The quality of mercy

Here I am, Lord, have mercy on me.


There is a criticism applied particularly to the Book of Common Prayer but also to a lesser extent to Common Worship: that the liturgy leaves us perpetually grovelling – making worms of us, so to speak, and never quite lifting us up to our place as redeemed children of God. Even in the Gloria, it is bemoaned, that great song of the Church, we are still asking God to have mercy on us.

But I am a worm, and no man;
    scorned by men, and despised by the people. (RSV Ps 22.6)

This is never bothered me, terribly much – I am by nature and Augustinian, with a very bleak view of human nature to start with – but lately I have had my understanding of the cry, “kyrie eleison,” radically transformed.

The source of this transformation was our erstwhile Archbishop, Rowan, in a book I recommend: Ponder These Things. In this book I discovered that the various icons of the Virgin Mary sit within various strands of tradition. One of these traditions portrays Jesus, not in the usual dignified posture that befits the Son of God, but clutching at his mother as any toddler might. This tradition paints mother and son cheek to cheek, with the infant Christ child almost scrambling to be as close to his mother as physically possible.

Rowan Williams’ reflections on this icon are worth reading, but the discovery that meant I have not worshipped the same since, is the discovery of the name of this particular tradition: the Eleousa. This is generally translated, ‘loving kindness’, but it is the same root that in our worship is translated ‘mercy’, as in ‘kyrie eleison’.

Now, when I ask God to have mercy on me, the image in my head is no longer about me, about my worthiness or lack of it, but it is of Christ drawing me in, holding me close, bringing me back to himself.

As Lord Rowan points out in his book – and as anyone who’s held a toddler already knows – this is not always a comfortable experience, but it is one worth repeating, worth weaving through our liturgy, and through our prayer life – kyrie eleison: Lord have mercy on me, hold on to me and do not let me stray, remind me of your love for me, invade my space and do not let me forget you.

This then further amplifies what I was once taught about the threefold kyrie –

Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

– that it is an invocation of the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. We are pulled into the embrace of the Trinity.

Figure 3. A large icon of Our Lady Tolga (so-called Tolgsky I or Tolga I), Yaroslavl, Russia, last quarter of the thirteenth century.“Have mercy upon us,
have mercy upon us, most merciful Father;
for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake” (BCP confession) and
“Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
have mercy upon us.
For thou only art holy;
thou only art the Lord;
thou only, O Christ,
with the Holy Ghost,
art most high
in the glory of God the Father.” (BCP Gloria)

Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children. NSRV Ps 90.16

Not only one of the oldest prayers in Christian tradition, the kyrie eleison is one of the most radical, is almost all we need to say. It is not the grovelling cry of a worm, but the sigh of a lover, the call of the lost mountaineer, the mute lifted hands of the child:

Here I am, Lord, have mercy on me.


Ikons: Theotokos of Vladimir, Russia, 1130 & Our Lady Tolga, Russia, late thirteenth century.

For more on the Eleousa see


Author: @RoffenWorship

A Slightly Welsh Priest

2 thoughts on “The quality of mercy”

  1. The following paragraph from your thoughtful piece (and thank you for it) jumped out at me: “Now, when I ask God to have mercy on me, the image in my head is no longer about me, about my worthiness or lack of it, but it is of Christ drawing me in, holding me close, bringing me back to himself.” Christ is not only “drawing me in … bringing me back to himself” but is also ‘bringing me back to myself’.

    I’ve been reading a great deal recently on the theology of friendship of St Thomas Aquinas and have been much taken by it. Your post brought some of my thoughts on Aquinas to mind and I hope that you don’t mind if I share them here. (Forgive any typos.)

    Aquinas based his understanding of friendship, as with much else, on the philosophy of Aristotle. Aristotle identified friendship as one of the chief goods of life and essential to any eudemonic (flourishing) existence. The post-Hellenic schools, particularly the Epicureans and the Stoics, continued to place great value on it.

    Their idea of friendship was, in some respects, broader than ours. Aristotle categorised different forms of human relations that might be included under the broad umbrella of friendship: these included the kind of camaraderie found among members a sports team, the brothers-in-arms relationships of soldiers, fellow citizens, fellow travellers, between those with common business or professional interests (what Aristotle would have styled as friendships of utility), or persons whose company we enjoy or with whom we engage in pleasurable pursuits (for Aristotle, friendships of pleasure).

    It is doubtful whether modern man would count fellow citizens or business partners, as such, as friends. In the last few centuries the category of friendship narrowed to include only those with come we have some significant degree of closeness or intimacy with. Social media has, oddly, broadened it again, but largely in superficial ways.

    However, that older conception of friendship was at once broader but also narrower. There is a definite sense in the ancients that even as they might write like the Stoics of the need to be friends with all men they have a definite conception of a particular class of friend that is far more significant than all others. This is the kind that Aristotle referred to as ‘one soul inhabiting two bodies’.

