By Dom Gérard Calvet, O.S.B.
The following article was published in Itinéraire magazine in January 1977. It was translated in English and published in Upon the Rock, our Latin Mass Community magazine at Cherokee Village.
At the end of the fourth century, when the Roman Empire knew its decline and passed the torch of civilization to the Christian world, the Church was in possession of some of the most beautiful jewels of her liturgical treasure. Among them were the prayers of the Missal, especially our admirable Collects that precede the reading of the Epistle.
Like Charles Péguy, who discovered with great delight that there is a Saint for each day, the Benedictine novices learn that there is a prayer for each day intended to lead them along the narrow way. They have to know by heart these prayers that had been polished by some fine and erudite hands in the ages of faith. Because the purest spirit of Christianity lies in the Collects, in the form of maxims stamped in bronze, they have to study them and to meditate upon them. Nothing better than the highest certitudes of the soul ought to be practiced. The prayers of our Missal are rules of life.
The name “Collect” was given to the prayers that introduce the readings of the Mass, and which we find again at the end of each of the canonical Hours, because they were said in front of the faithful when they were gathered at the beginning of Mass. The Secret and the Postcommunion prayers are named this way because of the place they have in the drama of the Eucharistic sacrifice.
In olden times, the Collect, as well as the Preface, was improvised by the celebrant. There was a time when Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, in a common ecstasy, alternated for the first time, ut fertur, the verses of the admirable Te Deum. Then, the Holy Ghost divinely fixed the young prayer of the Church, like when middle age fixes the traits of childhood. There were some ‘orationnaires,’ where the most achieved prayers were cautiously conserved. Nowadays we can still recognize the prayers composed or inspired by Saint Leo the Great with the perfection of their rhythm and their rigor of thought. The rule saved the inspiration by fixing the excellence.
To the nostalgic persons of the Early Church, racked by the hobby of creativity, we would tell them that, apart from their incredible pretension, we can only be a child once in our life. Fortunately, and thanks to the piety of the Elders who delivered unto us those jewels of our liturgy, a young barbarian who would enter into a church today in order to hear Holy Mass is directly in connection with the fresh thought of a fourth century Father.
According to a very ancient custom, the celebrant calls upon the community for reverence and prayer with this solemn monition: Dominus vobiscum – The Lord be with you. The congregation answers: Et cum spiritu tuo - And with thy spirit. The Lord must be with the priest to make him worthy of expressing the prayer of the community. The Lord must be with the faithful to make them attentive to the prayer. Then, the priest prays clara voce, or sings the Collect on a recitative tone with only two notes that espouse the literary form peculiar to the prayers of the Missal, called cursus. We shall speak later about this literary form, the purpose of which is to emphasize the sway of the thought. These prayers, many of which were collected already in the fourth century, constitute the richness of our liturgical patrimony.
At the end of the Missal, we find several prayers that we can add, whenever it is needed, to the prayer of the day. These are prayers for particular cases: to ask for rain, to move away a storm, to be protected from the devil, to ask for patience, chastity, and so forth, such as this admirable prayer, which is a petition for the gift of tears – pro petitione lacrymarum:
“Almighty and most merciful God, Who, to quench the thirst of Thy people, didst draw a fountain of living water out of a rock, draw from our stony hearts tears of compunction, that we may be able to mourn for our sins and win forgiveness for them by Thy mercy. Through Christ Our Lord.”
Shall we see one day a thesis presented at the University of Sorbonne about the literary beauty of the prayers of the Missal? The Breviary, the Missal, and the Processional contain a multitude of remarkable prayers, in the elegance of their form, their penetrating unction, and their profundity of thought. Two characters must be highlighted: the doctrinal richness and the pedagogical value.
