“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me” or, more briefly, “Lord have mercy” was given to Christians at the time of the apostles and was appointed for them to say without ceasing, as, indeed, they do. But what this “Lord have mercy” means is something that very few people know today and so they say it in everyday speech, pointlessly, alas, and in vain. They don’t receive the Lord’s mercy, because they don’t know what they’re asking. This is why we should know that when the Son and Word of God had become incarnate, was made a human person, underwent such suffering and was crucified, shedding His most holy blood, He ransomed people from the hands of the devil. Since then He was been the Lord and Master of human nature.
Of course, even before His incarnation He was Lord of all creatures, visible and invisible, as their Creator and Maker, but not of those people and demons who, of their own volition, didn’t want Him as their Lord and Master. Our good God made people and angels free and endowed them with reason so that they would have knowledge and discretion. This is why, because He is just and true, He didn’t want to remove this freedom from them and to rule over them against their will. Those who accept His rule, He does indeed govern, but those who do not, He leaves to their own devices.
This is why, when Adam was deceived by the apostate devil, and himself apostatized from God and didn’t wish to comply with His commandment, God left him alone in his freedom: because He had no wish to become a tyrant. But the envious devil who deceived him in the first place, didn’t stop deceiving him thereafter, until he’d made him like the dumb beasts and he lived like an animal, without reason or sense. God took pity on him, however, and so He lowered the heavens and descended to earth as a person, for people. And with His most pure blood, He redeemed us from slavery to sin, teaching us through the Holy Gospel how to live in a God-pleasing manner. And, according to Saint John the Theologian, He gave us the ability to become children of God.
Through baptism, He gives us a new birth and re-shapes us, while, with His spotless sacraments, He nourishes our souls on a daily basis and invigorates them. In a word, with His great wisdom, He found a way to be inseparable from us for ever, as we are with Him, so that there’s now no room inside us for the devil. Some Christians, however, even after the many gifts they were granted and after the many blessings lavished upon them by Christ the Lord, were again deceived by the devil and did his will instead of God’s. They’re not completely insensitive, however, to the extent that they don’t realize the evil that’s befallen them.
They acknowledge their error and recognize their enslavement, but are unable, by themselves, to get rid of it. So they hasten to God, saying “Lord have mercy”, so that our merciful God will take pity on them, have mercy on them, welcome them like the Prodigal Son and give them His divine grace again. Through this grace they can rid themselves of their enslavement to sin, escape the clutches of the demons and thus live a God-pleasing life, observing the commandments of God. So these Christians who, as we’ve said, say “Lord have mercy” with this in mind, will always receive the mercy our good God and will take His grace, so as to be able to free themselves from slavery to sin and to be saved.
But those who have no idea about this matter, whether they don’t understand that their behaviour is in thrall to the flesh and to the things of this world or don’t have the opportunity to consider their enslavement, still pointlessly say “Lord have mercy”, just from habit. How it is possible for them to receive God’s mercy? Such wonderful and infinite mercy. It’d be better for them not to receive God’s mercy at all than to do so and then lose it again, because then they’d be twice to blame. Besides, if someone gives a precious stone into the hands of a little child or some uncouth person who doesn’t know its value, and they lose it, it’s obvious that it’s not they who’ve lost it but the person who gave it into their hands.
To understand this better, just think that in this world, people who are without means and live in poverty and who want to take alms from somebody rich, go to them and say “Have mercy upon me” [Or “Give me alms”. Anglo-Saxon alamosna from Greek ελεημοσύνη (eleïmosyni). So Kyrie eleïson means Lord have mercy, but also Have pity on my poverty and provide me with what is needful]. Or again, when people are in debt and want their creditor to forgive them the debt, they go ands say “Have mercy upon me”, meaning “Forgive me my lack of funds and write off what I owe you”. In the same way, people who’ve done wrong go to those they’ve wronged and said “Have mercy upon me”, that is, “Forgive me for what I’ve done to you”.
And so sinners cry out to God “Have mercy upon me” and don’t know what they’re saying or why they’re saying it, nor even what this mercy of God is that they’re asking to be given. They don’t know how it’s in their interests to ask for mercy, and they just say “Lord have mercy” out of habit, without understanding a thing. How can God give such people His mercy when, without knowing it, they despise it and lose it as soon as they’ve received it and sin again, all the more? God’s mercy is nothing other than the grace of the Holy Spirit, which we sinners have to ask from God and say without ceasing “Lord have mercy”.
In other words: “Have mercy on me, Lord, sinner that I am, in the wretched situation I find myself in, and receive me again into Your grace. Give me the spirit of strength, to resist the temptations of the devil and the evil habit of sin; give me the spirit of emotional control, so that I can feel my real self and correct my life; give me the spirit of fear, so that I may fear You and observe Your commandments; give me the spirit of love so that I may love You and no more wrench myself away from you; give me the spirit of peace, to keep my soul tranquil and concentrate all my thoughts and be still and untroubled; give me the spirit of purity, to keep me unblemished by any defilement; give me the spirit of meekness, so that I may be calm towards my fellow-Christians and keep myself from anger; give me the spirit of humility, so that I don’t think too highly and become proud of myself”.
So those who know the need they have for all this and seek it from our merciful God, by saying “Lord, have mercy”, are certain to receive what they ask for and will be granted the mercy and divine grace of the Lord. But those who know nothing of what we’ve been talking about and say “Lord have mercy” merely out of habit cannot possibly receive the mercy of God ever. Because they’ve already received many gifts from God at an earlier time, but didn’t acknowledge them and didn’t thank God for giving them.
They received the mercy of God when they were made and became human; they received the mercy of God again when they were baptized and remade and became Orthodox Christians; they received the grace of God when they evaded spiritual and bodily dangers that threatened their lives; they received the mercy of God all the times they were able to partake of the spotless Holy Sacraments; they received the mercy of God every time they sinned against Him and saddened Him and weren’t utterly destroyed or even punished for their instruction, as they should have been; they received the mercy of God in a variety of ways, when they we granted blessings by Him and didn’t recognize them and, instead, forgot about them all and took no heed for their salvation. So have can Christians like this receive the mercy of God, without feeling and without knowing that they’re receiving such grace from God? As we’ve said, all they’re saying, all they’re doing is repeating “Lord have mercy”, without any aim or purpose, apart from habit.
Source: Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών [Philokalia of Holy Neptics], τ. Ε΄. Εκδ. Το Περιβόλι της Παναγίας, σ. 289 -292.