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Holy Desire and Good Counsel

By John Bauerschmidt

Cranmer’s 1549 prayer book, and subsequent editions, continued the use of a collect first found in the eighth-century Gelasian sacramentary, one identified by the 1559 version as a “collect for peace.” Designated by the prayer book for daily use at Evening Prayer, this prayer has been said countless times by generations of Anglicans; it continues in use as an option in the 1979 prayer book in both traditional and contemporary forms. Its influence is incalculable.

The designation as a collect for peace does not say enough, for embedded in this classic prayer is a precis of how Christians engage in moral discernment, a practical guide to living a holy life. The preamble of the traditional version is illustrative: “O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed.” The English rendition faithfully reproduces the Latin original: “sancta desideria,” “recta consilia,” “iusta opera.” Brian Cummings notes that Cranmer’s translation of this preamble was not original, but already found in a vernacular primer of the 14th century (The Book of Common Prayer, Brian Cummings, ed. OUP, 2011, 695).

The “holy desires” first mentioned by the prayer acknowledge the role of desire in moral discernment. What and how do we love? To what end do we tend? In giving a primary place to desire, the collect perpetuates the insights of the classical philosophical tradition and the influence of St. Augustine in particular. “For we are justified in calling a man good not because he knows what is good, but because he loves the good” (The City of God 11.28, trans. by Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin Books, 1984). As John Burnaby reflected in his classic Amor Dei, desire for Augustine is the predominant note in his construal of the Christian life (Amor Dei. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938, 98).

Our desire drives forward counsel and action. But the designation of desires that are “holy” suggests a context and a content in keeping with the will of God, and the commitments of Christian faith. As Jesus prays in Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt. 26:39). Desire can be disordered, and we can love the wrong thing. As Augustine noted, “The whole life of a good Christian is a holy desire” (On the Epistle of John 4.6, emphasis added). Another way of saying this is that a holy desire must be a desire for God as the end of all desiring.

Here we come to the second of the three phrases, “all good counsels.” The choice of the word counsel is significant, because the word implies deliberation. “Taking counsel” denotes consultation with others and consideration by oneself, a process of conferral (even if only internal) that moves toward judgment. In this context, it implies reference to the guidance of Holy Scripture, and other sources of moral teaching. In common parlance, counsel may be equivalent to judgment (“my counsel to you is to do X”), but only in a context where both counsel and judgment are understood as part of a deliberative process.

In the contemporary version of this prayer, in the 1979 prayer book, “good desires” are followed by “right judgments.” If judgment includes counsel, all well and good: judgment has both its deliberative and executive modes. But “right judgments” in the prayer unfortunately suggests a moment of action in which judgment is itself judged by the choice it makes: the right judgment. The focus is on choice and its execution, and perhaps subsequent reflection on it, rather than on deliberation. To the extent that the passage from “good desires” to “right judgments” implies a sort of moral intuitionism, in which we move from our own apprehension of what is good to the choice of action, the process becomes less an act of discernment and more one of self-assertion.

For Aquinas, counsel precedes choice, as choice precedes action. Choice involves both the reason and the will (ST I-II, q.13, a.1). “Now in things doubtful and uncertain the reason does not pronounce judgment, without previous inquiry: wherefore the reason must of necessity institute an inquiry before deciding on the objects of choice; and this inquiry is called counsel” (ST I-II, q.14, a.1). But the process is not purely intellectual, because the matter for choice flows from the desiring will: “counsel belongs, in a way, both to the will, on whose behalf and by whose impulsion the inquiry is made, and to the reason that executes the inquiry” (ST I-II, q.14, a.1, ad 1). It is the will that desires, creating the context for the work of reason.

Finally we have the “just works” that follow at the end of the deliberative process. Here we are firmly in the realm of action and ascetical practice, the step into judgment that leads to engagement and commitment. Oliver O’Donovan reminds his readers that “Ethics, though reflective, is still a practical discipline” (Finding and Seeking: Ethics as Theology, Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014, 5): that is, one concerned with practice. Moral discernment cannot become a process of endless deferral of judgment and action. “There is a failure which consists essentially in refusing responsible agency, a failure to think morally, a passive-reactive immanence that is deaf to the call of God to act and live for him” (20).

O’Donovan rightly calls his readers to remember that “Action is adventure, the injection of new initiative into the stream of future events, the product of which cannot be controlled or foreseen” (204). At the same time, the process of moral discernment is not solipsistic, but attentive to the world, and not simply to the self and its construal of reality. The reference to “just works” reminds us that Christians aim to do God’s will. Again, O’Donovan writes, “The root of agency lies not in self-perception, but in receiving God’s address to us” (Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013, 112).

The collect concludes with a petition for peace, “that peace which the world cannot give,” that fits with another Augustinian insight. For Augustine, “The life of felicity, which is also the life of eternity, will show a love and a gladness that are not only right but also assured” (The City of God 14.9, trans. Bettenson). In that perfect peace, as Augustine outlines, love and desire are secured and free of the possibility of disruption. Blessedness consists in “two causes working in conjunction, the untroubled enjoyment of the changeless good, which is God, together with the certainty of remaining in him for eternity” (The City of God 11.3, trans. Bettenson). Desire culminates in delight.

In this life, peace is not secured, but still we pray for it, “that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments,” or in the contemporary version of our prayer, “our minds may be fixed on the doing of your will.” The peace we can enjoy now is peace with God by faith, through forgiveness (City of God 19.27), or even the temporal peace of the earthly city that the pilgrim people of God make use of now (City of God 19.26). Yet this peace is not the perfect and ultimate peace that will characterize the City of God.

The prayer concludes with the petition that being defended by God, we “may pass our time in rest and quietness.” This last petition is, as an example of English usage, perhaps one of the most charmingly phrased and persuasively couched in the entire prayer book tradition: sadly absent from the contemporary version! Instead we are pawned off with an artless repetition of the word “peace” that figured earlier in the prayer. The inability to “pass time” is arguably a characteristic modern failing, not to mention our frantic disinclination to rest. As Augustine says in Confessions, “our hearts find no peace until they rest in you” (Confessions 1.1, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin. New York: Penguin, 1961).

As a guide to moral discernment, the prayer book collect brings together desire, deliberation, and action in a harmonious whole, with holy desire providing the glue. As Christian ascesis, the prayer provides both a program and posits a goal for the Christian life, the peace and rest that in our earthly pilgrimage can be present intermittently but cannot be secured. There are distinct moments in Christian moral discernment, steps on the path leading to action, yet it is the love of God and our desire for God that has primacy. Again, Augustine (with a different emphasis): “The whole life of a good Christian is a holy desire.”

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