ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord, etc.
The beginning of the address to God is typical of the Prayer Book: ‘Almighty and everlasting God’. So also begin, for example, the collects for Christmas I, Epiphany II and III, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Trinity Sunday, Trinity XIV, the thanksgiving after Holy Communion, and the prayer for the Clergy and People in the daily Offices. To this list of collects which begin with this address one might add the closely similar ‘Almighty and everliving God’, which begins a number of other Prayer Book collects and prayers. Before God is addressed in relation to the worshipper, he is named with two of his attributes: omnipotence and eternity.
These qualities, which emphasize God’s infinitude and his contrast with his creation, make all the more striking the two divine tendencies that are noted in the distinctive second part of the address: ‘always more ready to hear than we to pray’ and ‘wont to give more than either we desire or deserve’. God’s condescension to us is itself rooted in what theologians call his impassibility: his unchangeable, unalterable, unmoving, eternal perfection. God does not become or change but absolutely is. Yet it is God’s eternal, unchanging, unalterable nature already to encompass what we need or ask according to his will. From our point of view God is ‘ready to hear’, in fact ‘more ready to hear than we to pray’. From God’s side, our prayers are already known, our hearts are already open, and our true good is already included in his eternal, unchanging, providential will.
God’s generosity is, astonishingly said to be ‘more than either we desire or deserve’. Christians, at least in moments of humility, must know that God’s generosity is greater than what we deserve. But that it should be more than we desire is unexpected. What Ecclesiastes calls the ‘wandering of desire’, after all, is infinite. The human heart seems always to want more: it is restless and will remain so unless it can obtain satisfaction in an infinite object. How then can God be wont to give more than we desire in our insatiableness? The answer lies in God’s perfect knowledge. God knows what makes for our true and eternal good, what will make us happy as we cannot make ourselves happy and as no finite object can make us happy. Anything that we desire from the imaginations of our hearts, any finite object in the universe, will be less (and less perfectly) apt than the perfect and perfectly fitted gifts that God wills for us. Our disordered desire is always imperfect, because it desires that which is less than the best and because it seeks to achieve that which is good in a less than perfectly apt manner. God, however, wills both the best end for us and also the best means possible for achieving that end. So God’s gift is better than we desire.
The nature of these best ends intended by God, which are implied in the address of the collect, is spelled out in the petition.
The collect has two alliterative pairs: ‘desire or deserve’ and ‘merits and mediation’. The first, ‘desire or deserve’, is a contrasting double: desire and deserve are two different, distinguishable verbs. What I desire may not only be different from, but might even be the opposite of, what I deserve. The second pair is pleonastic rather than contrasting: ‘merits and mediation’. Christ’s merits are the engine that empowers his mediation between God and man. The two items are theoretically distinguishable but in fact are intimately related as cause and intrinsic effect.
The three other parallel terms or pleonastic phrases in the collect are not alliterative but have other parallel qualities. First, ‘almighty and everlasting’ are both long, Germanic words with initial vowels. Next, ‘ready to hear…and…wont to give’ both have parallel adjectives (‘ready’ / ‘wont’) followed by infinitives (‘to hear’ / ‘to give’). Finally, the phrases beginning ‘forgiving us…giving us’ have an initial or head rhyme (‘forgiving us’ / ‘giving us’) and make a theological point: God’s gift to us (‘good things’) comes because of his prior act of forgiveness through his merits and mediation. Grace comes from Christ’s merits and the forgiveness that those merits produce.
This order of divine act leading to human benefit is in fact the request made in the collect’s petition. First, the collect asks God to ‘pour down upon us the abundance of [his] mercy’. Secondly, the collect asks for the double result of the divine mercy: ‘forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid’ and ‘giving us those good things that we are not worthy to ask’. The divine initiative or grace, given God’s impassibility and unchangeableness, is not a kind of change of mind in God or something elicited by us either directly or indirectly. Rather God’s mercy is there ‘always’: it is God’s nature and property. The results of that grace in us depend on our willingness to accept the gift, but intrinsically those results are forgiveness and other ‘good things’ which become possible for the forgiven Christian.