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How not to pray!

As human beings our will to speak is insatiable. We find listening a lot harder. If we’re not careful this can also be true of our relationship with God. The worst type of prayer, which is very nearly not prayer at all, barely acknowledges the Presence of The Holy Trinity, but instead fires off a shopping list at God, telling Him what to do, then going about the rest of the day in a typically worldly fashion. Our interaction with the Risen Lord is reduced to something like ordering groceries via the internet and then waiting for them to be delivered.

How should we pray with words?

As indicated in the previous article Prayer 1, the best way to start praying is being silent in the presence of God. Listen. However, sooner or later we must use words. As creatures of the Divine we are inextricably drawn to a close and intimate relationship with our Creator. He is Creator, we are creatures; remembering this dynamic is vital. We are not equals. Jesus Christ is my friend, my brother and my saviour, but He is also my King and my God. As God He is everlasting and non-created Light, Love and Purity. We are not. So what possible words can we say in His Presence? Jesus Himself tells us how we should approach Him:

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ 13 And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner! 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14, emphasis mine

… Or in other words:

LORD HAVE MERCY!

What does ‘Lord have mercy’ actually mean?

In Orthodox services, and especially during the Divine Liturgy, ‘Lord have mercy’ is repeated many times. In certain services such as the daily hours, it is prayed 40 times in a row. As Orthodox Christians, our favourite prayer is just this: Lord have mercy!

However, it is essential to know what we are actually saying when we pray using these words. The word ‘mercy’ in Western culture has taken on a somewhat negative connotation, akin to a pleading after committing a crime. In an Orthodox Christian sense it does mean this in a limited way, but it also means so much more.

First of all in this prayer, we acknowledge that Jesus Christ is God by calling Him ‘Lord’. This should also bring to mind our appropriate relationship with him as one between friend and brother, but also as Creator and creature, King and subject, Pure and impure, Judge and sinner.

What is ‘mercy’?

In English, ‘Lord have mercy’ is a translation of the Greek ‘Kyrie Eleison’, where ‘Kyrie’ means ‘Lord’ and ‘Eleison’ means ‘have mercy’. The Greek word for mercy, ‘Eleos’, comes from the same root that refers to olive oil. This is important as it tells us what we mean when we ask for God’s mercy. Before modern medicine, olive oil was used to treat a variety of ailments, both internally and externally. If one had a cut or a burn, for example, some olive oil would be rubbed into the wound, which would then be soothed and heal better.

In Hebrew, the word which is translated as ‘Eleos’ means ‘steadfast love’. By looking at both the Greek and the Hebrew roots of the word ‘mercy’ we can begin to build a deeper, more compassionate translation of the word beyond the purely legalistic.

My God, forgive me, heal me, and enclose me in Your love

We ask God to have mercy on us. In a very full way we are placing ourselves in humility before Him as our Saviour. We are asking him not only for forgiveness, but to heal us of our faults and imperfections, heal us of our sickness and diseases, and to allow us continually to be enveloped within His loving kindness. And for those for whom we pray, we are asking exactly the same, even for our enemies.

Saying very little, we are actually asking for that one thing that God desire most for us, that we are transformed into His own image and likeness.

May the Lord have mercy on all of us!