Feasting Bede: An Exercise in Collect Revision

The feast of Saint Bede fell over Memorial Day weekend this year. I didn’t post on it this year on its proper date but shall do so now.

In praying his collect this year, I was struck by its limitations. Here’s the text:

Heavenly Father, you called your servant Bede, while still
a child, to devote his life to your service in the disciplines
of religion and scholarship: Grant that as he labored in the
Spirit to bring the riches of your truth to his generation,
so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make you
known in all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It’s not so bad as far as current sanctoral collects go. It’s singable. It points towards his virtues and isn’t overburdened with detail. And yet, it could be better.

The regnant model currently is that of the “biographical collect.” This is a proper prayer that incorporates elements of a person’s life and biography. In the Episcopal Church, the biographical collect was attempted and rejected as a strategy in the original deliberations leading up to the first batch of sanctoral collects published in 1958’s Prayer Book Studies XII.  The main reason for the rejection was because “Too many of these Collects gave the effect of being overly contrived and erudite” compounded by the appearance of “subtle allusions” not edifying to the whole worshiping community (PBS XII, 9). However, in 1980, in contrast to these earlier findings, a great majority of the sanctoral collects were rewritten to be biographical. In recent years, particularly in Holy Women Holy Men, the biographical collect has achieved a position of dominance as the genre of choice for sanctoral collects.

I have a fundamental theological problem with the biographical collect. I’m a medievalist: everyone knows this. As a medievalist, my perspective on the saints—who they and and who they are for us—has been heavily influenced by medieval models and perspectives while still retaining a Reformation perspective. Saints are neither demi-gods nor cool people who were also Christian. Rather, the saints are remarkable individuals who have been singled out by their own communities and those after them because they represented the ideal of Christian maturity. If, as Irenaeus has said, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive; and to be alive consists of beholding God,” then these individuals are example of those who, in the act of beholding God, entered most fully into their own God-imaged humanity. Yes, many of them lived remarkable lives, did remarkable things, and have interesting biographies. But what we celebrate in them is our ability to see in their lives the universal virtues of Christ that they put on by virtue of their Baptism. It’s easy to get lost in biography. What we need to celebrate are the virtues and the charisms which they shared with Christ, which they grew into by virtue of Baptism, and which are available to us also by way of our own Baptisms. Thus, the biographical collect tends to err on the side of accenting their particularity rather than connecting to their universality and the Christ from whom it flows.

The second main issue I have with the biographical collect is its tendency to stop being a collect and to begin being a mini-sermon or secondary biography. A collect is a prayer; it is first and foremost speech to God. Only secondarily is it speech to the gathered assembly. The biographical collect tends to get this reversed, and attempts to edify more than it prays and praises. Consider again the genre of the collect. I’ve written about it here with a two-pronged simile: a collect is simultaneously like a sonnet and like a haiku. And I continue to come back to the words of Percy Dearmer:

Unity is the essential characteristic of the collect. To be good, it must have colour, rhythm, finality, a certain conciseness as well as vigour of thought; but it must be a unified petition, or it becomes something else than a collect. We might indeed say that it must be one complete sentence, an epigram softened by feeling; it must be compact, expressing one thought, and enriching that thought so delicately that a word misplaced may destroy its whole beauty.

Holding these things in mind, let’s review again the appointed collect for Bede…

Heavenly Father, you called your servant Bede, while still
a child, to devote his life to your service in the disciplines
of religion and scholarship: Grant that as he labored in the
Spirit to bring the riches of your truth to his generation,
so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make you
known in all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, for ever and ever. Amen.

