Out of all the treasures in the Book of Common Prayer, to me chief among them are the collects, the compendium of short and beautiful prayers, and chief among these is The Collect for Purity:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are 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 they holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer was born before the advent of the Book of Common Prayer: a close version appears in the 14-century introduction to the beautiful text The Cloud of Unknowing—a text that prompts openness—nakedness, as the writer calls it—to God. Indeed, this prayer is called the Collect for Purity, but I think it is first for something else. The prayer pushes into the openness required for such purifying work to actually happen in the human heart.
The second half of the prayer (after the colon) does ask for purity—it’s a searing request, beseeching God’s work of purifying, cleansing, making new and re-fashioning our ability to love and praise him. It’s a beautiful request.
But I know my own heart. Or at least, I know it with brave, occasional glimpses down into its depths. I know how slow and weird it is. If I’m honest, I have to ask: how would such a request have any real traction in me—in the wild, wily, frightened and glorious expanse of this soul that I’m asking God to care for?
I think it’s because before any purifying action happens, I have to trust God’s ability to know—to see, behold, stare at, and hold—my heart, desires, and secrets. And I have to trust (as this prayer helps me to do) that God does not just know through cognitive cataloging: here is Jessica’s ugly secrets, here is her sad desires . . .
No. He knows via love.
God’s knowledge is woven, in divine DNA strands of holiness, with love. He cannot grimace or flinch away. That colon, those two dots stacked on top of each other, is kind of like a doorway. A threshold. And as we enter the openness of that first half of the prayer, as we open up our heart and desires and secrets, can we enter even deeper pools of grace?
But let’s face it: this real openness can be terrifying. Encased in elegant words of the English language, the reality of this collect is outrageous—like walking into a clearing during a lightening storm. It’s scary. And it would be foolish to think otherwise, that it’s easy for the soul just to open and ease into being known, when we have endless methods of hiding and the compunction to edit and prettify runs hard in the grain.
But perhaps, gradually, slow like how a tree grows, this real openness may become for us the safest place in the world. Sometimes during this prayer, I think of a little animal burying down into safe, warm soil. A badger tucking into his sett. An eagle settling into her aerie, the protected nook on the high cliff. Or a person, returning to the home where he or she is thoroughly known—the faults, foibles, the heavy and tired secrets, the treasured plans—and is welcomed through the doors.