‘Give what you command, and command what you will’

This week, our collect reminded me of one of the more famous members of the Cloud of Witnesses, Saint Augustine of Hippo (d. 431). Let us begin first with the Prayer Book Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter:

O ALMIGHTY God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The collect originates in the early mediaeval sacramentary associated with Pope Gelasius I (492-96), although there and with Cranmer in the 1500s, its invocation was ‘Almighty God, which does make the minds of all faithful men to be of one will’ — it was changed in 1662 in response to the Commonwealth and its suppression of the Prayer Book. The phrase that caught me yesterday was not the invocation, as important as that is in both the 1549 and 1662 versions, but the supplication, that God’s people would love what He commands and desire what He promises.

St Augustine, 6th-c image from Lateran

The St Augustine quote is not precisely the same:

Da quod iubes, et iube quod vis. Imperas nobis … continentiam.

Give what you command, and command what you will. You impose continency on us. –Confessions X, 29

St Augustine is praying for the ability to live by God’s commands, and for God’s commands to be whatever they may — in his case, celibacy. The Prayer Book is praying for us to love His commands and desire His promises. Nevertheless, if anyone is to embrace the famous Augustine quotation, it is necessary to grasp hold of the Prayer Book supplication. For God to ‘give what [He] commands’ and for us to accept it freely, we need work on our hearts and affections; we need ‘to love the thing which’ He commands.

Of course, this is perfectly biblical. One Psalmic example of many, Psalm 119:35:

Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; * for therein is my desire.

Jeremiah 31:33 (repeated Heb. 10:16) says that God will inscribe the Law on His people’s hearts. We are to be saved from sin by loving virtue. God can command what He will, and we shall be able to do it because the law of the LORD will become our delight.

But the Prayer Book takes us above and beyond Law to blessing. God’s Word is full not only of exhortation but also of promises. Look through the early chapters of Revelation, ‘To him who perseveres I shall…’ Look to Romans, ‘If you believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord and confess with your mouth that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.’ Look to the promises of Our Lord in Matthew, ‘Come to me all that are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.’

If we endure faithful to the end, if we persevere in faith in a godless society, and accept God’s grace to live holy lives, if we pray this collect and that prayer of St Augustine, we shall inherit the universe (Ro 8:17).

Let’s pray with fervour, then.

~ Matthew ~


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