By Peter Bayer
The Collect is one of the oldest and most universal forms of prayer in the church. The Roman liturgy uses three prayers of the form, the Collect, Secret (in preparation for communion), and the Postcommunion. These prayers generally change for each Sunday and major holy day. They are generally very ancient. One finds the same Collects in both Roman and Anglican liturgies; although in the Book of Common Prayer there are special collects which Cranmer composed for Advent and Ash Wednesday, and in the Roman Missal one finds newer collects than those in the Book of Common Prayer, composed by the council fathers at Trent. Also, of course, there were new collects composed for the Roman feasts of later origin. The Book of Common Prayer has seasonal collects, which the Roman liturgy does not. Thus in the Book of Common Prayer the collect for Ash Wednesday is read throughout Lent, and the collect for the first Sunday of Advent is read throughout that season.
All collects follow a certain set structure of three parts. As an example, let us take the collect for Easter week, which is an example of one of the ancient collects Cranmer translated.
Almighty God, who through thine only-
begotten Son, Jesus Christ hast overcome
death and opened unto us the gate of everlasting
life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy
special grace though dost put into our minds good
desires, so by thy continual help we may bring
the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the
Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.
or in the Roman Latin (only used on Easter Sunday itself),
Deus qui hodierna die per Unigenitum tuum,
aeternitatis nobis aditum devicta morte reserasti:
vota nostra, quae praeveniendo aspiras, etiam
adjuvando prosequere. Per Dominum nostrum
Jesum Christum, Filium tuum, qui tecum vivit et
regnat per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
In this collect the three parts fall at the colon, life: We, and the semicolon, effect; through. The first part is an invocation addressed to God the Father, and has two parts, the direct address Almighty God (Deus), and the reason for this prayer from who to life (qui-reserasti). This latter division always recounts the reason for the holy day, and serves to introduce the petition in the next part. It also always follows the structure of a relative clause who (qui) etc., since it is a work of God. Occasionally a collect is addressed to God the Son, in which case the relative clause refers to him.
The second part also falls into two divisions, the words of petition, in this case, We humbly beseech thee , and the petition itself from that to effect (vota-prosequere). The petition here asks God to further the grace he has already granted. This as by . . . so by parallelism is not uncommon in this part of a collect (in the Latin quae+gerund . . . etiam+gerund). The invocation introduces the petition; in this collect as God has opened heaven, and granted us grace to reach there, we ask him to complete the work he has begun. The collect also serves to introduce the themes of the readings. The petition is always asked in the first person plural (we), signifying that it is the petition of the whole church.
Finally the third part (through (Per)-amen) concludes the prayer by invoking the name which is above all other names, “so that”, as the Lord says, “whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (Jn.15:16). It is also a sort of concluding doxology or act of worship, as it acknowledges God’s eternal Kingship. It also declares the doctrine of the Trinity. If the prayer is addressed to God the Son, it takes the form “who livest and reignest with God the Father in etc.” (qui vivis et regnas cumdeo Patri in etc.); maintaining its doxological-doctrinal form, but of course not mentioning the name, as the person is being addressed.
There is a certain poetical metrical quality to these prayers. They have a very clearly set form involving sets of parallels. They also have a certain cadence. Cranmer’s carefully constructed English conveys the meter of the Latin in its own rythm. In the Latin there are often hints such as the word reserasti, which is a contracted form of reseravisti. This sort of contraction would only be used in poetry. Thus the collect is sort of poem, both in its highly regulated form, and in its meter, which follows that form.
All Christian art serves to awaken the proper emotions in man’s heart. Thus it is fitting that a prayer should use an artful poetical form. It makes use of the beauty of the poetical art to arouse man’s affections, and direct them to their proper purpose, the worship of God.