Saturday, February 24, 2007

Have Mercy!

yImev lon the vum vo' lIj ghaj ghopmey
Don’t forsake the works of your own hands Psalm 138:8c

(click for podcast)

With these words we draw to the end of Psalm 138 - and are given a prayer - one that echoes the cry of believers throughout the centuries. It may sound desperate - prayer often is - but at heart it is a cry for help, and a pledge of faith - we are indeed the work of God's hands, and it is because of that we can come with confidence to ask his help.

Across the years, the language of prayer unites believers - for believers cannot help but pray. It is their duty, their privilege and their lifeline - an intimate connection to God. This, the mystery of prayer, is at the core of the life of faith. It is a mystery, because we can find wonderful promises, interwoven through the testimony of scripture which has great examples of prayers - answered and not. Believers know - from personal experience and the lives of saints through the ages - that we cannot treat prayer as magic, or mechanical. Yet we still pray.

I've noted before how Biblical language has transcended time and culture - the words Amen and Hallelujah, of Hebrew origin, are examples of words that have become part of languages and cultures far from their origin - words that are integral to the faith of believers. In addition to those words, we can find others. This cry from David "Don’t forsake the works of your own hands" brings to mind the cry of the blind men who called out to Jesus: ghaj pung Daq maH, puqloD vo' David! - Son of David, have mercy on us. (Matthew 9:27)

That cry mercy - eleison in Greek - is the heart of the Kyrie Eleison - Lord have mercy, a simple prayer in which again we have Biblical words - the Greek for Lord have Mercy - that have moved out and been included transliterated into more languages, beginning with the Latin liturgy (so much so that many think they are Latin words). And that cry for mercy, that tiny kernel of prayer, give us a wonderful starting place to join in prayer.

For many, this simple prayer has crystalized in the devotion called "The Jesus Prayer", as Wikipedia notes:
The Jesus Prayer, also called the Prayer of the Heart by some Church Fathers, is a short, formulaic prayer often uttered repeatedly. It has been widely used, taught and discussed throughout the history of Eastern Christianity. The exact words of the prayer have varied from the most simple possible involving the name "Jesus," such as "Lord have mercy," to the more common extended form: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
Another writer adds:

The history of the Jesus Prayer goes back, as far as we know, to the early sixth century, with Diadochos, who taught that repetition of the prayer leads to inner stillness. Even earlier John Cassian recommended this type of prayer. In the fourth century Egypt, in Nitria, short "arrow" prayers were practiced.
Abba Macarius of Egypt said there is no need to waste time with words. It is enough to hold out your hands and say, "Lord, according to your desire and your wisdom, have mercy." If pressed in the struggle, say, "Lord, save me!" or say, "Lord." He knows what is best for us, and will have mercy upon us.

At this time of year Christians are in a season called Lent. The name comes from the same root as lengthen - for at this time the days are lengthening. In this time we join together to contemplate Jesus and his death on the cross. Many seek to reinvigorate their life of prayer - calling to mind Paul's command to "pray without ceasing!" IF you're looking for a way to do that, I'd commend this practice - the simple beginning "Lord have mercy," and encourage you to mine the rich treasures of scripture for your vocabulary - I can't count the number of times that I've come back again and again to the words of the Bible for my prayer language. I encourage you to give it a try!

yImev lon the vum vo' lIj ghaj ghopmey
Don’t forsake the works of your own hands Psalm 138:8c

Kyrie eleison,
Lord, have mercy.

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