Having studied in a Cambridge College, the words of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, especially at Choral Evensong, remained central to our liturgical diet. One criticism I often heard applied to the BCP (and, to a lesser extent, to Common Worship services) was that the liturgy leaves us perpetually grovelling – making worms of us and never really lifting us up to our place as beloved, redeemed children of God. Even in the Gloria, the joyful song of the Church, we ask God to have mercy on us.
…And there is no health in us:
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders;
Spare thou them, O God,
which confess their faults,
Restore thou them that are penitent,
According to thy promises… (extract BCP Confession)
Personally, this has never caused me any sleepless nights – I am, as you may have realised from my last couple of blog posts, an Augustinian by nature and have a reasonably bleak view of human nature. However, having read a chapter of Bishop Rowan Williams’s excellent book on Marian Icons, Ponder These Things, my understanding of the cry ‘kyrie eleison’ (Lord have mercy) has been completely transformed.
In Ponder These Things, Rowan Williams presents a number of beautiful meditations on icons of Our Lady, which leads the reader deep into the various traditions of icons of the Blessed Virgin and, through these icons, calls us to ponder the great themes of Christian theology and spirituality. It’s a truly remarkable little book. One of these icon traditions which has been very significant personally, portrays the Lord, not in the usual dignified posture that befits the Son of God, but clutching at his mother as any toddler might. This tradition of icon has mother and son cheek to cheek, with the infant Christ scrambling to be as close to his mother as is physically possible.
The revelation for me in Rowan’s book was the discovery of the Eastern name for this tradition. While, in the West, this style of icon is usually known as ‘the `Virgin of Tenderness’, the Eastern Church calls this icon the Eleousa (Ἐλεούσα). Usually, this is translated ‘loving kindness’ (hence, tenderness in the West) but it has the same root as the word that in our worship is translated ‘mercy’ (ελέησον, eleison).
Since reading Ponder These Things, whenever I ask God to have mercy on me, I no longer think exclusively about me and my unworthiness – like a defendant pleading mercy at the feet of the judge – but of Christ, drawing me in, holding me close, drawing me back to himself. As Bishop Rowan highlights in his reflections, and as anyone who has ever held a toddler knows, this is not always a comfortable experience but it is an important one, one worth weaving in to our liturgy and our prayer life.
With this insight, when we pray Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy upon me, we are saying to Christ – ‘Lord, hold on to me and do not let me stray from you, remind me of your love, invade my space, even that locked room which I try to hide from you, and never forget me.’
This teaching further amplifies the threefold Kyrie which we say at the Eucharist –
Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.
This is, fundamentally, an invocation of the Trinity: asking for mercy from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in saying this prayer, we are not grovelling at God’s feet – but praying that we may be swept up into the life of the eternal Trinity: into the life of the God who longs to be near to us.
With this observation and the image of Mary the Eleousa, the kyrie eleison becomes not only one of the oldest prayers in the Christian tradition but also one of its most radical – in truth, this prayer says almost all we need to say. Certainly, the Orthodox monks on Mount Athos who spend vast tracts of time saying the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us’, wold agree that this simple prayer is a central part of the Christian life. Yet, ‘Lord have mercy’ is not the grovelling cry of a worthless worm, but the sigh of a lover, the call of the lost sheep, the mute lifted hands of the child who longs to be closer to his mother:
Lord, have mercy upon us.