The Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings. And he that searcheth the hearts, knoweth what the Spirit desireth; because he asketh for the saints according to God. (Romans 8:26–27)
Asking According to God
The Collect of the Mass (and of the Divine Office) is that prayer by which the Holy Ghost intercedes for us with the Father from the heart of the Church. It is the articulation of the unspeakable groanings of the Holy Ghost, «asking for the saints according to God». This means that in the Collect of the Mass and Divine Office we are asking for the very thing that God already wants to give us, the thing for which He Himself would have us ask. For this reason, Abbot Guéranger once told a novice that the only daily devotion required of a monk was the devotion to the Collect given us each day by the liturgy of the Church. What do we pray today?
Guard your Church, we pray
O Lord, in your unceasing mercy,
and since, without you mortal humanity is sure to fall,
may we kept by your constant helps from all harm
and directed to all that brings salvation.*
Custodi, Domine, quaesumus, Ecclesiam tuam
et quia sine te labitur humana mortalitas,
tuis semper auxiliis et abstrahatur a noxiis
et ad salutaria dirigatur.
Keep your Church
The Latin text begins with the word, “Custodi.” It means to watch over, to keep in sight, to safeguard, to hold close. The versicle at Compline uses the same verb: Custodi nos, Domine, ut pupillam oculi, “Keep us, O Lord, as the apple of Thy eye” (Psalm 16:8). We ask God to hold us close, to keep us safe in a grace that never fails, a grace for every weakness, every sin, every circumstance, every moment in life. We find the same petition in Psalm 15: «Preserve me, O Lord, for I have put trust in thee» (Psalm 15:1). There is a French proverb that expresses well the sense of what we are asking: Ce que Dieu garde est bien gardé. There is but one security: it is abandonment to God. Père Ernest Lelièvre was right to say: «Of all the calculations I could make, the wisest is to abandon myself to Him».
We beg God to keep an unfailing mercy, a perpetual propitiation for His Church. The English translation of the Latin original is not exact. Firstly, the Latin word here is not misericordia but propitiatio. Propitiation is that by which one who, by sin, has made himself deserving of God’s just wrath, wins His gracious favour and friendship. Secondly, we are not asking God to keep His Church in an unfailing mercy but, rather, to keep, to preserve, to safeguard an unfailing propitiation for His Church. The propitiation of the Church is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
We are, in essence, asking God that the Church never be found without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, that the Church never be without priest, altar, and victim. Christ is our atoning Victim and the High Priest of the sacrifice of propitiation. Christ, our “high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26), is the propitiation of God. “Therefore we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). “Let us go therefore with confidence to the throne of grace: that we may obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid” (Hebrew 4:16).
Saint Paul calls Christ the “propitiation” set forth by God (cf. Rm 3:25). Christ is “a merciful and faithful priest before God, that he might be a propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). The deeper meaning of today’s Collect is in the mystery of the perpetual propitiation renewed in every Holy Mass: the atoning sacrifice of Christ, Priest and Victim. The invisible reality of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is Christ, Priest and Victim, standing before the Father, displaying the wounds in His hands, His feet, and His side. The Father sees us through the wounds of the Son, and through those same wounds He pours His healing mercy into our souls, cleansing us and restoring us to His friendship.
Lapses and Relapses
The Collect goes on to say something about us: “since, without you mortal humanity is sure to fall” The Latin word labitur translated as «fall» means to lapse or to relapse. It means to go wrong, to slip down or slide back. Is that being unduly pessimistic? It seems to me, in the light of my own experience of human frailty, of mortalitas, to be perfectly realistic. The spiritual journey is marked by lapses and relapses, and sometimes by re-relapses.
The Toxic and the Noxious
Then the Collect makes a second double petition: «may we kept by your constant helps from all harm and directed to all that brings salvation», which might also be translated as, «help us ever to withdraw from hurtful things and guide us toward those which are wholesome». Hurtful things: the Latin text calls them something closer to toxic, or noxious, meaning poisonous! It is hard sometimes for us to pull away from the very things that threaten to poison us.
There is an inscription on the medal of Saint Benedict that signifies, «Begone Satan! Suggest not to me vain things. The cup you offer me is evil; drink the poison yourself!» (Vade retro, Satana: numquam suade mihi vaba. Sunt mala quae libas; ipse venenum bibas.) The text on the Saint Benedict medal reflects his own struggle against temptation and his energetic refusal of things toxic to the soul. It is an exclamation of faith against the vain and hurtful things that present themselves to all of us at different times. This may account for the astonishing popularity of the Saint Benedict medal: it addresses the real life situations of people struggling to pull away from various forms of spiritual toxicity. The tricky part is that the very things that are hurtful to us often have an attractive, fascinating side to them. Poison can come served to us in a golden goblet.
The Healing and the Wholesome
The second part of the petition is: «direct us to all that brings salvation» or «guide us towards those things which are wholesome». It is not enough to withdraw from hurtful, poisonous things; we have to move towards things which are good for us. The Latin calls them salutaria. The word has a rich meaning: wholesome things, health-giving things, things that heal, save, and restore. We ask God to guide us toward those things.
The salutaria in our life are manifold. They are the persons, relationships, places, books, music, art, and other things that contribute to making us whole persons, that foster our health of mind, soul, and body. We ask God to guide us towards such people, to direct us into such relationships, to show us where such things can be found. He does so by the inward workings of the Holy Ghost. «They that are according to the flesh, mind the things that are of the flesh; but they that are according to the spirit, mind the things that are of the spirit. For the wisdom of the flesh is death; but the wisdom of the spirit is life and peace» (Romans 8:5-6).
We can discern our attractions by observing what they produce in us. If a particular attraction leaves me sad, unsettled, and troubled, it does not come from the Holy Ghost. If, on the other hand, it leaves me with a feeling of hope, of peace, of joy, it is salutary, it is wholesome and health-giving. The salutaria of God restore and refresh the sin sick soul.
Christ, the Salutaris Hostia
Our response has to be one of humble trust in the Giver of all good things. We pray in the Canon of the Mass “You continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them and bestow them upon us” (Roman Canon). We go to the altar today full of thanksgiving for the salutaria sent to us by God, the gifts of the Divine Hospitality. We go to the altar to offer and to receive the Salutaris Hostia, Christ our God, the Priest and Health-Giving Victim, the Physician and Medicine of our souls and bodies.
*This sermon is being preached today to a religious community that follows the reformed liturgy. The Collect given here is not that of the Usus Antiquior that is celebrated at Silverstream.