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Lent series: Soul worm from the desert

by
24 March 2023

Isabelle Hamley continues our Lent series with a reflection on the Jesus Prayer

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Christ Pantocrator: detail from a 13th-century mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Christ Pantocrator: detail from a 13th-century mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

THIS short prayer, often called the Jesus Prayer, is something like the spiritual equivalent of an earworm: you pray it a few times, and it starts burrowing into your soul. It is an old prayer, developed and widely used by the Desert Fathers and Mothers. You can see the simplicity and austerity of the desert in its 12 short words. Over time, it has become a central practice in Eastern spirituality. The prayer is said, slowly, rhythmically, again and again. And it just . . . stays with you.

Like all prayers used regularly, it is an invitation to learn to inhabit the words — to let them seep into the soul, prick the conscience, and fashion us into the likeness of Christ. And so, naturally, it is an uncomfortable prayer, which brings us face to face with God, and with ourselves. In a world in which we are often more likely to ask for understanding than for forgiveness, praying regularly “Have mercy on me, a sinner,” is radically countercultural. In a world that often tells us that we have to make our decisions, find our own ways, a world suspicious of power, to start with “Lord” is equally counter-cultural.

There is no equivocation about who Jesus is, no equivocation about the claim that Jesus has. “Lord” is an uncomfortable title today, because of the myriad ways in which human beings have used it — oppressively, unjustly, abusively. Nevertheless, the title remains, in our scriptures and in our prayers. To call Jesus “Lord” is to recognise Jesus’s power and authority; and yet recognising Jesus’s power and authority can happen only when we look at the story of his birth, life, death, and resurrection.

It is a story that subverts all the ways in which human beings misuse power. Jesus’s power is directed towards the well-being of the whole of creation. It is not self-seeking or oppressive, but liberating and transformative. And it is, unmistakably, power. In praying “Lord”, we acknowledge both this power and the disparity between ourselves and the Holy One. There is no equality or parity: it is an encounter with the One who loves perfectly and knows more — and better — than we do.

It is precisely the perfect love and wisdom of Christ, revealed in his life and ministry, which makes the second half of the prayer possible. It is because God is all-powerful and all-loving, both at once and in equal measure, that we can come before God as we are, without fear, knowing that our prayers and requests will be held gently and compassionately.

 

THE prayer continues with a rather bold and yet humble assertion: “have mercy on me!” There is no “please”, no “I just want to ask. . .”, simply a bold petition for mercy. It is because God has already revealed Godself in love in the past, and because God has promised to care for all eternity, that human beings can stand firm on the twin grounds of memory and promise. The boldness of the prayer is not rooted in human merit, but in human belovedness.

“Have mercy” is a cry that resonates throughout our scriptures. It is the cry of those who beg, those who are hurt, those who are rejected in the Gospels. It is the cry of the people of Israel throughout the Old Testament. Often, they do not even cry out to God, but simply cry out or groan in pain. And, again and again, God sees, God hears, and God has compassion.

Time and again, it is compassion that shapes God’s response to a broken world. Whatever our petition is — whether it is for ourselves, or another; whether it is for something that we have done, or something done to us; whether it is rooted in our choices and sin, or in pain for which we bear no responsibility — “have mercy” calls on the compassionate heart of God to respond. There is no need to tell God what to do; no need to offer elaborate solutions; no need to bargain. The prayer is not verbose: what we need is for God’s mercy and compassion to transform us and our world.

 

HAVING started with God in Christ, and connected God to humanity through mercy, we finish with “me, a sinner”. It could be a negative note. But it is also liberating. The Kingdom of God is not a meritocracy: it is a kingdom ruled by love, into which every sinner is invited. The prayer invites sober self-awareness. Whatever we pray for, we recognise that we — with our choices, and our frailties — contribute to the brokenness of the world, and that this part of us needs transforming.

Most human beings struggle with knowing themselves fully. We often feel guilt and shame for things that are not our responsibility, while failing to notice the things that are. Simply asking for mercy makes a generous space into which to bring the whole of ourselves, and invite the Spirit to work within us in ways that we may not be able to foresee, understand, or put into words.

Ultimately, this is a prayer of trust, that God will know how to answer the cry of our hearts when all we can say is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
 

Prebendary Isabelle Hamley is Secretary for Theology and Theological Adviser to the House of Bishops.

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