My wife recently asked me what my favorite prayer was. Interesting question. We are both Episcopal priests, steeped in a tradition of eloquent prayers, so there were plenty to choose from (the Lord’s Prayer was ruled ineligible in order to make the competition fair). But one particular “collect” from the Book of Common Prayer came immediately to mind, not only because I know it by heart and begin most days with it, but also because I am drawn to the theology and spirituality that underlie it.
O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[i]
In three beautiful clauses, this Collect for the Renewal of Life from the Office of Morning Prayer spans the daily round from night to day to night. Its origins lie in the Benedictine practice of creating liturgies to fit each period of the passing day. Like time-lapse photography, this collect compresses the temporal flow into a single unity of beginning, middle and end. The ordinary succession of the hours is sanctified by the simple act of attention.
But the prayer casts its net into deeper pools as well. The light dividing the day from the night recalls the first day of creation, making every dawn the renewal of the world. And the shadow of death turning into morning invokes the Resurrection, when creation is restored and the wound of death is healed at last.
Having turned our attention to the divine source of this perpetual renewal, the prayer then asks for the grace to become conformed to the shaping pattern or formative way of that originating and empowering source. The first request addresses the obstacles to that conformity – the things that misshape or distort our truest selves.
Drive far from us all wrong desires.
Religion is sometimes caricatured as the repression of desire. It’s not only the mockers who do this; many of the devout have striven for a passionless existence in imitation of a supposedly passionless God. But wanting to want nothing is itself a form of desire, and it doesn’t always end well.
We are made of desire. We come into the world reaching for a larger source of sustenance, nurture and love. Everbody’s got a hungry heart. Springsteen said that. Or was it St. Augustine? Some argue that our primal maternal nurturing is then projected onto the void to produce the consolations of religion, but Christian faith insists that our longing never ceases to thirst for something actual and real, from our first breath to our last.
But desire is easily misdirected to fix on easier, less demanding objects, unworthy of our true nature. In one of Jean-Luc Godard’s early films, a worldly couple is given a ride in a convertible. When the driver reveals that he happens to be God, they immediately ask him for things: Can I own a hotel on Miami Beach? Can you make me more beautiful? God is disgusted. “Is that all you want? I don’t do miracles for jerks like you.” He throws them out of the car and drives away.
As Gregory of Nyssa said, our task is not the eradication of desire, but the education of desire. How do we live in such a way that our desire may find its proper object? It is not desire that is wrong, but only its misdirection. And so we pray for whatever it takes to steer us toward our ultimate goal, “the great meeting with being which one way or another everything in our life strains to achieve.”[ii]
Incline our hearts to keep your law,
and guide our feet into the way of peace.
There may be times in our life when God’s will feels radically disruptive. “Thus says the Lord: I am going to tear down what I have built, and pluck up what I have planted.” (Jer. 45:4) Or John Donne: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God …. / and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”
But in this prayer said at the start of each day, “incline” and “guide” propose a much gentler formational process than the cataclysmic upheavals of Jeremiah and Donne. An inclination may only be a slight tipping from the vertical, just enough so everything leans or flows in a particular direction. And the act of guiding does not itself create momentum; it only steers a motion which is already underway. These are subtler influences than earthquake, wind and fire, but their long-term effect on us is no less profound.
The entire prayer assumes a dailiness about grace, and the constancy of prayerful attention that allows it to work on us over time. This quiet, steady, cumulative spirituality is so very Anglican. I once found a perfect motto for this habitual spirituality in an old English church. Painted in golden Gothic lettering, repeated in every panel of the coffered ceiling, are the words, Grace me guide. Even a bored worshipper, glancing upward to relieve the tedium of a poor sermon, could not miss this summons to the beauty of holiness.
The prayer’s third clause assumes a happy outcome for a day given over to God’s shaping influence. Throughout the passing hours, God’s will is done “with cheerfulness.” Does this word appear anywhere else in the history of formal Christian prayer? There are plenty of texts to remind us how hard the journey, how recalcitrant the will. But how rare to make the Christian life sound so easy, so effortless, so fun!
But perhaps the prayer has in mind the ease of the ballet dancer, whose extraordinary physical grace, while appearing effortless, is achieved through a sometimes painful and always demanding discipline. Or maybe “cheerfulness” refers to the saintly joy that St. Francis spoke of – the ability to accept even life’s hardest blows with a grateful and trusting heart. Who can say? I only know that whenever I say this prayer, it is hard not to smile, at least inwardly. Cheerfulness is an attractive quality in the Christian life.
The entire prayer assumes that we are capable, that we can be conformed to divine intention, that this day has potential for us. We may not make it to nightfall without lapses major and minor. The cheerfulness may fail us, more than once. We are well acquainted with that scenario. But to begin each morning by visualizing a day that will end with thanksgiving for what God has done in us and through us – this expresses the incredible hope of Christian faith. God has amazing plans for us, no matter what.
The gratitude the prayer envisions is not contingent on what we manage to accomplish in any given day. Perfection is a process, not a possession. But as this prayer puts it so beautifully, we are nevertheless invited to begin each morning as if we are actually capable of living into the full humanity for which are made. And at the close of a day begun with this kind of mindfulness, even though it be fraught with imperfections, there will be reason enough for thanksgiving.
Saying this prayer was one of the very last things I did with my mother. I had been visiting her in Santa Barbara, and it was always our custom to read Morning Prayer whenever we were together. After our prayers, we said farewell and I headed for home a thousand miles north. A few hours after I left, her 96-year-old heart suddenly gave out. She died three days later. I didn’t quite make it back in time, but we had already made the perfect goodbye, with the cheerfulness of our morning prayers.
We each had our own copy of The Daily Office Book, containing services and Scripture readings for the entire year. After she died, I started using her copy instead of mine. It seemed a way to stay in touch, acknowledging the unbroken connection of the communion of saints. And one day I happened to look at the inside back cover. She had written a prayer on the blank endpaper. Whether she had made it up, or found it somewhere, I don’t know. But it perfectly expressed her own faithful spirit. It also seemed to echo my own favorite prayer. In her distinctive hand, familiar from so many letters over the years, she had written:
God, whatever …. Thanks.
[i] Book of Common Prayer (New York, Oxford University Press, 1979) 99
[ii] Ann & Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983) 14