ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Commentary and Meditation
This collect has remained virtually identical throughout the history of the Prayer Book and its revisions, and was originally translated from the Sarum Missal's collect. When I discovered this last fact in a very old copy of The Teacher's Prayer Book, I was surprised. You see, this is yet another collect with a strongly Augustinian theme, so I had expected it to be a basically Cranmerian composition. The discovery that it wasn't served as a useful reminder that St Augustine's strong emphasis on the priority and necessity of grace and the helplessness of the "natural" man was a common Western inheritance.
However, some may consider the first clause extreme and inaccurate -- even an example of Augustinian overkill. Are we really powerless to help ourselves? Before we rush to answer no or assume the use of hyperbole, we should note the qualifying words "of ourselves". Where does our power come from to repel temptations, the "evil thoughts" spoken of in the collect, for example? Does it not proceed first from God in his grace, his unmerited favour?
One might still question the claim of the collect because it refers to protecting the body as well. Surely, here at least we have some control, some "power of ourselves to help ourselves"? Perhaps to some extent we do, but even here we often overestimate how much say we have in what happens to us. So much of what happens to us is through circumstance, and very little of that circumstance is due to our plans or actions. So much must be left to Divine Providence in trust. More to the point, every ability we have is a gift from God. Nothing is really "of ourselves" in a radical sense.
Where does this leave our wills and works? They seem ignored by the collect. Yet the praying of the collect is itself a cooperation with God, an active request for God's grace. And our subsequent cooperation with the grace given, the goodness infused, is in fact seen as one result of that grace by theologians. God always acts first, but his work is not merely for us but in us, enabling us to be his "fellow workers" (1 Corinthians 3.9). That is why the Scriptures teach both that God is the one who keeps or protects us and that we must keep ourselves (e.g., Jude 21, 24).
Much ink has been spilt on the relationship between grace and human free will. In particular, theologians have considered the question of whether the human choice to obey God and embrace salvation is merely made possible by grace or whether it is the inevitable result of a grace that is "effectual" or irresistible. The Eastern Fathers, Molinists and Arminians have favoured the former position, St Augustine and his patristic followers, Thomists and Calvinists have favoured the latter. The best answer I have seen to this question is in a novel by C. S. Lewis, Perelandra. In it the hero, Ransom, realises God is asking him to physically defeat another man, Weston, who is possessed by the Devil. This demoniac has been attempting to deceive a Venusian Eve and his efforts at temptation have been relentless despite her gentle but persistent rebuffs. In addition, he has begun to bring the evil of physical cruelty to the innocent planet. Ransom faces a terrifying choice: risk hand-to-hand combat with the evil creature or be partly responsible for the corruption of a whole world through inaction. Here is an excerpt from the passage which describes his coming to a decision:
"[H]e knew -- almost as a historical proposition -- that it was going to be done. ... The whole struggle was over, and yet there seemed to have been no moment of victory. You might say, if you liked, that the power of choice had been simply set aside and an inflexible destiny substituted for it. On the other hand, you might say that he had been delivered from the rhetoric of his passions and had emerged into unassailable freedom. Ransom could not, for the life of him, see any difference between these two statements. Predestination and freedom were apparently identical. He could no longer see any meaning in the many arguments he had heard on this subject."