Kyrie Eleison: A prayer for heavy times

Today is filled with all sorts of heaviness–for a number of people we know and hold dear. This past month has been a heavy month for us. I know that it’s always a heavy time for someone, somewhere.

I often have a hard time praying with impromptu sentences these days: the kind of prayer I grew up with, prayer where we just talk and talk to God. In heavy times, especially, words get stuck in my throat. In heavy times, I sometimes wonder what is the point of all of the words?

Thankfully, there are other ways to pray.

Today, I knew that I needed to pray but the heaviness was and is unsettling.

Then, I found this Kyrie Eleison.

It’s just what my heart needed. This ancient prayer: Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.

Breathing in the music, breathing out the prayer. A container for the heaviness.

I pray in breath, and music, and images.

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Marcus Borg’s Speaking Christian. In this book, he tackles the language of Christianity. He offers new but ancient, alternative understandings to many of the words so many of us take for granted.

Mercy is one of those words. Borg suggests that in most cases the word compassion is a better translation than our current understanding of the word mercy. He writes:

“The linguistic associations of the Hebrew word commonly translated into English as compassion are rich. The Hebrew word is the plural of a noun that in its singular form means “womb.” To be compassionate is to be womblike: life-giving, nourishing, perhaps embracing and encompassing. To be compassionate is to feel for another the way a mother feels for the children of her womb; she loves them, wills their well-being, and sometimes becomes fierce when their well-being is threatened. To say that God is compassionate, as the Bible often does, is to say that God is like this.”[1]

He goes onto say:

“To return to the Kyrie with its threefold appeal to God to ‘have mercy upon us:’ In times when we have a strong sense of having sinned, the common meaning of the word mercy can have a deep meaning. But think of the larger meaning the Kyrie would have if it used the word compassion instead: ‘Lord, have compassion on us, Christ have compassion on us, Lord have compassion on us.’ Each time we say or sing it, we would be reminding ourselves of our need for God’s life-giving and nourishing quality, reminding ourselves that this is the character of God. God is not primarily a threatening judge to whom we appeal for mercy, but a life-giving and nourishing reality who wills our well-being and the well-being of the whole of creation, just as a mother wills the well-being of the children of her womb. And we are reminding ourselves that this is how we should be.”[2]

Isn’t that so beautiful?

So I’m breathing in this song and this ancient prayer and imagining a womb-like God embracing and comforting those reeling from heart-breaking news. Embracing and holding those who are sick. Encompassing and surrounding those keeping vigil over loved ones. And in this heart-felt kyrie, I find myself embraced and held at the same time.

[1] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian (New York, NY: Harper One, 2011), 127.

[2] Id. at 131.

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