The field of Liturgy constitutes in itself a theological place of endless richness. It is a kind of web of doctrinal truths, scattered and non-systematically ordered. Péguy was right when he said that the Liturgy is a ‘distended theology.’ When the chant of the Exsultet, streaming with poesy, rises up in the Easter night, the dogma of Redemption illuminates the intellect with a peculiar sparkle that is nothing else than the splendor of truth. The Exsultet, the Lauda Sion, and the Dies Irae are sung dogmas that directly infuse into the soul both light and love. Dom Guéranger said that the Liturgy is the Tradition at its highest degree of power and solemnity. This statement aroused astonishment at the time.
The materials used by the artisans of speculative theology are contained in the Prayer of the Church, as the stones used for the building of a temple are contained in a quarry. The theologians of all times draw from this treasure in order to illustrate and to consolidate the dogma.
Father Emmanuel, the Abbot of Notre-Dame de la Sainte-Espérance, found the doctrine of grace in the prayers of the Missal. These prayers are marked with the doctrinal fight of the fourth century against the Pelagian heresy. Pelagius understated the consequences of original sin, and, therefore, the necessity of the gratia sanans, the healing grace. And yet, the Pelagian heresy is one of the most common forms of naturalism that returns in every era.
Father Emmanuel did not want to contrast thesis against thesis. So he built up his theology of grace on the base of the prayer of the Church. This helped him to highlight the absolute necessity of the Divine Grace in the Economy of Salvation. It is a perfect demonstration of the Lex orandi that establishes and fixes the Lex credendi.
We recently welcomed into our monastery a disciple of Pentecostalism. We could easily show him by evoking the Trinitarian character of the Collects, which rise up to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, that a prayer offered exclusively to the Third Person is a disturbing novelty. Even the Collect of Pentecost is submitted to this Trinitarian mode of prayer. The sequence of the Mass, which is a kind of very free effusion addressed only to the Holy Ghost, must be considered as a gloss of the Alleluiatic verse.
This is what our liturgical prayers tell us. They also teach us the Majesty of God, the abyss of our misery, the way to behave in front of God and to speak to Him in order to be heard. Yes, the Liturgy is also, and above all, a norm of prayer par excellence. Let us say that it offers us the most ancient and most venerable method of prayer.
Much has been spoken about prayers and methods of prayer since the sixteenth century. Saint Teresa of Avila says that she would like to stand on the top of a mountain in order to convince, if it were possible, the whole universe of the importance of prayer. But piety, since the sixteenth century, has been marked by the Humanism of the Renaissance. At that time, prayer was subjected to the investigations and the industries of men. It was inevitable that the development of psychology inclined the minds to forge some methods of prayer where the analytic and discursive prospects prevail.
But during the first sixteen centuries of the Church, prayer had never ceased to irrigate the fields where spiritual life was cultivated. How did our Elders pray then? Did they use any methods? It seems obvious that they did not. Their prayers spontaneously spurted out of the depths of the Divine Office. The river of the liturgical mysteries, as the Four Rivers of Paradise, watered the first generations of Christians who did not have to invent any other ways of access to the sanctuary of the interior life.
In the ages of Faith, the Liturgy has been the great Educator of the children of the Church. The hymns, the Psalms, Gregorian chant, and the whole sacramental order poured into souls the light of the truths of Faith, and provoked men to look toward God rather than at themselves, to sing the mirabilia Dei, and to step aside like the sculptors of the capitals of Chartres who stepped aside in front of their works.
Thanks to the Liturgy, the primacy was given to the theological and contemplative life. Our Collects have rightly acquired a remarkable pedagogical value.
We shall notice first the very first words of the prayer. Sometimes a majestic invocation puts us in front of the All Might of God: “Omnipotens Deus…” Sometimes the Church is named first: “Ecclesiam Tuam, Deus…” or “Familiam Tuam…” Then the prayer tints itself with a certain affectionate tenderness. At other times, an energetic verb outlines the Divine action: “Fac, Domine…” or “Praesta, quaesumus Domine…” Then the body of the prayer expresses the object of the petition that is often signified by a few words with a rare joy, to such an extent that the main object of a feast is perfectly summarized in its Collect.
