This was also posted at The Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on March 21, 2015.
“Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
The above is a collect written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, whose feast day we celebrate today, more than five hundred years after his martyrdom. Much of the Book of Common Prayer bears his imprimatur, even if many Episcopalians and Anglicans are barely acquainted with him. Because Thomas Cranmer was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the separation of the English Church from the Roman Church, he ended up shaping the first prayer books in use in the Anglican Communion even to our own 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Some of the greatest hits of the prayer book are his: “O God, make speed to save us; O Lord, make haste to help us.” “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts….” “Give unto your servants that peace which the world cannot give….” The collect above is one of my favorite collects right from the start, since it touches upon a subject near to my heart: prayer.
“Almighty God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve….” How often many of us feel that we do not know how to pray, or what to say when we pray. Sometimes we get frustrated with defaulting too soon to what have been called “wish-list” prayers: God, watch over my mother and my father; help me get through this coming week; help heal Aunt Jeanne’s cancer, those kinds of things. At other times we get frustrated that this kind of prayer is all we seem to pray, other than the Lord’s Prayer. Yet Cranmer put his finger on an important truth: God is ready to listen no matter how much we stumble over words in our prayers. Yet perhaps sometimes we should just cut ourselves a break. My United Church of Christ brothers and sisters like to say that “God is Still Speaking.” We Episcopalians, people of the Book of Common Prayer, should always try to remember that God is always listening, lovingly and patiently, even if we feel we cannot find the right words. If in prayer we are not ready to speak, we can make ourselves ready to hear. Ironically, Archbishop Cranmer himself has provided us hundreds of the right words when we seem stuck, in his beautiful collects and prayers which he either translated or wrote himself.
“Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask ….” Here, Cranmer touches upon the ideas of mercy and grace. Even during Lent, we Episcopalians do not like to think very much about sins—unless it is about those sins committed against us. We also do not think very much about salvation and how that works. Yet one of the most overwhelming realities we seek to grasp as Christians is God’s unending love for us. God’s love is one that seeks us out again and again and never rests when we hold ourselves aloof in our relationships with both God and each other. Abundant mercy, amazing grace—two different sides of the same coin. Mercy is shown in not punishing us as justice would demand but instead forgiving us. Grace is granted in GIVING us the blessing of salvation, right here and now, which we can never earn. Cranmer helps us ask God to pour out both grace and mercy over us, forgiveness and blessing, the weft and warp of our lives seeking God.
“…[E]xcept through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our savior, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.” It is through Jesus and his incarnation, as God-with-us, that we have an advocate and guide in living our lives as a holy people, beloved of God. One of the things Christians do is pray in the name of Christ, our Friend and Companion—literally, “he who breaks bread with us.” When we gather around the altar at Eucharist, we gather with each other and with Christ, who feeds us, body and soul, satisfying our deepest longings for meaning in a world in which all too often we can feel adrift.
Cranmer’s latest biographer, Diarmid MacCulloch, notes in his introduction that Archbishop Cranmer was intensely private, yet his words live on today to touch and shape our most public expressions of faith through our liturgy. Thomas Cranmer is, in many ways, the bishop who still teaches us how to pray, and reminds us that God is ready to hear.