‘Our Unending Prayer for Unyielding Love: Lord, Have Mercy’, by Jay S. Chin Soto

From the Editor: Here is an insightful reflection on the nature of God’s mercy and our need for it. While this is, naturally, a universal topic, it should be especially interesting for the Byzantine devotees among you… Enjoy!

Over Hilary and Trinity terms, various friends have brought to my attention the increasing presence of Byzantine Catholic spirituality at Oxford. Divine Liturgies have been celebrated regularly at St. Barnabas Church in Jericho, prayer services have been held in private homes, and bonds have been formed with the local Eastern Orthodox communities. One cannot help but remember the words of Pope St. John Paul II in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint, ‘[T]he Church must breathe with her two lungs!’[1] The traditions of the Christian West and East are vital to the life of the Church. This does not mean that they must be synthesized, but that they are equal in dignity and guide people into the Mystery that is God. I pray that we all benefit from this new ministry.

To do my part, I created a document with parallel text in English and Romanian for the Divine Liturgy for those wishing to follow along. I was very surprised and touched to see it already in use at the most recent service — and it pained me to not have a pen in hand to annotate all the errata! This small project has afforded me the chance to count the number of times we pray ‘Lord, have mercy.’ In the Roman Rite, this (or a variant) is usually prayed three times at the beginning of the Mass. In the Byzantine Rite, it is prayed at least forty-three times throughout the entire service. This then begs the question ‘Why are we constantly asking God for mercy?’ It has been a question on my mind for the past ten years. I hope to provide some meaningful, albeit small, insight.

We must first consider the meaning of mercy. Dumitraşcu (2012)[2] differentiates the Greek notion of mercy, which was based on inequality, being much closer to the English word pity, with Christian mercy. He draws from St. Maximos the Confessor, who indicates that mercy is the manifestation of God’s love. This love desires what is best for each person despite one’s fallen state and is also all-giving. If God is love, and God wishes for us to be reconciled to Him, then mercy in its truest sense is an unyielding and radical manifestation of this desire for reconciliation. 

Before we bring this contemplation of mercy to its natural Eucharistic conclusion, we must also bear in mind the heart of Byzantine monastic practice: hesychasm. Why? Because in the Byzantine tradition, the monastics — and not priests — are the spiritual role models. Although we are not all called to live with them, the more we orient our spirit towards God, the more our lifestyles will resemble theirs. If our families are not a true Domestic Church as the Second Vatican Council calls them to be[3] but instead give into the pressures and rhythms of ‘ordinary life’, then we have failed in our Christian duty.

What is hesychasm, then? Hesychasm is the realization of who you are and where you are headed. You live a life without contemplation. You go through the motions. You automate your entire being to be productive for the benefit of others. But within you, as Kallistos Angelikoudes points out, there are strings of the senses that resonate when you are touched by higher reasoning.[4] This is your soul remembering God, your Father. Within your heart begins a song long forgotten, the song that brought you into existence. Your soul cannot help but cry out for your Father, who you have spent so much time walking away from. This is what we call catharsis. This is not poetry but a fundamental reality. Once you realize how far you have strayed from the Way, you will cry. But this is only half the story. With your restored intellect, you understand that you do not have the power to place yourself on the path of righteousness again. You are lost, and you have no way of getting home. Yet again, you will cry. But with an oriented mind, you will find God patiently waiting to bring you back into His fold. Salvation is yours, if you want it. But beware, for the Enemy will try to distract and destroy you again. You must become watchful against these distractions. This practice of watchfulness, of paying attention to every single thing you do, is called nepsis. And how do you stay watchful? Through unceasing prayer.[5] We pray the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Only Jesus Christ can give you the strength needed to not fall again. This is hesychasm, the peace and stillness reached by rejecting the distractions of the world and accepting nothing but God’s love.

To ask God for mercy is to tell God that you love Him and that you need Him. You cannot do this alone. You cannot do anything alone. You need Him here and now. And the Lord so radically loves you that He becomes present under the appearance of bread and wine. The priest calls you by name and communes you by saying ‘The Servant/Handmaid of God receives the Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and life everlasting. Amen.’ With that most intimate union, you are liberated from everything. You belong only to the Lord. Now you are ready to bring God’s love to others. You then look upon this world that needs so much healing with new eyes; and you say ‘Lord, have mercy.’ This is the intercessory cry that strums the strings in the hearts of your fellow men, the one you heard so long ago when you were lost and so very afraid. It is the call home. It is the song that will save the world. 

Jay S. Chin Soto, M.Phil in Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, Wolfson

[1] John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, 54

[2] Dumitraşcu, N. (2013). Mercy, Love and Salvation in Orthodox Spirituality. Acta Theologica, 32(2), 75–78.

[3]  Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 11

[4] Skoubourdis, A. (2020). Philokalia: Volume 5. Virgin Mary of Australia and Oceania. 132.

[5] ibid. 133