This being a relatively rare Sunday post – I only write on Sundays when I need to catch up on a missed instalment of Meanwhile, at the Manse – I thought it would be an appropriate time to share a very lovely prayer that I came across this past week. It is a prayer well-known in some circles (notably the worldwide Women’s Institute, of which a bit more later), but I suspect not so much to the general population. Its content certainly wasn’t known to me until this past week. If you happen to be a person who sometimes says prayers – even if only very rarely – I think you will find it a meaningful one.
The prayer has a name: it is called the Mary Stewart Collect. As you will find if you look it up on the internet, it was written in 1904 by a woman named (no surprise here) Mary Stewart, who was a high-school principal in Colorado. Her own title for it was A Collect for Club Women; she explained (according to this site and many others) that she came up with it “because I felt that women working together, with wide interests in large ends, which was a new thing under the sun … that perhaps they had need for a special petition and meditation of their own.”
I had until this evening been labouring under the delusion that the Mary Stewart Collect was specifically a Women’s Institute prayer. That was a result of reading probably hundreds of writeups about local W.I. meetings in the local press when I was growing up here at the Manse – and in fact I’m still reading them to this day, because the Tweed-area Chapman branch of the W.I. faithfully sends in reports of its monthly meetings for publication in the Tweed News, to which Raymond and I are faithful subscribers. In every one of those hundreds of reports over the years, it was mentioned that the meeting had started with the Mary Stewart Collect. But as I have just learned, the prayer has also been used by Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and the like, in the United States and all over the place.
Okay, I think now is the time for a little bit of information about the Women’s Institute, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it. The W.I. was founded in Stoney Creek, Ont., at the end of the 19th century, thanks to the work and inspiration of a remarkable woman named Adelaide Hunter Hoodless. “The tragic death of her son, John Harold Hoodless, from drinking contaminated milk led her to campaign for clean milk in the city. She devoted herself to women’s causes, especially improving education of women for motherhood and household management,” explains a section on Adelaide Hoodless on the site of the Federated Women’s Institutes of Ontario. The idea of an organization for women to help promote better health and better lives for all – its slogan is “For Home and Country” – quickly spread across Canada and around the world; you can read a good [though British-oriented] history of the W.I. here, and an overview of the Women’s Institutes in Ontario here. I should also mention that an incredibly important element of the work of Women’s Institutes in this country has been the collection and preservation of local historical information in what are called Tweedsmuir Books; I explained about them (and how important the Queensborough W.I.’s precious Tweedsmuir book has been in my own community) here.
Okay, one final thing, the question that I bet at least some of you are asking: Why is this prayer called a “collect”? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I was wondering the same thing. Long story short, calling prayers “collects” seems to be a thing for churches with episcopalian bents, i.e. Anglican and Roman Catholic. It is not a tradition, as far as I am aware, in most Protestant churches. But anyway, “a collect” is apparently a name for “a short general prayer,” according to Wikipedia, and here is a good explanation from the Church of England itself.
So back to the Mary Stewart Collect. I was introduced to the words of this prayer – or collect – this past Tuesday, when, because of my work on Meanwhile, at the Manse, I was honoured to be invited to be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Hart’s-Riggs branch of the Women’s Institute. This branch, which meets in the W.I. hall at the corner of Tannery and Hart’s roads, the historic former schoolhouse for that small rural community, has a long history of good works, community service and fellowship. (When you think about it, “fellowship” seems like an odd word when you’re talking about a women’s group, doesn’t it? Anyway.)
All right, that’s more than enough preamble. Here is the Mary Stewart Collect, as printed in the program of the Hart’s-Riggs Women’s Institute. I think it is a simple and graceful prayer not only for Women’s Institutes, or for women’s groups in general, or for women in general; it is a simple and graceful prayer for anyone at all. For all of us.
Mary Stewart Collect
Keep us, O Lord, from pettiness. Let us be large in thought, word and deed.
Let us be done with fault-finding, and leave off self-seeking.
May we put away all pretence and meet each other face to face, without self-pity and without prejudice.
May we never be hasty in judgement, and always generous.
Let us take time for all things; make us grow calm, serene, and gentle.
Teach us to put into action our better impulses, straight-forward and unafraid.
Grant that we may realize that it is the little things that create differences; that in the big things of life we are one;
And may we strive to touch and know the great human heart common to us all;
And, O Lord God, let us not forget to be kind.