Lord Have Mercy

kyrieMaybe all prayer can be reduced to two words: “Kyrie Eleison.” The translation, “Lord, have mercy.” This is the usual prayerful response in most liturgical churches. During that portion of the worship service that involves the “Prayers of the People,” the priest or deacon will rise to lead and say something like, “With all our heart and with all our mind, let us pray to the Lord, saying,” and the people will respond, “Kyrie Eleison” or “Lord, have mercy.”

What, then, is mercy? It is the extraordinary. It is the absurd. It is what no one else could ever do for us; and it’s what we could never, ever, do for ourselves. It’s more than sympathy; more than kindness; and far superior to a handout. Mercy is the improbable gift of goodness, granted not because someone deserves it, but because the giver really is good and gracious.

Here is an example of mercy that I came across a few years ago involving President Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge came to the presidency suddenly, when President Warren Harding died in 1923. Thus, during the first days of his own presidency, Coolidge and his family lived on the third floor of the Willard Hotel in Washington, giving the Harding family time to grieve before moving out of the White House.

It was at the Willard, according to Richard Garvey, that the president awoke in the night to discover a burglar in his bedroom. Coolidge patiently watched the intruder until the thief got to his pocket watch. Gently he spoke in the dark, “I wish you wouldn’t take that. I don’t mean the watch and chain, only the charm.”

Coolidge identified himself as the president and began a conversation with the burglar, finding out that he was a young college student who was unable to pay his hotel bill and buy a train ticket back to school. He had resorted to thieving, and obviously he had picked the worst possible room to rob. Or had he?

The president, by Garvey’s account, took $32 from his wallet and gave it to the would-be thief with the instructions to leave exactly as he had entered – whatever way that was – so as not to alarm the Secret Service.

That is mercy. It is undeserved, uninitiated, unmerited, unbelievable, unequaled goodness, grace, and lovingkindness. You don’t get punished – you are given a gift. So, when we pray, “Kyrie Eleison,” we are asking for a grace that can never be repaid. We are asking God to intervene in a way that only God is capable.

So again, maybe all prayer can be reduced to this simple appeal. For your children when they lose their way; for your spouse in times of trouble; for yourself when you are facing an impossible challenge; for the times that you are afraid and can’t find peace; for when you have failed and can’t recover; and for when you have no other options, there is only one prayer to remember: “Kyrie Eleison,” Lord have mercy.

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