The Collects as a School for Prayer
The Fear of God
In the Psalms we are constantly reminded that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. This ‘fear of God’ is not at all like the sudden impulse of being frightened by a dangerous situation or someone’ s violent behaviour. Rather, it derives from another attitude of the psalmist: ‘Be still, and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46: 1 0).
We all have this capacity just by virtue of being human. We can let go of the restless movements of mind and body, and become conscious of the most fundamental of all facts of life and existence; that we are surrounded and supported by a Presence and Power which is something other than ourselves, God in fact. Certainly it takes some practice and self-discipline to drop off all that busyness of mind and body; yet our realisation of what it means to be human depends upon being still and knowing God. For to know something of God is to realise that we are not self-existent. We are his creatures, brought into being, and held in being, solely by his loving will, that we should so exist in relationship to himself
Perhaps our thoughts about our own existence have never gone beyond the physical facts of our birth from our parents. But we, and they, and the very existence of the world which supports our physical life, depend entirely upon the will of God to bring all of this into existence. In respect to God we have no ‘rights’ over ourselves. God alone exists in and from himself, and that most fundamental of all facts concerning his mode of existence, cannot be grasped by our creaturely minds. We can only learn from the actual experience of being in relationship to him.
You could say that this experience – and surely we have all been created with a spiritual capacity for this – is the ground of our humility. The pride of life, which Scripture warns us against, sets in when we imagine that we are independent of our Creator and his revelation of what is good or bad for us. He has his purpose for his creation; that in the End it should be made new to manifest his glory and that we humans should discover our status as newborn sons and daughters of God.
The ‘fear of God’ then, which we are assured is the beginning of wisdom, is a reverent realisation that we are creatures of God, called to conform ourselves to his word and purpose. We need to cultivate this respectful relationship to our Creator, since the dominant attitude to life in the world around us would make us forget him as our Source and Goal.
To help us develop the attitude of humility in truth in relation to God, we have a major resource in the Collects from the Book of Common Prayer. It is good to know that they will henceforth be used more extensively along with the new Calendar and Lectionary, recently adopted for use in the Church of England.
These prayers have a long history, some of them dating from the early centuries of the church in Rome. Take this one, for example, provided for Trinity 2 in the B.C.P.:
O Lord, who never fails to help and govern those whom you bring up in your steadfast fear and love: keep us, we beseech you, under the protection of your good providence, and make us to have a perpetual fear and love of your holy Name.
This prayer eases us into the presence of God, first by expressing confidence in his good will towards ourselves. As a good and competent Father he is helping and governing us, bringing us up to respect and to love him, since he keeps us under the protection of his good providence. There is much here for further meditation. Perceiving then something more of the wonder of his fatherly providence, we pray that we may remain within this relationship through cultivating a perpetual fear and love of his holy Name.
The Father reveals himself in and through the holy Name of his beloved Son, Jesus. We could then continue our prayer, repeating the ‘Jesus Prayer’ to hold our attention: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, take pity on me a sinner.
Here is another splendid example from Easter 5:
O Lord, from whom all good things do come: grant to us your humble servants, that by your holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by your merciful guiding may perform the same.
St. Paul reminds us that all things do indeed work together for good to those who love God. How much we need to hold on to that thought amidst the perplexities of life in an unbelieving world! We can be confident then, that by keeping our minds humble in the spirit of the Beatitudes, God will inspire our minds with such good and trusting thoughts.
Fr. Gregory is Superior of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.