Last night, we celebrated the Great Litany before Solemn Vespers. We used a somewhat shortened version of the litany itself, but I did insist on keeping the very long Collect in place at the end As the presiding priest, I offered this prayer in Latin, and my own translation was distributed to the congregation to allow everyone to follow along. The very lengthiness of this sort of liturgy is part of its effect. We have gotten used to shortening our liturgical celebrations ‘for pastoral reasons’, but as I practiced the Collect, I began to wonder if there isn’t something eminently pastoral in exposing the faithful (myself included) to the style, rhythm and mode of prayer that was common in liturgies in the past and is still more of the norm today outside of the Roman Rite.
We do not know how to pray as we ought. And yet, already when I was a child of eight or so, our assistant pastor taught us in religion class just to talk to God, to go beyond rote prayers. Now this same good priest taught us the Memorare and other similar prayers. These could obviously serve as models. But as we get older and our understanding of God becomes a bit more sophisticated, as we are challenged to give an account of the hope that we have, our understanding of what prayer is will almost necessarily undergo a salutary kind of change. This will happen if we are insistent and even importunate in our prayer, but also if our understanding of God is adequate to our lives. James warns us about asking, but not asking rightly. How do we tell the difference?
The Collect from the Great Litany gives us an approved manner of approaching God with confidence and even boldness. How do we begin?
” God, whose nature it is to be merciful and sparing, receive our prayers that we and all who are near to you, whom the chains of sinfulness bind, may be set free by your merciful kindness.”
What kind of God are we addressing? This is a God for whom mercy is proprium, His own proper quality. My translation here with the word ‘nature’ risks being misleading, since natura is a technical theological word. But I’m not an academic theologian, and my hope is that the translation ‘whose nature it is’ will more viscerally help others to recognize the strength of this important affirmation, which is the heart of this entire prayer. God doesn’t just decide to be merciful once in a while when it strikes Him. He is Mercy. It falls to us to make a claim on this mercy by our own humble admission of our need for just such a God. Who are we? Those who have acknowledged ourselves as constrained (constringit) by the chains of sin. The Latin catena, it should be noted, not only connotes the sort of chain that binds, but also the chain that is a series of links. The medievals enjoyed writing up catenae of scriptural passages, more like what we might think of as garlands. Not that sins produce anything so benign as a garland; my point is that our chains are forged one sin at a time, often when we are unaware. God’s power toward these chains is expressed in the Latin absolvat, which in English becomes the moralistic and legalistic words ‘absolve’ and ‘absolution’. This is somewhat unfortunate. The root of the Latin word connotes unbinding, loosening and freeing rather than removing some kind of stain or legal deficit. The touching image of “Mary, Undoer of Knots” gets at the loving image that we should have of a patient, caring God. Except that we limit this work of untying to His creature. Have we forgotten that this is God’s work, what He wills to do for us, albeit often through the merits of the saints?
So this is where prayer begins. We recognize Who God is and who we are (let us not forget that we are also called “[those] who are near to You!), and what our relationship is meant to be like. Like the high priest of the old temple, who first offered sacrifice to purify himself, so that he might more worthily offer sacrifice for the rest of Israel, we priestly people begin prayer with an admission of our need for mercy, that we may more fittingly intercede on behalf of the world.
There is much more to learn in this Collect. We shall endeavor to work our way through it.