First off, this is a two-sentence prayer, not a collect. Standing in for an actual Invocation+Relative Clause describing God we have an Invocation+biographical note. This is one complete thought: “Heavenly Father, you called your servant Bede, while still a child, to devote his life to your service in the disciplines of religion and scholarship.” While it begins with God (verbally, at least), it says very little about who God is and says far more about who Bede was.  But it does so to talk about his job. (Again, the professionalization of sanctity, something I’ve railed about before and which I’ll spare you at the present…) Now—how does this first sentence relate thematically and conceptually to the second sentence? The second sentence (“Grant that as he labored in the Spirit to bring the riches of your truth to his generation, so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make you known in all the world”) identifies the effect of Bede’s service as bringing out the riches of God’s truth, and then requests—on the strength of that—that we be good evangelists.

I guess I can follow the logic—but is it good logic? Is it strong logic? Is this the best we can say about Bede and what we see in him and what we see of Christ through him? I certainly hope not…

Well, what are some other options, then? Here’s the version in the People’s Anglican Missal and the Anglican Breviary that substantially translates the Latin of the pre-1962 Roman Missal:

O God who hast enlightened thy Church with the wondrous learning of blessed Bede thy Confessor and Doctor: mercifully grant to us thy servants; that we, being in all things enlightened by his wisdom, may at all times feel the effectual succor of his righteousness. Through…

We do, in fact, have a collect here! We have a true Invocation+Relative Clause that says something about who God is—he is the enlightener of the Church and Bede is an example of vehicles he has used for this purpose. We at least see something of why we are revering Bede: his wisdom. And yet, this collect, too makes me feel a little edgy. I see Bede—I don’t see Christ…  This falls too close (and perhaps even over) the “saint as demi-god” line. Whose is the “effectual succor of righteousness”: Bede or Christ?

Now, here’s a collect for Bede that appears in PBS XII when he was first introduced into the Episcopal Calendar:

Almighty God, who hast enriched thy Church with the singular learning and holiness of thy servant Bede: Grant us to hold fast the true doctrine of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, and to fashion our lives according to the same, to the glory of thy great Name and the benefit of thy holy Church; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

So—a true collect that starts out in a very similar fashion to the Roman version, thanking God for enlightening the Church by virtue of Bede his instrument. Too, we see Jesus and ask to pattern our lives off his and to both glorify his name and benefit the Church. The collect doesn’t explicitly say that this is what Bede did, but we should certainly imply it.

I like this collect. It does what it’s supposed to do and it falls quite neatly between our two boundary lines. It is a bit general, though. This is actually a common collect for teachers and theologians; in PBS XII, Bede shares this same collect with Thomas Aquinas, John of Damascus, Ephrem, Jeremy Taylor, and Samuel I. J. Schereschewsky! You can see how it will work admirably for all of them. Can we get more particular and still hold to our principles?

How about this:

Almighty God, who hast enriched thy Church with the learning and holiness of thy servant Bede: Grant us to find in Scripture and disciplined prayer the image of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and to fashion our lives according to the same, to the glory of thy great Name and the benefit of thy holy Church; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Learning and holiness capture well the virtues of Bede. I would characterize them as wisdom, knowledge, piety, and discipline myself. Holiness and piety are fairly synonymous, holiness lacking the whiff of sanctimoniousness that often accompanies the contemporary use of “piety.” I deleted “singular” as I don’t feel it adds. Rather, it detracts from our theology of sanctity! We don’t celebrate the saints because they are singular or unique; we celebrate them because they witness to our common gifts in Christ. Bede wrote his own epitaph in the closing chapters of the Ecclesiastical History thus: “I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture, and amidst the observance of regular discipline, and the daily care of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, teaching, and writing.” In making the common particular to him, then, I modified the petition relating to Christ. The original phrase “hold fast the true doctrine” is certainly correct as Bede was quite orthodox. However, bringing in the Scriptures and the singing of the Offices honors Bede’s own self-description better and enables us to capture his virtue of discipline.

Is this singable? I think so. It does have a number of clauses, but no more so than some of our other classic collects.

