>“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
–The Collect for Purity, p. 355, Book of Common Prayer

Every Sunday, this prayer becomes the prologue of that holy drama in the Episcopal Church known as the Holy Eucharist. But did you know it is one of the most ancient prayers in our prayer book?

The prayer we now know as the Collect for Purity was written not for a church service, but for a coronation. It was written in 800 C.E. by noted teacher and religious scholar Alcuin of York, for the purposes of Charlemagne’s coronation as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Alcuin’s own story is an interesting one. He was asked to join Charlemagne’s court several years prior to his assuming the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, an offer that he first resisted. But when promised to be associated in the court with a “cavalcade of stars” in religious scholarship, his love of learning, his life-long intellectual curiousity, and his love of the church persuaded him to take the position. He became “everyone’s best friend” among the court, and he wrote prolifically, including a great deal of poetry about his friends and pupils that, well…quite frankly…bordered on the homo-erotic at times. But he also had incredibly intense relationships with the women among the court…just quite not so much as the men.

He penned the collect to remind Charlemagne that, yes, he was a great king, but there was an even greater king. From the very beginning of his association with the new empire, he set the stage by speaking truth to power. His long association with Charlemagne gave him that level of trust with the Emperor. Alcuin was considered a great and holy man, as well as a famous scholar.

This prayer later became incorporated in the Sarum Rite, but not orignally part of the liturgy. It was part of a pre-service preparatory rite for priests. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, as the concept of “the priesthood of all believers” became more widely accepted, the early figures in the English Reformation began moving some private parts of the liturgy to the public celebrations of the liturgy. Thomas Cranmer translated the prayer from its Latin form in the Sarum Rite into English, made it the opening collect for the Eucharist, and it has been in every form of the Book of Common Prayer since 1549. In the United States, its most recent revision is the present 1979 Rite II version that is used in the present Rite II Eucharist.

I think what fascinates me about the Collect for Purity is that it beautifully describes perhaps one of the holiest of mysteries. In its most basic form, it describes the relationship between human beings and God. Yet it is both inviting (“To you all hearts are open”) and intrusive (“And from you, no secrets are hid”). It is a request for God to change us (“Cleanse our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit”) and a statement of our love for God (“That we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name”). Simply reciting the prayer implies a lot of back and forth between us and God.

I’ve had an interesting relationship with this prayer. It was one of the things that drew me to the Episcopal liturgy when I came back from my two-plus decades of being one of the unchurched. For a time, I fell away from the power of the words of this prayer for reasons totally unrelated to the prayer itself. But I recently started re-visiting the prayer on a daily basis as one of my daily repetitive prayers and as a “stress-related prayer.” In this re-visiting, I did my usual “Take it totally apart and look at the pieces” analysis of it, as I tend to do with all things holy. (This sounds strange; almost heretical, in fact, but for something to really, truly become holy to me, I must take it apart down to the itty-bitty pieces and, in staring at the itty-bitty pieces, recognize it is “bigger than the pieces,” and therefore “bigger than me.”)

In this re-visitation, I have come away with the understanding that this prayer, is, indeed, one of the most concise yet all-encompassing descriptions of a relationship that is almost impossible to decode or totally understand–my personal relationship with God. I love that we recite it corporately on Sunday, and I can recite it privately and it feels just as powerful either way. It is a prayer that tells me to be unafraid of God’s love, and willing for Him to call the shots, as a facet of that love. It tells me to accept God’s “intrusion” in my life, and that’s it’s okay to be almost “gooshy” about my love for God.

If I could have a half hour with Alcuin, I’d buy him a beer and thank him!