It was years ago, when I was pursuing my master’s degree, that my friend Kathleen—a delightful Episcopalian woman who seemed bent on convincing me that the faith did not belong only to my denomination—burned a CD for me. The CD was by a band called Anonymous 4, who performed medieval chant and polyphony.
One of their songs was called Kyrie Eleison.
I thought it was pretty; I have always loved foreign-language music. It took me some time to figure out that the kyrie was a prayer, and a simple one: “Lord, have mercy.”
It says a lot about the quality of my life when I was pursuing my master’s degree that I found the prayer beautiful but found no need to particularly focus on it. I was, as per the tradition of the time, praying with my youth group for brokenness and holiness and passion and fire and renewed zeal. I was aware that I needed God’s mercy—I am always in need of God’s mercy—but I was also in a period of equipping and growing. I was ready to go out in the world; I did not yet have the sense that I needed to be spared from the world.
Now, though, in the year of our Lord 2022 and all its disasters, I find the kyrie is on my lips as much as any prayer.
This coming Ash Wednesday feels particularly dark.
Ukraine is under siege. I’ve exchanged praying for watching the news because it’s so sad and grim and awful. Because I am aware of how powerless I am alone, how powerless we all are alone, against the powers that guide and shape the world, and I have to return to God to remember they are under His authority, at least.
And there’s still a pandemic, although—as per the state of things in the current world—many people have forgotten about it in the face of this new threat and darkness. Small threads are fraying in the cultural fabric in ways that don’t seem significant until viewed all of a piece: the mail isn’t running as it should, supply chain issues are causing all sorts of weird problems, it costs twice as much to buy groceries now as it did a year ago.
And that’s not including the myriad personal struggles that I know others endure or are enduring: divorces, health problems, job loss, freak accidents, estrangements, death, loneliness. It’s a lot. It’s a lot. To quote Isaiah 1:5 (AMP): “The whole head is sick. And the whole heart is faint and sick.”
This world is a body ravaged by every disease and corruption.
But then I think of Isaiah 59:16:
He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.
Here is what I know:
God is paying close attention. God is deeply horrified—God is offended—by injustice. God mourns with those who mourn. God is close to the downtrodden, the cast-out, the lowly. Where people suffer, God is present, and He suffers with them.
I don’t claim to understand why the world works the way it does. I know a lot of believers are praying for victims of war and suffering; I also know that even in the face of those prayers, the Russian onslaught may continue.
I don’t have an answer to the question of theodicy. I’ve had to curtail my social media use just to avoid the endless onslaught of “why are you even praying do you really think it matters” garbage that clutters up almost every forum. I can’t give you whys and hows. I’m not God.
I just know that, particularly in times like these, I have to face the question of whether I choose to trust God and embrace the mystery of what I don’t understand, or mistrust Him and demand an explanation before I bother to engage again.
For me, faith lives in the gap between what I see and who I know God is. And because I have encountered Him, because I have seen Him at work in my life and the lives of others, I trust. I wait. I pray. I understand that some questions I have won’t be answered. I understand that I can’t make sense of it all.
I know that my job, right now, in so many ways and for so many people, and for myself, is to pray the kyrie.
Lord, have mercy. On the suffering and the sad and the people hearing explosions in their hometowns, on the lonely and the grouchy and the grouchy because they’re lonely, on the sick and those tending them, on those who cry out for your help…and on those who rebuke it.
Lord, have mercy, on me and my ability to develop empathy for people across oceans when I can’t seem to summon it for people I work with daily, on my questions and my disappointments, on my want to be saved from suffering rather than learn to endure it through you.
Lord, have mercy, on this world falling apart at the seams.
Lord, have mercy as you would have mercy, in ways that don’t submit to my notions of fairness, for you pardon conquered and conqueror, welcome the good son and the disgraceful one, in equal measure.
Lord, have mercy, for we are small and frail, and everything we know and hold but You is small and frail, and at unsettled times like these I think we know it and feel it more than usual.
Lord, have mercy.
And help us to be merciful as you are merciful.