    For Aristotle, this last kind of friendship, friendship perhaps in its greatest form and the one essential to eudaemonia, is marked by three features: concordia, benevolentia, and beneficentia. Before a person can form friendships with others, he must first have these qualities in respect of his relation to his own self. Only then, can the person turn outwards.

    Concordia is the concord between friends, the agreement at heart on important matters and pursuit of a common goal. It is the union of wills which will support and sustain the common project of life towards its goal. As with the rest of Aristotle’s ethical theory, the virtue of concord is a matter of habit. The habit of friendship is concord, whereby the choices we make are in agreement, or near agreement, with the choices and actions of our friends. This aspect of choice, which is the action of a rational being, marks friendship out as something that can only exist between rational beings. Aristotle defined man as a rational animal, which included in it the idea of man as a political animal, with the rational ability to form relations and pursue common projects.

    Benevolentia is the good will that a person has for their friend. Willing only the best for their friend (but with the understanding of what is truly good – for Aristotle and the Stoics Wisdom and Virtue topped that list), this extended beyond mere intention and required an active component which sought to secure the good of the other person.

    Beneficentia concerned benefits, the giving and receiving of gifts or favours. Related to benevolentia, these are the acts that can initiate, build and help to maintain friendships. Seneca dedicated an entire work (prosaically called On Benefits) to the discussion of benefits. There’s an extended discussion to be had on benefits and certain justice issues that can arise, but that is for another day.

    For now, the question of whether or not such gifts and repaying them constituted the repaying of a debt is the most pertinent. The issue is an obvious one as sometimes friends may be of differing means and the one friend may not be abel to match, in monetary terms, say, the gifts of the other. Aristotle and Seneca both deny any parallel with ordinary debts and instead focus on the will and intent by which gifts for favours are given and received. Reciprocity is necessary, but the equality lies not in the value of the gift or favour, but rather in the quality of the intent or will.

    The use of friendship as a model for Christian charity was not original to Aquinas. Long before him, Ss Bazil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus (of whom more anon) and St John Chrysostum associated caritas with friendship. The Bible too is replete with discussions of friendship and the blessings it can bring (e.g. Si 6:5-17 among many others) and there is a scriptural basis to St Thomas’s idea of friendship with God, chief among them Jn 15:12-15, but also concerning Moses (Ex 33:11) and Abraham (Jm 2:23).

    Aquinas’s original contribution was to blend Christian caritas with Aristotelian friendship, both as a model of Christian relations one man to another and of the Christian with God. However, departing from the customary practice of theologians at his time, Aquinas did not model Christian caritas on erotic amor, but rather on amicitia. For the rest of this letter I will use amicitia as a shorthand for the intimate friendships of Christians.

    Immediately Christians (in a manner similar to the earlier Stoics) run into an obvious objection: that we are called to a universal love for all. How then can particular relations, be they friends or family be appropriately greater than our love for other persons. However, Aquinas holds that charity does not extend in a blanket uniform manner, nor does it obliterate existing differing intensities or qualities of relations, but rather joins differing types of relation while reinforcing their contrasting intensities. The partialities of our relations are not obliterated but transformed.

    On the question of concordia, Aquinas weakened the demands of Aristotle’s ethics. This reflected Aquinas’s greater sympathy for the human condition and a gentleness to his overall thought that many of the Greeks, including Aristotle lacked. He allows for a much greater range of disagreement, reflecting perhaps the vigorous and even heated debates that he engaged in on theological matters.

    While their may have been disagreements he, and the theologians he competed with, had the same goal in mind (to understand and communicate the truths of the Faith, so as to give glory to God and to bring men to love Him) and employed the same means (reasoned argument). This concordance of goals and means was sufficient for Aquinas in terms of satisfying this particular essential condition of friendship.

    Moving away from theologians to Christians in general, it is easy to see how concordia could be achieved in the context of the Christian vocation. The shared goal is to live out the Christian vocation, loving and serving God and our neighbours, and ultimately, through the Grace of God, transmitted through His Church, to be granted salvation. The shared means is that of mutual support and love, expressed through prayer and acts, so as to support one another, through encouragement and correction (Pr 27:5-6), in the Faith. In the pilgrimage of life concordia, or like-mindedness, is important, for “shall two walk together except they be agreed?” (Am 3:3).

    Mutual good will (benevolentia) and giving (beneficentia) are also easy enough to map onto the Christian life. In the particularly of the kind of intimate friendship I have been discussing, these and concordia are, I contend, goals worth pursuing beyond the generality of caritas towards all and seeking particular intensification of these elements in our relations with individuals.

    Each of these three elements can be found in the passage from the Office of Readings from the feast day of Ss Basil and Gregory. It’s worth quoting in full:

    “A sermon by St Gregory Nazianzen

    Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.

    I was not alone at that time in my regard for my friend, the great Basil. I knew his irreproachable conduct, and the maturity and wisdom of his conversation. I sought to persuade others, to whom he was less well known, to have the same regard for him. Many fell immediately under his spell, for they had already heard of him by reputation and hearsay.

