I stand at attention as best as I can during the Divine Liturgy, and I repeat: Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy…
But despite my best efforts, my brain wanders away. I’m so familiar and comfortable with these words that they stop resonating in my heart. A psychological phenomenon called semantic satiation occurs: I hear these words so often that they no longer sound like distinct words, only meaningless sounds. Another hour and a half passes, and my heart remains distracted and unchanged: Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy…
But what does it look like to mean these three words when I pray?
When I really stop to think about this prayer, it doesn’t suddenly become something complex and unwieldy — I don’t find myself grappling with the meaning of mercy, though that could certainly be a topic for several weeks’ worth of blog posts. Rather, I am reminded of the moments in my life where I have clung to those three words like a life raft. In a near-death biking accident in Peru, I found myself uttering those words rapidly as I lay in the dirt with the wind knocked out of me, wondering if I would be able to move: Lord have mercy. I remember myself in the chaos of my first year as a high school teacher, trying as best as I could to serve my students but encountering myriad struggles, failure upon failure piling up: Lord have mercy. I remember moments where I have sat with friends and relatives and sometimes even strangers, co-suffering alongside them through whatever their sorrow may be, those three words ringing sharply with meaning and purpose: Lord have mercy.
I notice that I access this prayer most often in moments of desperation or compassion. My heart doesn’t go to long and poetic meditations in these moments; rather, I call out to God with a simple and impulsive message: HELP! Be with us, be with me, here, now.
Reminding myself of this helps me to focus a bit more on the prayer in my calmer moments. I may not be in distress here and now, during Liturgy, but I am no less in need of God’s help. Where in my life can I ask for his mercies? How can I pray for His mercy upon those I know, as well as those I don’t? This thought process brings these words back to life. I am no longer stuck in that dazed loop of meaningless sounds. These three words are now what they were intended all along to be: a prayer.
The church has centuries’ worth of prayers, all rich and layered in their meaning, waiting to be breathed into life. Prayer, at its most basic, is not a repetition of pretty words, or a speech, or a performance; it is a conversation with God. When we talk with God, we come to know Him better, and we become changed by this relationship. Mother Teresa once said, “I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.” What might it look like for us to pray fervently with our whole hearts? How does prayer transform our ability to serve and love one another?
I hope to explore these ideas in this month’s blog posts. We all come from different backgrounds and have experienced prayer differently, but wherever you’re at, I hope these posts can help you connect more deeply to the words of the Church’s prayers, or perhaps this series might introduce you to some prayers you’re less familiar with. I’m no theologian; I’m just a person trying her best not to get distracted in Liturgy, but I hope that my experiences with prayer and service might serve you on your journey towards Christ. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy!
- Elizabeth Waters, YES Leader