O LORD, we beseech thee, let thy continual pity cleanse and defend thy Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without thy succour, preserve it evermore by thy help and goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, etc.
The address is very simple: ‘O Lord’.
The collect quickly moves to the petition. The collects are spoken by the celebrant at the Eucharist (‘Then shall the Priest say the Collect’) or the officiant at Morning or Evening Prayer. Though an individual voices the prayer, collects are the prayer of a group: ‘this thy family’ (Good Friday), ‘thy faithful people’ (Trinity XIII), ‘we’ (Trinity XIV). Here, as also in the previous week’s collect, the identity of the group is explicitly ecclesial: the ‘we’ who beseech God are ‘thy Church’. For Catholic Christians prayer, like Bible-reading, is in the first instance a group activity, the act of a community rather than of an isolated individual. The central location of the collect is not the private individual at his prayer desk but a community in church. Even when an individual reads a collect in the privacy of his or her room or study, he does so in unity with the Church: either he anticipates what he will hear at Mass, or he repeats what he already heard in public worship, or at least he prays in knowledge that the prayer is regularly used in the Church’s public worship.
The collects usually begin with priorities set correctly: God’s nature or work usually comes before the human response. The Church’s prayer rests in and is thoroughly conditioned by God. Often the aspect or attributes of God that are most relevant for a given collect are stated in the address. In this collect, however, God’s ‘continual pity’ and its regular effects (to ‘cleanse and defend’ the Church) are stated in the petition.
The reader notes by the way the assonance and symmetry of the phrase, ‘cleanse and defend’. In the two verbs a hard consonantal sound (‘cl-’ and ‘d-’) precedes an ‘n’ sound which in turn terminates in another consonant. In between the verbs ‘and’ provides a third intermediate ‘n’. The first and fourth syllables are stressed, the middle two are not. It is a very simple phrase, but balanced and pleasing.
Given the divine priority, this collect asserts the centrality of God’s ‘pity’ and its ‘continual’ character. Pity is closely related to the attribute of mercy, which is more often mentioned in the collects. God’s mercy refers to his love in relation to human sinfulness. Pity is slightly different: it refers to God’s love in relation to human misery. Our misery is a consequence of sinfulness, broadly understood, which is why mercy and pity are closely related. Our misery comes both from our own personal sin and also from the harmful effects of sin in general in our fallen world. God’s pity is continual, constant, and ongoing, because our misery, inflicted by us upon ourselves, by us upon others, and by others upon us, is also continual, constant, and ongoing. As in all analogical language about God, ‘pity’ refers not to an emotion or a changeable quality in God, but to his fixed nature. God’s absolute and unchanging being is unfailingly and absolutely loving, and that love when it meets fallen human nature is analogous to that human quality we call pity.
God’s love towards us even in our fallen state was preeminently shown in our Incarnate Lord and now is preeminently present in the Church, the continuation of Christ’s presence in human time and space. While the Church partakes of her Lord’s perfection, she also is composed of weak human beings and exists in a hostile world. The Church suffers both wounds that are seemingly self-inflicted and also wounds that are inflicted by a world that hates Christ’s body as it hated Christ himself. Therefore, the Church ‘cannot continue in safety without [God’s] succour’. The Church only endures because it is preserved by her Lord’s ‘help and goodness’. Once again, God’s goodness is an analogical term for his absolute, essential, unchanging nature in relation to our highly contingent, variable, and changing selves and souls and world. God’s goodness is invariable, but his ‘help’, as it comes to us in a changing world, appears in constantly changing guises. But in all its many forms, the divine help is meant to preserve the Church in as much safety as possible. We resist that help, but the grace of God is mightier still.