Week of the Sunday from August 14 to August 20
Keep your Church, O Lord, by your perpetual mercy; and because without you the frailty of our nature causes us to fall, keep us from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable for our salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The Church is miserable.
I don’t normally exposit the content of a collect out of order, but the following phrase from our prayer this week jumped out at me:
without you the frailty of our nature causes us to fall…
Granted, this portion of the prayer feels particularly timely, given the infuriating and heartbreaking news this week of Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania who abused some 1,000 children over the course of decades, aided and abetted by their bishops as they did so.
However, we don’t need a particular news story to convince us of the truth of this admission: without God, every human being is prone to wander, stumble, and fall.
We are, in other words, “miserable,” especially within the Church.
Consider the following confession for sin from the Daily Office in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind In Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
Now, when we have the shameful news of child-abusing priests on our mind, the phrase “miserable offenders” seems to need little explanation. But, what about the rest of us, the rest of the time, when we don’t feel (like we’ve done anything) miserable?
I agree with C.S. Lewis on this point when he says:
I do not think whether we are feeling miserable or not matters. I think [the Prayer Book] is using the word miserable in the old sense — meaning an object of pity.
I also love his explanation of how we can be objects of pity without feeling miserable:
That a person can be a proper object of pity when he is not feeling miserable, you can easily understand if you imagine yourself looking down from a height on two crowded express trains that are traveling towards one another along the same line at 60 miles an hour. You can see that in forty seconds there will be a head-on collision. I think it would be very natural to say about the passengers of these trains, that they were objects of pity. This would not mean that they felt miserable themselves; but they would certainly be proper objects of pity. I think that is the sense in which to take the word ‘miserable.’
So, the upshot of all this is:
The Prayer Book does not mean that we should feel miserable but that if we could see things from a sufficient height above we should all realize that we are in fact proper objects of pity.
The Church is filled with miserable people. Sometimes, on weeks like this one, we feel miserable. However, even on better weeks, we are objectively miserable—we are objects of God’s mercy.
Yet, God is merciful.
Thankfully, the main thing that our collect this week affirms to be true about God is that he is merciful.
Keep your Church, O Lord, by your perpetual mercy;
What does it mean that God is merciful? I like the way that Psalm 103 explains it. Consider verses 8 to 14:
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.
Thanks be to God for his mercy to us miserable offenders!
We need God to teach, keep, and lead us.
We are miserable, but God is merciful.
With that in mind, what are we actually requesting in this prayer?
Keep your Church, O Lord, by your perpetual mercy;
keep us from all things hurtful, and lead us to all things profitable for our salvation;
Although it’s only implied in the prayer, the first thing we’re asking God for is that he would teach us. Specifically, that he would teach us which things in life are hurtful and which things are profitable.
Otherwise, on our own, we will pursue hurtful things as though they were profitable, and vice versa. We will understand “profitable” in a worldly way, rather than a godly way.
But we need more than knowledge, of course. We need God actively to keep us from hurtful things and lead us toward profitable things. In addition to divine instruction, we need divine intervention.
What do you need to be kept from and led toward this week?
It is, perhaps, easier to apply this prayer to the obvious evils of clergy sex abuse than to some of the more subtle evils we encounter in the mundane details of our lives.
So, as we cry out to God to protect his Church and provide it with faithful leaders who will do the same, let’s also ask him to protect us from hurtful things, lead us toward profitable things, and give us the wisdom to tell the difference between the two.