and “which we”, weaving it into the sentence as a necessary part of the whole.  As the sentence comes to a conclusion we realize that Christ, the Spirit and the unity of God have been conceptually hovering, so to speak, during the whole process, and the logical and poetic coherence of the collect has depended upon their presence.

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