Sonnets of Prayer
During the discussions on Prayer-Book revision little was said about the Collects. These ancient prayers have a place by themselves in the affection of Church people, and it seems to be agreed that to touch them must be to run the risk of spoiling them. They give permanent expression to the awe and confidence of men who know that because in prayer they exercise the highest office of manhood, it is then that they are most conscious of their sins and weakness.
The Collects, which belong to the worship of the Western Church, and do not appear in the Eastern liturgies, may be traced at least to the middle of the fifth century. The origin of their name is uncertain. At some point in public worship, it is suggested, a prayer was used to sum up or collect in one petition the prayers of the congregation, and thus came to be called the Collect; or the name may recall the Collecta or Collectio, the assembly “collected” for public worship, and the first prayer offered was called the Collect. Whatever the source of their name, these short petitions are framed according to a recognized plan. In a Collect there is first the invocation, then the petition, and then the conclusion.
If the English Collects in the Prayer Book are compared with the Latin Collects an amazing likeness in unlikeness will be apparent. There is the same sense of disciplined faith, the same strong confidence conveyed with wonderful economy of words. Cranmer was a supreme master of the art of Collect translation and composition. Some of his English renderings rival, if they are not superior to, the Latin on which they depend. To the Collects derived from the old service books new ones were added, for though the English Reformers desired to preserve the ancient Collects, it was impossible for them to retain those, chiefly employed on Saints Days, which encouraged the practice, which they rejected, of the invocation of Saints. This explains why most of the new Collects in the first English Prayer Book were composed for Saints’ Days. The risk of making new Collects was great; but competent judges are ready to affirm that some of the new Collects in the first English Prayer Book are worthy to take their place with the noblest of the old ones. True Collects say so much in saying so little. They combine restraint of language with intensity of feeling, and how to give heed to the Preacher’s injunction, God is in Heaven, and thou upon earth, therefore let thy words be few.
Macaulay described the Collects as prayers which had soothed the griefs of forty generations of Christians. Some adequately equipped historian might well undertake to show how true that statement is. Writers have described incidents in history in which the Psalms have cheered the oppressed, comforted the sorrowful, and inspired those confronted with difficult and dangerous duty. Others have gleaned the records of the centuries to show the continuous offering by Christians of private prayer, thus binding the ages of Christendom into one circle of devotion. It would be of real interest if some competent scholar would bring together the occasions on which the Collects have given men the fitting phrase or created the suitable temper for the worship of the one God and Father of all.
The habitual use of the Church’s Collects is an evident sign of our part in the Communion of Saints. For fifteen centuries these prayers have guided the devotions of the most saintly men and women of Christendom. In these words they have commended themselves with their hopes and fears, their sorrows and their joys to the love of the All-merciful Father. They retain the spirit of devotion which first gave them life. Still they rouse the careless, guide the perplexed, and give speech to the dumb; still they develop the sense of fellowship as they encourage each member of the congregation to take his part in the united offering of urgent appeal or humble confession to Him who is ever ready to hear the prayers of His people. Though they were composed for use in the congregation, the lonely, sorrowful, and puzzled man in secret audience of the Most High with these prayers on his lips finds the fittest expression of his own needs and desires. The Collects serve the needs of all who pray whether with others or alone.
Though not all prayer can be with advantage shaped in Collect form, and there are daily occasions when men must offer their prayers in their own way, in words minted at the moment, we do well to turn to this ancient treasury of devotion. The Collects lose nothing of their virtue with the lapse of time. True poems of devotion they express with rare dignity and beauty the holiest thoughts and highest aspirations. They are the sonnets of prayer. Offered in Church today they are reminders of the permanence of human need and Divine love. The guide of beginners in their first approach to God, the Collects prove to be adequate and entirely congruous with the experience of those who have spent a long life in the high ministry of prayer. They are the Church’s own prayers, enticing its children by their directness, their simplicity, their pathos, and their complete sincerity, to make a living sacrifice of petition and thanksgiving to God. These ancient Collects have dowered Christian prayer with the grace of beauty and given it the strength of complete trust in Divine goodness.