The Collect for Purity

One of the most famous collects in the Book of Common Prayer is the Collect for Purity which begins the order for Holy Communion:

ALMIGHTY God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I recently began reading The Cloud of Unknowing, a famous fourteenth-century English mystical/contemplative book. It begins thus:

GOD, unto whom all hearts be open, and unto whom all will speaketh, and unto whom no privy thing is hid. I beseech Thee so for to cleanse the intent of mine heart with the unspeakable gift of Thy grace, that I may perfectly love Thee, and worthily praise Thee. Amen.

Very, very similar to the BCP; a prayer that was popular 200 years before Cranmer. Not that being Anglican means getting spirituality from exclusively English sources, but it is interesting to read the notes from Blunt’s Annotated Book of Common Prayer:

This Prayer … also formed part of the Introductory Prayers of the Celebrant in the Sarum rite [the medieval liturgy of England], and is not found in any other of the English Liturgies or in the Roman. It appears again in a “Missa ad invocandum gratiam Spiritus Sancti” at the end of the Sarum Missal, a Mass which is attributed by Muratori [ii. 282] to St. Gregory, Abbot of Canterbury about A. D. 780. It is found too in the Sacramentary of Alcuin, and it also occurs among the prayers after Mass in the Hereford Missal, and at the end of the York Litany: so that it is probably a Prayer of the early Church, but preserved almost solely by the Church of England. (p. 371)

The Collect for Purity is one of those Prayer Book gems that turns up today in contexts where non-Anglican ministers, or Anglicans running without rubrics, incorporate bits of the liturgy. However, what I have observed is that the context is often totally changed — it is usually a penitent context, whereas in the BCP, Sarum, and the Cloud — despite a general penitential tone in the BCP — it is not.

In all three of these instances, BCP, Sarum, Cloud of Unknowing, the Collect for Purity is preparatory for what follows. We are not confessing our manifold sins and wickedness (yet) — we are simply preparing our hearts and minds to worship almighty God. In the two liturgies, we are about to engage in the archetypical Christian act of worship, the thanksgiving and reenactment of Christ’s lifegiving sacrifice for us. We are about to be ushered into the presence of Almighty God through the embodied praise and worship of the liturgy. So, meekly kneeling upon our knees, this collect is uttered.

In The Cloud of Unknowing, a text is about to be bodied forth that is precisely about pure hearts and minds, about perfect love and worthy praise — about focussing our hearts and minds on nothing but God himself — not even his acts in history. Pure prayer is the highest calling of the Christian — priest, laity, monastic. Purity of heart, according to John Cassian is a prerequisite.

So perhaps we could all adopt this prayer as preparatory for our own times of worship and devotion, seeking pure hearts as we seek the holy God.

One thought on “The Collect for Purity

  1. Ahhh! What a fascinating piece of historical and liturgical exploration.

    I’ve come across most of the sources you mention; but I had never noticed the similarities. In my mind it raises some fascinating thoughts about the extent to which some cultures, all very orthodox Christian, can differ by their emphases on certain things. In this case, and from a position of complete ignorance, I find myself asking the question whether other Christian cultures, within Europe or without, had an emphasis on purity of heart comparable to that which you’ve identified in these English liturgies.

    And then, in later generations there is the distinctive nature of Methodism, and the relationship to the Moravian church in continental Europe.
    Maybe you know an answer to some of these questions.
    Fascinating!
    Thank you. Martin Adams

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