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Kyrie Eleison

Kyrie Eleison

The most potent prayer uttered in the Christian religious tradition is, arguably, the Kyrie Eleison. The melodic phrase is Latin for “Lord have mercy.” There are similar prayers in the Muslim and Jewish traditions. At the heart of this simple prayer is its multifaceted nature as an expression of faith in God, a request for Divine aid, an admission of our weakness in the presence of the Divine, and as an expression of total submission to the Almighty and our humble part in the Divine Plan. I think of these three words as the underpinning of our relationship with God. These foundational concepts are present in all three Middle Eastern religious traditions.

The Kyrie, or "Kyrie Eleison”, is a refrain that is prevalent in many Christian liturgies, but which also shows up, albeit in a different form, in Jewish (“Im Yirtze Hashem” means “God Willing”) and Muslim (“Insha’allah” means “If Allah wills”) prayer. It is also a prayer that is often used in different ways when Christians seek solace in prayer where there is little time to say a more extended devotion. “Kyrie Eleison” is a transliteration from the Greek alphabet to the Latin alphabet. The direct English translation is, “Lord have mercy.” 

I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?
— C.S. Lewis

This simple, three-word prayer is surprisingly powerful and multifaceted. It appears in many forms in the liturgy of numerous Christian sects and is best known as a part of the Roman Catholic mass. The many meanings and the succor it provides cannot be understated. With its repetition in the liturgy, it is possibly the most repeated prayer in Christendom. 

For me, there are four facets to this prayer, and I believe that these facets form the foundational relationship with God for devotees of all three Abrahamic religions. The first is as an expression of faith. By saying this at any time, one is confirming faith in the Almighty. It is our most direct, succinct communication with God, authenticating our belief by our very desire to speak to and be heard by The Almighty.

Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.
— Jeremiah 29:12

The second facet I see is as the usual form of a prayer, a request for help or, in this case, merciful intercession. I, like many other people, will offer up a simple prayer for relief, as the last thought on a matter that seems out of our control or likely to go sideways. I hear the prayer used in this form most often. It is a request for divine help. In the Christian liturgy, the prayer is used as a refrain after each in a series of requests for divine assistance. 

I find the third meaning to be the most interesting. It is a kind of admission. In this case, the person praying is admitting that they need God. I think this is one of the hardest things to do. We often have trouble admitting to others that we need their help because this is an admission of our vulnerability and our society looks down on vulnerability as weak. Acknowledging that we are not in control is considered an expression of mental and emotional incapacity. It’s almost like admitting to a criminal act or an addiction; it just is not done often in open company. When we acknowledge that we need God, we are embracing our vulnerability.

To admit that I am weak is the exercise of strength.
— Craig D. Lounsbrough

The fourth facet involves submission. Resignation is more in line with the Islamic tradition but also exists in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The idea is that one submits wholeheartedly to the will of God, to what will be in the Divine Plan, to the part one is called to play. I think it is the most difficult of the meanings to bring into living action. We have to do more than just let go. We have to accept that we may not get our way, that there is something bigger than us at work that we cannot comprehend. It is perhaps the most significant expression of our belief in the divine. It is one thing to say, “yeah, I believe.’ It is another to say, “OK, I will let the will of the Divine prevail, and I won’t complain.” It is challenging.

The Kyrie Eleison also encompasses all these facets at once, when intoned with mindful intention in moments of complete devotion or relinquishment. Here it takes on the fullest meaning and constitutes the entire relationship with The Divine in the Semitic religious traditions. Here the devout say in these three powerful words, “I have faith, I ask your help, I admit my vulnerability in your presence, and I submit to your will.” This submission, I believe, raises this shortest of prayers to its position as the most powerful of communications with The Divine. 

Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.
— Luke 22:42

I use this prayer throughout my life. I’ve intoned it before sleep, before undergoing surgery with a general anesthetic, right before walking out in front of an audience to speak with an open heart, when I need solace in the face of poverty, despair, and disease that I am powerless to fix. I came closest to fully holding all four facets in my heart as I intoned those three words the moment my brother’s heart stopped beating; on the day we removed life support. 

If you are Christian, this prayer should be familiar to you. There are also the Jewish and Islamic versions, though I think that the Kyrie Eleison words are applicable in all three Abrahamic religions. I urge you to give it a try and strive to embrace the four facets of meaning. 

OH, and there is this great song by the 80’s rock band Mr. Mister. I think it is beautiful merging of rock music and prayer. And yeah, the song name is Kyrie Eleison.

Kyrie eleison, kyrie eleison, kyrie
The wind blows hard against this mountain side, across the sea into my soul
It reaches into where I cannot hide, setting my feet upon the road
My heart is old, it holds my memories, my body burns a gemlike flame
Somewhere between the soul and soft machine, is where I find myself again
Kyrie eleison, down the road that I must travel
Kyrie eleison, through the darkness of the night
Kyrie eleison, where I’m going will you follow
Kyrie eleison, on a highway in the light
When I was young I thought of growing old, of what my life would mean to me
Would I have followed down my chosen road, or only wished what I could be
Kyrie eleison, down the road that I must travel
Kyrie eleison, through the darkness of the night
Kyrie eleison, where I’m going will you follow
Kyrie eleison, on a highway in the light
— John Ross Lang / Richard James Page / Steven Park George
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