Angles on the Liturgy | part 2

The collect for purity

This is the second in a series of short reflections on our communion liturgy, in which the insights of several writers will be shared. This series will help us to lay a firmer hold on what it is we do together on Sunday night.


ne of the first bits of liturgical prayer that is offered in our Sunday liturgy is something called “the collect for purity.” The word “collect” means just what your instincts are telling you it means; it is a prayer to collect us into common worship. The words of that prayer, which we either say together or sing in the setting Gord Johnson has written for our use, are:


Almighty God,
To you all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hidden.
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy name;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.


In his wonderful little book Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner offers the following words about his prayer:

Our secrets are not hid from God, says the ancient collect, but they are hid from each other, and some of them we so successfully hide even from ourselves that after a while we all but forget they exist.

Buechner’s book – which is among my all-time favourites – is a sustained reflection on the way in which the family secrets of his childhood had bound up his whole life, even bleeding into his marriage and the lives of his own children.

If somebody had asked me as a little boy of eight or nine, say, what my secrets were, I wonder if I would have thought to list among them a father who at parties drank himself into a self I could hardly recognize as my father, and a mother who in her rage could say such wild and scathing things to him that it made the very earth shake beneath my feet when I heard them, and a two-and-a-half years younger brother who for weeks at a time would refuse to get out of bed because bed, I suspect, was the only place he knew in the whole world where he felt safe.

Buechner then goes on to reflect on his father’s suicide, and how that became the biggest secret of all, and the one that most shut down his emotions.

“Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit,” the collect goes, “that we may perfectly love” of not thee, because we are such a feckless and faithless crowd most of us, then at least ourselves, at least each other. If, as someone has said, we are as sick as our secrets, then to get well is to air those secrets if only in our own hearts, which the prayer asks God himself to air and cleanse. When our secrets are guilty secrets, like the burden I had unwittingly placed on my own children, we can start to make amends, to change what can be changed; we can start to heal.

These brief excerpts don’t do justice to Buechner’s insights, and in fact one really needs to read the whole book in order to digest all that he has to say. But they do give some hint of what is at stake when we dare to name God as the one who knows our most secret and hidden selves, and to ask that we be cleansed, that we be made whole. As a point of entry into worship, this is dangerous, unsettling and ultimately liberating stuff.

Jamie Howison

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