Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Memory is a strange thing. At least, I've always found that to be the case. It's strange how over the years some memories disappear and others remain sharp, clear, and crisp.

I don't remember a great details of those first couple of years in the Episcopal Church. But there are moments in liturgies, moments of conversations with parishioners, moments here and there that stand out to me as clear as though they happened yesterday.

One of those moments is, strangely enough, the concluding collect at the prayers. Father Scott (now Bishop Scott, but at that time he was still Father Scott to me) used to use almost exclusively one particular concluding collect,

O Lord our God, accept the fervent prayers of your people; in the multitude of your mercies, look with compassion upon us and all who turn to you for help; for you are gracious, O lover of souls, and to you we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

He would, of course, say it with that particular West Texas accent that I so came to love. Indeed, certain phrases in the prayer book probably will always exist in my mind in a slight west Texas accent. For some reason, it seemed so strange to hear that masculine Texan voice say the words, "for you are gracious, O lover of souls."

I was raised knowing that Jesus loved me, that God loved the whole world. But to say someone loves someone or something is rather different than saying that someone is a lover. Lover, in our language, is often erotic language used to describe a person in a sexual relationship. A lover is the person who makes love to the beloved.

And my bright, wide-eyed, fresh Anglican self was amazed each and every time I heard this Texan priest say God is a "lover of souls." To me it meant more than God is one who loves souls. It meant that at God's very being, God was a lover of souls. It connoted a level of passion and intimacy and connection, a level of desire and longing, that was rarely a part of my conception of God.

When I myself, now a priest and rector of a parish, when I use that concluding collect in the liturgy, it always somehow means more to me than any of the other concluding collects. When I say it, it is like receiving a gift, because I still hear Father Scott's voice in my head. He always slowed down a bit when he came to the phrase, he said it with his own particular diction and emphasis, "For you are gracious, O lover of souls.... and to you we give glory."

Chapter 4 of Benedict's rule gives sixty some "Instruments of Good Works." One of them is, "To prefer nothing to the love of Christ." This is hard. There are many things in this world that I prefer, many that I love and like and want. But it's good to be reminded that the most important thing is the love of Christ.

Sometimes the parish can seem like an endless sea of preferences, all rising and falling as the winds blow and as the landscape changes. Sometimes it feels like a significant portion of my work is navigating and helping others adjudicate all of these preferences. And sometimes, every now and then, a wave of preferences seems as though it might come rushing over my head.

It's probably impossible to drain that sea of preferences. It probably wouldn't be a good idea even if it was. But maybe the love of Christ can be a raft, one that is strung together with the very energies, the very being of God. Maybe I can ride upon that raft, resting on those timbers, reminding myself that amidst of a sea of preferences one pure reality floats above: nothing is to be preferred to the love of Christ.

It's very trendy these days in liturgical circles to sort of look down one's nose at much of contemporary worship music, saying that it is all mindless "Jesus is my boyfriend" foolishness. That's always seemed wrong-headed to me. Some of the most ancient and venerable mystics truly did believe Jesus was their boyfriend, in a way. They used passionate language of love to describe their relationship with the divine. They helped (and continue to help) teach the church that God is, at God's very being, a lover.

Your faith cannot exist solely in your intellect. It cannot exist solely in your action. It must penetrate the deepest and most vulnerable place, the place where each of us longs to be loved—though we fear we are not worthy. It is to that place that this prayer speaks to me, it is to that place that Benedict, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, all the mystics of the church speak to me.

Because if God really is, at God's being, a lover... And if what God loves most are our poor, broken, struggling souls... Well, if that is true, then maybe it means that God, in God's very being, even loves souls in their particularity. Maybe it means God is the lover of your soul. Maybe it means God looks even at my soul and deep within the heart of God loves that too.

And if that doesn't scare and exhilarate you, I don't know what does.

"For you are gracious, O lover of souls, and to you we give glory..."

This is all deep and heady stuff. Maybe that's why I so like this prayer. It helps me know what to do, what to say, in response to the love of God. Faced with a God who is, in God's deepest being, a lover, a God who exists in the action of loving souls... faced with this kind of pure love in the midst of all the corrupted and broken love that surrounds us... there is one natural response...

To bow one's head, enveloped in ever-present love, and whisper, "To you we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever."


And forever.


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