O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee: Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
“Charity” is in Latin “caritas”, in Greek “agape”, in modern English translations, simply, “love”. It is, for Christians, but not only for Christians, the essential virtue.
The prayer appears in Thomas Cranmer’s The Common Book of English Prayer 1549 rev.1552). It is a collect (a short prayer, in Cranmer of one sentence, read by the minister in the Anglican liturgy) used on the Sunday before the start of Lent, the period of forty days leading up to Easter in the Christian calendar.
I have many readers who are Christian but also readers of different religions and probably readers with no religion at all. To some the above prayer will (perhaps) be both beautiful and profoundly moving, to others perhaps interesting, but without stirring any form of commitment. Its theme, however, is universal.
In a recent post I named Cranmer (along with the King James Version of the Bible, the Authorised Version, and Shakespeare ) as a maker of the English language during its freshest, most potent and expressive phase, making possible an extrordinary flourishing of the language and representing a standard by which English today might be tested.
Cranmer’s prayer is simple, direct , powerful. Monosyllabic words predominate. We seem to be moving to a positive from “O Lord who hast taught us that all our doings” to anticipate a favourable effect, whereas what we get is the negative counterplay of the second half of the phrase “without charity are nothing worth” resulting in the surprising force of the conclusion of the phrase, empowered as it is by inversion. We, today, would tend to say “are worth nothing” which would flatten the rhythm (with a slack ending) ; “nothing worth” (with two beats on first syllable of “nothing” and “worth” makes both words powerful, giving climactic force to the declaration.
Notice again ” doings”. Again we would attenuate it “the things we do” or else we would make them “actions”: same meaning, but more abstract and distant than the physically active “doings”.
The words are given, where possible, physical force. Along with “doings” look at the verbs “taught, “Send” , “pour”. Where there is superlative “that most excellent gift” the gift is given further substance: “the very bond of peace and all virtues” – or what holds all the virtues together meaningfully.
Then another powerful and daring climax : “without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee”. After all those monosyllables a clutch of longer words marked by alliteration makes us pick out the words precisely before the shock force of the living being “counted dead”. How can the worldly great or the self-centred in general be so discounted? The daringness is to be given a God’s eye view presented as we know it through Christ’s teaching on the primacy of “Love”. If charity is a Heaven-sent gift, which gives us life then all that is contrary is counted dead. “Dead before thee” shows the damning force of God’s valuation contrasted to what the world values.
The prayer holds together a dramatic conjunction of two forces: one making for charity, one in negation of charity within the perspective of God, who in Love provides those with faith in His gift of charity the blessing of fuller life as opposed to those lacking the gift who are rendered as naught without it.
The prayer has, I suggest, still the power to shock. We may think ourselves the star turn- leading goalscorers, sexy singers, the richest businessman in town, a top academic-one whose actions leads to a sense of self- importance – but we are suddenly told, our “doings”, our achievements, our ambitions ” without charity” are “nothing worth”. Charity comes before everything else and has to contain our “doings”, not the other way about, as the “rich young ruler” also found out.
The power of the message of the poem cannot be distinguished from the power of the style of writing. It is true Cranmer and his associates are often translating traditional material from the Latin but Cranmer’s greatness is to create a distinctive English style that reads well in public for centuries.( I have heard reports it is regaining popularity in Anglican services). To do this he developed English speech rhythms where the beat would fall on the words that need it most “whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee”. (Probably the final two words read best as anapaestic, rather than equivalent beats, with a rise in emphasis on each syllable to the long e-sound of “thee” acting to perpetuate the eternal consequences of being before God as Judge. There is a strong emphasis on monosyllabic , physical sounding words of Anglo-Saxon origin, consolidating English as a language of muscular force rather than a more musical romance language, like Italian.
The critic Ian Robinson places Cranmer as the starting point of modern syntactic English prose:
“Cranmer developed an English prose syntax, the first time this had been done since King Alfred the Great insisted that translations from the Latin must be into genuine English”.(1)
Almost five centuries later we remain his beneficiaries.
- Robinson, Ian The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment Cambridge University Press 1998