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Lord Have Mercy

September 19, 2010

I had an interesting conversation the other day, about a phrase that is a huge part of Orthodox Christian prayer, worship, hymnology and spirituality. The phrase in only three words long; “Lord have mercy.” In the course of morning and evening prayers, just from the Pocket Prayerbook for Orthodox Christians, each time of prayer has the phrase 18 times. An Orthodox service can have the phrase even more than that. The festal vigil service for the Elevation of the Cross has the phrase almost 500 times.

Orthodox prayer in general is very repetitive. Especially the words “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” This was a problem for the person I was speaking to. The verse from Matthew 6 was brought up; “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think they will be heard for there many words.” This, in their estimation, was proof that the Orthodox prayers are the kind of thing Jesus spoke against.

By definition, the word Vain means: producing no result; useless. having no meaning or likelihood of fulfillment. I am convinced that the Orthodox Prayers are not what Jesus was talking about. If it was just repetition and many words, then any prayer would fit this bill. I have often heard prayers with the words, “Father we just…” peppered throughout. The Psalms themselves are full of repetition and many words. Yet these were not only the prayer book of Israel, but continue to be the prayer and hymn book of the Church. So if repetition in and of itself is not a negative, what is its purpose?

I would like to share the response that I gave in the conversation I had. I mentioned that there are several positive aspects to repetition. People learn from repetition. Scripture often repeats something that is of great importance. Repetition can also be used in a rhythmic fashion to help promote memorization. Jesus used this kind of tool: “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” How important, and how worth memorizing are the words, “Lord have mercy”?

I also pointed out something that I had to do within myself, as it relates to praying the prayers of the Orthodox Church. First, I had to choose to submit myself to the authority of the Church and put aside my own opinion about how many times I say a phrase within the prayers of the Church. Even choosing to say that I would put aside purely spontaneous prayer and use the written prayers of the Church, is a surrender. Of course, spontaneous prayers from the heart are acceptable to add to the prayers of the Church. I said that I believe God honors the humility involved in that. Not only that, but because the prayers are written and done, generally, at the same times of the day, there is a unison with the rest of the Body of Christ and myself. Unity and humility I believe to be led of the Holy Spirit. Lastly, as I repeat those simple words, “Lord have mercy” I find that they sink into my inner man.

There is an inner stillness spoken, of by the holy men and women of the Church, that comes from the inner-man crying out to God without words. This is the “praying without ceasing” that St Paul speaks of. This ceaseless inner prayer is prompted by a simple repetition of the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” Often times it is shortened to “Lord have mercy” “Jesus have mercy” or even just, “Jesus”. What a great reminder of my daily need for God’s mercy. How better to remind myself, than to repetitively ask for it.

This is something that God has been working into my heart regarding prayer. My prayer is that it continues to work its way into every area of my life.

“Lord have mercy”

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