Now, I had made a suggestion earlier on in the process that we create collects that could sustain the optional phrase “[and in union with her prayers]” where grammatically appropriate in order to capture a true baptismal ecclesiology. This phrase would recognize the unity of our Baptismal community in Christ that physical death cannot sever, and acknowledge the presence of the saints within our present worshiping community. (And be entirely optional, noting that some have a more limited understanding of Baptism…) Looking at this new collect, though—there’s not a good way to fit the phrase in. I could see it going here: “and [in union with his prayers] to fashion our lives according to the same” except that we open a can of worms regarding antecedents. The natural antecedent of “his” would be Christ and if we substitute “Bede” for the pronoun it becomes clunky and interferes with “the same” at the end of the line. Thus, despite my desire for a recognition of our eschatological community with Bede and the rest of the saints, I think this collect is better off without the added phrase.

8 thoughts on “Feasting Bede: An Exercise in Collect Revision

  1. C. WIngate

    A couple ofoff-the-cuff observations:

    First, the bio-collect is particularly ill-served by 1979’s shift to the “O God, you” collect construct. It leaves the bio as a decidedly indigestible lump. I don’t like that form anyway, but this particularly points out its problems.

    Second, another issue with having particular collects for everyone is that (as hinted) they tend to all run together. Bede has a handy epitome from his own works; it’s doubtful that every saint or martyr has such a source at hand.

  2. Derek Olsen

    It’s true—most haven’t left behind as handy of an epitome as Bede. But neither do I feel that common-ish prayers are a problem. They should all have a certain unity in and towards the person of Christ. If that feels repetitive, so be it… The practice of the tradition was to use commons for most people, and for particular communities to embellish the propers of the saints they were most closely connected to. If those propers (and the corresponding veneration of the saint) spread, well and good. If not, then the common was serving its purposes. This was the principle used in our first version of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, the revised version [the ’73 Second Edition] of LFF relied even more on commons–in this case on the new commons developed for the ’79 prayer book. The notion that we had to have particular prayers for everyone took off with the ’80 Third Edition.

  3. Barbara

    This is a terrific post! It’s fascinating to read an analysis like this, and to watch the process of working at writing prayer. I like your collect very much; I love your choices in moving away from “professionalism” and towards the experience and practice of faith itself – and away from the “singular,” too. What you’ve really done here, I think, is help us get out of our heads and into a way of seeing using all three of mind, heart, and soul – and in a way that helps us see “sainthood” as a whole, too. Excellent stuff.

    Collect-writing is definitely an art! In EFM we wrote collects after each “Theological Reflection,” trying to describe what we had learned during the exercise. It’s actually very hard to write stuff that works theologically, that sounds good and reads well, and that isn’t tiresomely clichéd – let alone trying to do what you’ve done here.

    Really well done.

  4. Stephen Houghton

    Hello Derek,
    I don’t have your e mail address so I am reaching out to you this way. In preparing the new almanac to replace HWHM, I hope you will consider episcopal layman Salmon P Chase, 6th Chief Justice of the United States, also call the Attorney General of Fugitive Slaves who in his last dissenting opinion as Chief Justice argued for the right of women to practice law. It makes me crazy for us to honor all these non Anglicans for political reasons and not to honor him. May 7 would be his feast day.


    Stephen W. Houghton II

  5. Derek Olsen

    Thank you! In my opinion, the cookie-cutter model of collect construction is one of the big problems with HWHM. It’s fascinating to me that the Prayer Book Studies volumes of sanctoral collects gave much information about which classic collects they were adapting to get their products; all of that disappears in 1980 and in all subsequent editions of LFF.

  6. Brandon

    This is hardly surprising, given TEC’s current bias whereby the past–except when it can be twisted to suit today’s politics, or when it is so murky that present attitudes can easily be projected upon it–is almost always regarded as bad. Novel is no longer a dubious word in liturgy: it is essential in many TEC quarters. The result is, naturally, that contemporary liturgies have fewer and fewer roots in either the tradition or in people’s lives. Like so much else, they have become consumer items and “lifestyle statements.” I am grateful you are on to this and have pointed it out. I agree with your preferences for collects pointing to the foundational theology of the Church rather than a sort of sanctoral celebrity mindset.

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