Restorer and Lover of Innocence
The circle of the year brings us back to one of the most beautiful Collects of the Lenten series:
O God, the restorer and lover of innocence,
direct the hearts of Thy servants unto Thyself:
that being enkindled with the fire of Thy Spirit,
they may be found both steadfast in faith and fruitful in deed.
I have always related this Collect to that given for the feast of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (depicted in the image above) on June 21st:
O God who, in distributing Thy heavenly gifts,
didst in the angelic young man Aloysius,
join wonderful innocence of life with an equal spirit of penitence,
grant through his merits and prayers,
that we who have not followed him in his innocence,
may imitate his penitence.
The Collect for Saint Aloysius, in turn, brings to mind yet another prayer, a devotional one that I learned as a small boy attending the Novena in honour of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal with my Grandmother Kirby. (She knew all the prayers by heart. I remember her saying them with real heartfelt devotion.) Here is the relevant part of the prayer:
You know, O Mary,
how often our souls have been
the sanctuaries of you Son who hates iniquity.
Obtain for us then a deep hatred of sin
and that purity of heart which will attach us to God alone
so that our every thought, word and deed
may tend to His greater glory.
Obtain for us also a spirit of prayer and self-denial
that we may recover by penance
what we have lost by sin
and at length attain to that blessed abode
where you are the Queen of angels and of men.
Hope for Every Heart
There is great comfort in addressing God, with the Church, as “the restorer and lover of innocence. . . .” God loves innocence and, loving it, wants to restore it wherever it has been compromised, corrupted, stained, or stolen. It is indeed a beautiful thing to call God “the lover of innocence,” but it is even more beautiful to call him “the restorer of innocence.” The heart, even the most desperately sick of hearts, can begin to beat with hope again in hearing God addressed in this way. For our God, “the restorer and lover of innocence,” no heart is beyond redemption.
Today’s Lenten Collect goes on to make its petition: “direct the hearts of Thy servants unto Thyself.” Dirige ad te tuorum corda servorum, says the Latin text; it means, “direct the hearts of your servants towards Thyself,” or “put the hearts of Thy servants in the way that goes straight toward Thee.” Saint Augustine’s unforgettable words from the beginning of The Confessions come to mind: “Thou has made us toward thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in thee.” The human heart is easily misdirected; we ask God to put our hearts on the track of happiness, to direct them toward himself. We ask Him, in a word, to convert our hearts.
The Fire of the Holy Spirit
The Collect then adds, “that being enkindled with the fire of your Spirit. . . .” It is striking, this allusion to the fervour or fire of the Holy Spirit in the second week of Lent. The fire of the Holy Spirit is an image more usually associated with the liturgy of Pentecost. What today’s Collect suggests is that as soon as a heart is directed to God, “the restorer and lover of innocence,” it is warmed by the Holy Spirit.
The heart directed away from God is like a house with no southern exposure. The heart with no Godward exposure becomes a cold heart. Lenten conversion places us, like so many little chicks, under the Spirit’s brooding wing, there to be warmed by divine love. I recall the plea of the Pentecost sequence: Fove quod est frigidum — “Warm with Thy love our hearts so cold.” Once warmed by the Holy Spirit, the heart begins to change. The heart touched by the fire of the Holy Spirit will be firm and steadfast in faith. Firm in faith, it will become effective in deed. We can take “effective” here to mean fruitful. “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples” (Jn 15:8).
No One Beyond Remedy
“The heart,” says Jeremiah, “is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt” (Jer 17:9). Were it not for the revelation of the God of Mercy, the Lover and Restorer of Innocence, the knowledge of one’s own corruption would plunge one into despair. Saint Benedict echoes all of Scripture and the experience of the saints when he enjoins us: “Never to despair of God’s mercy” (RB 4:74). The God who loves innocence will always find a way to restore it. No one, absolutely no one, is unsalvageable.