    What was the outcome? Almost alone of those who had come to Athens to study he was exempted from the customary ceremonies of initiation for he was held in higher honour than his status as a first-year student seemed to warrant.

    Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognised that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

    The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.

    We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that everything is contained in everything, yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other.

    Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

    Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.”

    The challenge in our individual lives is to form amicitia relationships so that they last a lifetime, in order that they may enrich our lives and be of mutual assistance in our goal; the fulfilment of our Christian vocation. We are back again to Aristotle and the role of friendship, of amicitia, in a virtuous life. Such relationships may not even be optional, they may even be necessary for a Christian in terms of sustaining a life-long vocation, for “it is not right that man should be alone” (Gn 2:18).

    We are made for each other and we are made for God: He is our end, our telos, the final cause which gives meaning to our existence. For, as St Augustine of Hippo opened his Confessions with, “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

    This yearning for God was in the Old Covenant that of a created being to its creator, of a slave to his master:

    To you have I lifted up my eyes,
    you who dwell in the heavens:
    my eyes, like the eyes of salves
    on the hand of their lords
    – Ps 122(123):1-2

    At this point, we meet Aquinas, in his teaching on friendship, at his most radical. But it is less that great Saint’s radicalness than the radical truth of our faith, a truth that both uplifts and humbles in equal measure.

    Aquinas took an observation of Aristotle’s from the Nicomachean Ethics, one marked by the aristocratic nature of some of The Philosopher’s thoughts, and makes it the foundation of his teaching on grace: that God was made flesh, and having become as we are, died for us and rose again, so as to invite us into the life of God and to share, through the free gift of grace, the amicitia, the friendship, of the Trinity with Man.

    Aristotle had observed that friendship could only exist between equals. Aquinas took this observation and joined it with Jn 15:15 –

    I shall no longer call you servants,
    because a servant does not know
    his master’s business;
    I call you friends,
    because I have made known to you
    everything I have learnt from my father

    Jesus indicates that a new dispensation has come into being. No longer are we servants to God the master; we are now friends. There can be no more a radical inequality that been the Creator and the creature, how then, taking Aristotle to be right, can we be friends with God? Aquinas’s solution was that a new order of creation has been brought about by Christ, a gratuitous initiative by The Word, to make Man equal to the divine and thereby invite him into divine friendship. No merit or effort on our part could achieve this – “only God can make us godlike” as Aquinas put it in the Summa. This is the radical message of Christianity; that God has reached down to Man, and entered into history, in order to invite us into friendship, into communion with Himself, thereby enabling us to achieve our telos, not through our own efforts, but rather through the free gift of God. This is the very heart of Aquinas understanding of grace and it is also the essential element of God’s mercy.

    To apply the three criteria of amicitia to our relationship with God,seems straight forward enough (in theory, if not in practice!) in the case of concordia and benevolentia. Beneficentia is the one that appears to cause problems: how can we return the benefits we have received from God? The burden appears too much, not least because what we have received is so great and beyond that God lacks for nothing that we can give Him. Jesus pointed the way to the solution to this: “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

    In our amicitia with God we are call on to return the benefits of God’s liberality through our care for Jesus when he walks in disguise as the poor, the hungry, the destitute, the suffering, the refugee, the Traveller, the homeless; though our caritas for all who were made in the image and likeness of the Father. By giving lived expression to mercy in this way, we ourselves then receive mercy.

    If amicitia is one of the gifts of God’s grace, charis, it cannot merely be for private enjoyment, it must become a gift, a charisma, for the common good of the community. Amicitia cannot merely be for those directly involved in it: like any other charisma is must be fruitful, demands even to be fruitful. Indeed, no more than joy is the fruit of the life genuinely lived in the Spirit, the enrichment of the broader community is the fruit of genuine amicitia. “After all, brothers, you were called to be free; do not use your freedom as an opening for self-indulgence but new servant to one another in love.” (Ga 5:13) For the gifts of grace to be fruitful, they must be used in service to one another. God’s liberality of mercy, his drawing to Himself and to our true selves, must be responded to by our own authentic lives of merciful action to our brothers and sisters.

    Our friendship with God is His sanctifying grace, His mercy. It is transformative. Through mercy we are, as you said, brought back to Him, but also to ourselves. We are invited to actualise the full potential of the kind of beings that we are, to the very horizon of our being. As Benedict XVI says in his book ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, “… that is what redemption means: this stepping beyond the limits of human nature, which has been there as a possibility and an expectation in Man, God’s image and likeness, since the moment of creation.”

    Through no merit of our own, as a free gift from our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, we are invited, and enabled through mercy to join, into the inner life of the Trinity. There at the end of this earthly life, we may be granted that final beatific vision; to see God as He really is, to know Him, and to be joined seamlessly into the Love of God:

    Unto Whom,
    Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
    Be Glory for ever.


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