Evensong, Collect for Peace

O GOD, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed:  Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may pass our time in rest and quietness; Through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Lex orandis statuit legem credendi:  The rule of praying establishes the rule for believing.  Or more simply, we tend to believe what we pray.  The rule works both ways, of course, in that developments in doctrine tend to lead to changes in worship.  But the Anglican tradition is more than any other shaped by its liturgy, and it would be difficult to find a better illustration of this fact than the Collect for Peace from Evensong.

The address begins as simply as is possible:  ‘O God.’  But this simple beginning leads to a highly theological expansion with one of the triplets with which the Prayer Book abounds:  God is the one from whom proceed three named things, ‘all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works’.  Sometimes such groupings contain nearly synonymous elements, which teach us by the way they reflect on and modify or extend each other.  Here the grouping moves forward in accordance with the understanding of human moral action taught by classic moral theology, from desire, through counsel, to work.

First, the intellect perceives an object and the will inclines to or from it as good or bad, desirable or offensive, wished for or disliked.  The chocolate bar offered to the person with a sweet tooth is, let us say, perceived and known to be desirable and then is in fact desired.

The will, having been solicited to pursue some object by desire or appetite, gives way to consideration by the mind or intellect, which is what ‘counsel’ suggests.  So, to continue the example of the desired chocolate bar, while I want it on some level, reflection will consider what eating the chocolate bar might do positively and negatively.  It will provide calories through sugar which might give me some needed energy if I am hungry, but might harm my effort to lose weight or control diabetes.  Or, again, the chocolate bar might belong to someone else or it might be the last one in a dish of different sweets that my fellow dinner guests, one of whom is profoundly fond of chocolates, also will be offered.  All such considerations will enter into my decision concerning ultimate action, my process of consideration or counsel.

Finally, after desire and counsel, I act or choose.  Choice begins in a moral decision or intention:  ‘I am going to eat that chocolate bar’; ‘I am going to conceal the truth’; ‘I am going to help that lost child.’  This intention is the morally-significant moment.  But intentions then need to be implemented or acted upon, which happens when we effect our decisions.  This stage of the process is the ‘work’ or moral act, beginning in the intention of the will and then implemented outwardly.

The collect speaks of this entire process of moral action with simple, non-technical language, and does so by addressing God as the source of good moral decisions:  holy desires, good counsels, and just works.  There are evil desires, evil counsels, and evil works, but these proceed not from God but from disordered human desire, sinful influences, and, sometimes as well, from ignorance and misunderstanding.

The collect, then, addresses God under the aspect of his moral influence:  he is the source of all good works because he is the source of all good influences that lead to our final choices, intentions, and actions.  All of that is implied in the collect’s address.  By the time the collect gets to its petition, there can be little doubt about what the pray-er seeks:  peace.  Peace, if we believe that all good comes from God, can only flow from a firm alignment of our hearts with God’s commandments.  Any other choice will necessarily attach us to the opposite of peace, to hurtful desires, bad counsels, and unjust works.  But attachment to God’s will defends us from our real enemies, who are only enemies insofar as they oppose God’s goodness.  And then if our wills are aligned with God’s will, and if we are confident in God’s providential care, then ‘the fear of our enemies’ cannot disturb our ‘rest and quietness’.  Our enemies can never really, ultimately disturb our rest and quietness in God, in whom is no variableness or shadow of turning in his perfection.  But fear of our enemies, distrust in God’s providence, can disturb our peace.  So the collect at heart is an acknowledgement of God’s perfection, and a prayer that no disquietude may disturb our enjoyment thereof.

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