Orthodox Buzz Words 4: Lord Have Mercy

The next commonly used Orthodox catchphrase that I would like to take up is “Lord have mercy.” Some years ago I was standing next to a lady during the Divine liturgy. At one point she leaned over to me and said “If I have to say ‘Lord have Mercy’ one more time I’m going to…” So, good luck with that! The phrase occurs in every prayer, after every petition, and may well be the most repeated phrase in the whole service. Of course, all of that happens with good reason. The use of the phrase is based on (among other things) the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. In that story we are told about two men who went up to the Temple to pray. One, the well-respected Pharisee, was very confident and basically used the occasion to celebrate himself and his achievements. But, near the end of the story we are told that the Publican, a person of low status in that society, stood humbly at a distance. Unlike the long flowery prayer of the Pharisee he was only able to offer these few words, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” (Like 18.10). He knew that as a sinner he had nothing to bargain with, no right to ask for anything whatsoever than a completely unmerited display of divine love and compassion. Over the course of the centuries this simple prayer evolved, was incorporated in liturgical services, and eventually became known as the Jesus Prayer. It takes its basic form from the words of the Publican as the simple petition, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” According to Bishop Kallistos Ware this prayer, although short, is “at the same time remarkably complete.”[1] In it we find a number of elements including a cry for mercy, the discipline of repetition, the quest for stillness, and the veneration of the Holy Name.

What concerns me here is that first element, the cry for mercy, “Lord, have mercy”, “Kyrie eleison.” But, just what does mercy mean? While the cry for mercy certainly does involve sorrow for sin, it is not fundamentally negative. In fact, it is the prelude to forgiveness. As Bishop Ware points out, “it affirms that God’s loving kindness and compassion are greater than my brokenness and guilt.” It signifies the love of God freely offered for healing and restoration. “Lord have mercy” is then a prayer, a prayer full of light and hope.

In many respects it is a nearly perfect prayer. After acknowledging our own sinfulness, affirming the Lordship of the Savior, knowing He is not obligated to us in any way, we do the only thing we can do and that is humble ask for his mercy with a broken heart. This short phrase seems to capture everything we as human beings need. No wonder it “is found in liturgical worship from at least the 4th century and perhaps earlier.

So yes, it is repeated often in our lives as believers and it should be. But therein lies a danger. Frequent repetitions often dull the senses, rob us of an immediate awareness of the weight and significance of what we are saying. To the lady complaining I would answer that I, a sinner in need of forgiveness, cannot possibly say it often enough. For me there is no such thing as saying it too many times.  Perhaps she had become accustomed to the sound of saying it while having lost sight of its significance. Indeed, it would quickly become wearisome to have to keep repeating a phrase that had become more or less meaningless.

On the other hand, there are many other believers who enthusiastically mouth the words at every opportunity as if it were some kind of punctuation marker. If they hear of some tragedy—Lord have mercy. I didn’t get the promotion—have mercy. In the midst of unusually difficult circumstances, one often catches snippets of conversation that include abbreviated expletives such as “mercy” or “have mercy.” It seems to be used as a more acceptable (pious?) substitute for expressions of surprise (Jesus!), amazement (Oh my God!), or fear (Holy Mother of God!). At other times it is used to mask hostility, criticism, and sarcasm as when a not-so-brilliant suggestion is met with “mercy!”

Hearing such things, as I often do, I wonder if the beautiful, complete, and nearly perfect prayer has been diluted and cheapened. I certainly am not in a position to evaluate the in-situ speech of my fellow Christians. I certainly do not mean to suggest that we say it less frequently. As I mentioned above, I can’t seem to say it often enough. But, I am saying that if we are going to use it in a liturgical setting or otherwise, it should be done deliberately and with a full awareness of its true and marvelous meaning.

So, if this phrase is indeed derived from scripture and sound theology, and if it can and should be repeated often, then perhaps that repetition should come in the form of what we could call

intentional expression. I think that means several things.  Knowledge of the phrase origins and meaning is essential, convincing the faithful that how we use these precious words is important and what difference that makes. Have we taught our fellow-believers more than just the mechanics of the Christian-speak? Have we shown them how especially this phrase must be seen as a spiritual exercise and an expression of our faith, our own humility? Have we insisted on a correspondence between their lives and the content of their faith?

It also means that all of us consciously experience, taste each and every word of this marvelous phrase every time the words cross over our lips. It means following every petition, every exclamation, every blessing with an intentional affirmation. Thus, making every petition a real, deliberate, and genuine request to the Lord. Making every blessing an intense wish for the well-being of the people and so on. Is this level of engagement even possible? Yes, it is, but it takes effort, practice and time. But more than that, it takes an intentional and deliberate determination to know that faith, live it and not just go through the motions.


[1] Ware, Kallistos. The Jesus Prayer. Catholic Truth Society. Kindle Edition.


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