An ancient prayer saved my faith.
A friend in college had invited me to attend a nearby Episcopal church. It was a disorienting place with its vaulted ceilings, stone columns, and ornate stained glass. Even more so were all the books I had to keep up with, the strange customs, and the weirdly dressed parade that began the service.
It was strange. And beautiful.
Then the priest began the service, and the opening prayer he said was unlike any opening prayer I’d ever heard.
Unlike any prayer at all.
He said what I later came to know as the Collect for Purity.
All I knew at that moment, though, was that this was the most beautiful prayer I’d ever heard.
All I knew was that it had given me words to pray, something I thought I had forever lost.
All I knew was that I didn’t feel alone any more.
The priest prayed, “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.”
At that moment, I knew I was an Episcopalian.
I will never forget that moment.
But it was not the last time the liturgy saved my faith.
I’ve had my faith saved in the weekly recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. I’ve had my faith saved in the gentle words of Compline. I’ve had my faith saved in the blessing, in the dismissal, in the confession. I’ve had my faith saved in the absolution. I’ve had my faith saved in the Hosanna, sung by Christians and saints from ages past and ages yet to come, all in the same moment. I’ve had my faith saved by having bread pressed into my palms and in pressing bread into palms. I’ve had my faith saved by the sweet sting of wine from the chalice.
My faith was saved, again, that first time I blessed bread and wine, and realized I had come home after wandering so long. And in countless celebrations since, I’ve had my faith saved in the blessing of bread and wine, when something more than I can ever imagine or pretend happens, when simple things become holy things, revealing that all simple things are holy things. Like the oily mark of Chrism on an infant’s head, on a teenager’s forehead, the weight of a stole and chasuble, the new light in the darkness of an Easter Vigil.
I’ve had my faith saved by marching in solidarity with people marginalized. I’ve had my faith saved in witnessing people wake up to the reality of oppression and privilege in the world. I’ve had my faith saved by the faith and faithfulness of the people I sat next to in the pews and in those same people who later listened to me preach. I’ve had my faith saved in these generous coaches teaching me how they hear what I say, after their decades of listening to homilies.
I’ve had my faith saved by confessing from the pulpit all those times I lost my faith and how God was in that too.
I’ve had my faith saved by Eucharist shared in a hospital. I’ve had my faith saved in the last blessings of a dying man and the warm memories of his grieving spouse. I’ve had my faith saved by the man with chronic back problems who shows up unasked, by himself, to fix the sign, to pull down dead trees, and make coffee when no one else does.
I’ve had my faith saved sitting in lunch rooms at public schools with teenagers. I’ve had my faith saved in the expectant eyes of toddlers receiving the bread and in the eyes of a new parent as I bless their newborn child. I’ve had my faith saved in blessing motorcycles, in blessing Halloween costumes, in blessing golf clubs, in blessing ordinary every day things in life in the deepest hope that we can begin to see God revealed everywhere we go.
I’ve had my faith saved by the Altar Guild, who love the Table more than anyone else in the church and have passed on their reverence to me like a cherished heirloom through their gloved hands grasping brass candlesticks and through sharp creases on purificators.
I’ve had my faith saved by the people who forgive my learning curve as young priest.
I’ve had my faith saved by the liturgy.
But it’s not just some words on the page in a church.
I’ve had my faith saved by what the liturgy actually is.
The work of the people who love God.
And my faith is saved every time I remember I am one of these people and that we are working together in this messy business of living out God’s love.
Because in the end, that’s what the Collect for Purity is al about.
It’s about being known for who we really are — our secrets, our desires, our hiddenness — and being loved for it anyway and being transformed because of it.
Check out Ed’s book, and add your thoughts about what saved your own faith?