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The Collect as informal, even personal prayer
Collect (as a noun, with the accent on the first syllable) is a special type of prayer. The name comes from the Latin oratio ad collectam, or prayer upon assembly. In liturgical traditions, the Collect is one of the prayers in the Proper. That is, one particular Collect (or a choice from two or more particular Collects) is proper for each day in the church calendar. According to The Book of Common Prayer, the Collect occurs right before the lesson in services with Communion. I suppose the same is true for Catholic and Lutheran services as well. Clearly the Collect is intended for use in the most formal of settings. That does not mean that the formal Collects in prayer books can't be used as models for less formal times of prayer.
In the introduction to his Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd mentioned a man whose son had died. His distress and agony were compounded when he wanted to pray and "did not know the words of a single prayer." Boyd's colloquial, conversational style of prayer had a profound influence on my own, and probably many others'; I do not recall coming across a single book of prayers published since his. On the other hand, the formality of the Collect imposes a certain welcome discipline to my prayer life, especially when I am called on to pray publicly. If I know in advance I will be offering a prayer, I often compose a Collect. If I am asked to pray off the cuff, I often improvise one.
A Collect consists of a single sentence with three parts: an invocation, petition, and conclusion. Especially at a time when so many prayers degenerate into a list of gimmes, the form itself creates an important reminder. We pray not for what we want, but for what God wants for us. The invocation includes a specific statement of who God (specifically, God the Father) is, which controls the content of the rest of the prayer. The petition is short and fairly general. The conclusion states the desired outcome of the prayer in terms of God's will and divine response. The basic form, then, is very simple:
Oh God [Heavenly Father, Almighty God, etc.],
Grant that __________________________
so that we __________________________,
through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
The last part is generally longer and more elaborate than what I typed, but once someone grasps the basic form, it is fairly easy to fill in the blanks to suit the occasion. I am publishing this article the Friday after Easter. As it happens, The Book of Common Prayer has a Collect especially for this day. Here it is, laid out to display how it conforms to the basic structure:
who gave your only Son to die for our sins and to rise for our justification:
Give us grace so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness,
that we may serve you in pureness of living and truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
All the Collects in The Book of Common Prayer are ancient prayers, and I have copied the modernized version. It's still more formal than anybody ever speaks conversationally, and I would never attempt to ape that style in my own prayers.
Besides being easy to remember, though, the chief virtue of the form is that it forces me to place whatever I ask for in the context of God's grace rather than my own desires. If fact, if I cannot express a desire in the form of a Collect, I have to suspect that I need to meditate very specifically on how "not my will but yours" applies to the issue. In that way, what first seemed like a good way to structure public prayers became a means of evaluating to what extent my own desires.
whose mercy is directed to all your works and whose will is always for your children's best interest:
Give us an understanding of both the privileges and responsibilities of being adopted into your family,
so that we may pray in a manner worthy of our calling and your glory,
through Jesus Christ, your only Son, not only our Savior, but our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, whom you have called along side us to help us, both now and forever. Amen.