Alcuin and the Collect for Purity


Monday, May 20, 2013 — Week of Proper 2, Year One

Alcuin, Deacon, and Abbot of Tours, 804

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 966)

Psalms 1, 2, 3 (morning) // 4, 7 (evening

Ruth 1:1-18

1 Timothy 1:1-17

Luke 13:1-9

Today is the feast of Alcuin, one of the luminaries of the great Carolingian Renaissance initiated under the reign of Charlemagne, who invited Alcuin from his home in York to serve the intellectual revival in Europe. Alcuin was called “The most learned man anywhere to be found.” He was responsible for the collection and preservation of much ancient knowledge, including poetry, literature, liturgical texts, and mathematical treatises — both from Christian and from pagan sources. It is thought that he invented a form of cursive writing to speed up the copying of manuscripts. And he is credited with convincing Charlemagne to cease forcing non-Christians to be baptized or face death. “Faith is a free act of the will, not a forced act. We must appeal to the conscience, not compel it by violence. You can force people to be baptised, but you cannot force them to believe,” Alcuin is said to have told Charlemagne. In 797 Charlemagne abolished the death penalty for paganism.

Alcuin helped reform the liturgy and worship and the church, collecting many service books and adapting them into a more universal form of worship. Many of the prayers that grace our liturgy and inform our devotion were preserved thanks to Alciuin’s scholarship and leadership.

Among the ancient texts passed down to us from Alcuin is the Collect for Purity which our Book of Common Prayer places at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist. In earlier times, it was a prayer used by clergy for their preparation before worship. But it was a prayer too good to be kept in the sacristy, and became part of our common worship in Anglican tradition.

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 the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.

The Collect for Purity seems an excellent opening for any time of prayer or worship. It beautifully sets the context for our conscious visitation with God, and invites us into prayer.

First, we acknowledge that we are known. Our hearts and desires and secrets are open and visible to God. We come as we are, without pretense.

Then we ask the Holy Spirit to cleanse and inspire us.

Finally, we turn in love and praise to God.

I know of few better ways to begin an offering of prayer. I like to offer the Collect for Purity in a process of three breaths. The Three Breaths Prayer invites us to lay aside the past, to be present here and now, and to anticipate what will happen in the upcoming period of prayer or work or learning. As a preparation for prayer, combining the Three Breaths Prayer with the Collect for Purity seems very helpful to me.

First Breath — being known in God’s presence, I lay aside everything that has gone before: Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.

Second Breath — being present, here and now, with God: Cleanse the thoughts of my heart by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Third Breath — anticipate what will happen in the upcoming period of prayer: that I may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord.

Today as we begin the long “ordinary time” after Pentecost Sunday, this Collect invites God’s Holy Spirit to breathe us into being, to inspire us toward love and praise. It is a good prayer to start a new season, a new week, a new day, a new moment. (With gratitude to Alcuin for his gift passed down to us.)

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Maria L. Evans

Thanks, Lowell, for writing this; I say this prayer every day, and enjoy the reminder from whence it came!

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Ann Fontaine
Ann Fontaine

I love this exercise for beginning prayer time. Thanks Lowell -- and good to have you back.

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