This is for instance what the Collect of the Midnight Mass tells us:
“O God, Who hast made this most holy night shine forth with the splendor of the true Light, grant, we beseech Thee, that we, who have known the mysteries of His light on earth, may enjoy also His happiness in heaven.”
With a sovereign art, the Liturgy leads us from a created reality to its higher analog: from the light of Christmas to the celestial light, from the visible to the invisible . The Collect of the Mass at Dawn invites us to move from the field of being to the field of acting. With just a few words it gives us the foundation of morality:
“Grant us, we beseech Thee, almighty God, that we, on whom the new light of Thine Incarnate Word is poured, may show forth in our works that brightness, which now doth illuminate our minds by Faith.”
Thus, each feast makes us ask for a special grace with a sweetness and a precision that brings the soul directly into the center of the mystery that is celebrated. We are enlightened about what to ask for, how to ask, and why to ask. The Collect of the Immaculate Conception harmoniously develops the order of the four causes . The one of the Fourth Sunday after Easter pulls up our hearts toward elevated reality with such a delicacy that only the Latin language can really express: “… ut inter mundanas varietates ibi nostra fixa sint corda ubi vera sunt gaudia.”
The Latin of our prayers makes us pray with so much savor and accuracy that their translations are sometimes impossible. How can we translate certain words like hostia, pietas, or devotio? After twenty centuries the French word, traced from Latin , seems to have lost its substance or has a different meaning.
Hostia means victim of a bloody sacrifice.
Devotio means an irrevocable consecration.
Pietas: This word in the vernacular has been so much faded by common use that we would need a long periphrasis in order to taste its ancient and sacred sap.
The pietas romana was a national virtue loaded with a physical and religious meaning, and which signified all together attachment to the land, fidelity, gratitude, the cult rendered to the gods, the parents, and the homeland, but also to the family, the house, and the manes of the Ancestors. We guess that this word, piety, could signify for the first Christians, “dipped in the water of Baptism.” To the paternal tenderness of God, the soul enlightened by the Word responded sicut naturaliter, the flowing back toward the sanctifying home of the Trinitarian life.
How should we pray with the Collects of the Missal? The first condition is to know how to read, which is, contrary to what many believe, not a common science. It requires two operations: to scrutinize and to weigh. We advise those who desire to be inspired by the holy Liturgy in order to nourish their spiritual life to imitate diggers of gold. The cycle of the liturgical year is similar to a big river loaded with rites, chants, and poems. We can find therein some short formulas that shine with a bright sparkle like gold spangles.
It is an excellent method of prayer to slowly read the proper of the Missal, to sieve, so to speak, day after day, the water of this river and to carefully collect what can respond to the expectation and the desire of the soul. The Sunday Collect will become, under the dictation of the Church, a savory meditation and a practical exhortation for Christian life. Then, you can engrave in your memory the formulas of your favorite prayers, and therefore live wrapped by luminous maxims that light up your road.
In illius inveniamur forma in quo tecum est nostra substantia – we may be found like unto Him, in Whom our nature is united to Thee. (Secret of Midnight Mass)
Sacramentum vivendo teneant quod fide perceperunt – that they may hold fast in their lives the mystery which they have received by Faith. (Collect of Easter Tuesday)
Sine te nihil potest mortalis infirmitas – without Thee weak man can do nothing. (Collect of the First Sunday after Pentecost)
Ad promissiones tuas sine offensione curramus – that we may run without stumbling toward the attainment of Thy promises. (Collect of the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost)
Da nobis fidei, spei et caritatis augmentum – give to us an increase of Faith, Hope, and Charity. (Collect of the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
Auctor ipse pietatis!... – Author of all piety! (Collect of the Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost)
There is a great sweetness when we pray with the very same words and the same accents as the first Christians used to do, freshly reborn with the Baptismal water. Listening to the same readings, modulating the same chants, like them we are attentive to the mysterious voice of the Spirit and of the Bride who says: Come, Lord Jesus.