This is part of a series of posts on the invocations of the Jesus Psalter. There is a menu of these posts at the bottom. The invocations will be considered thematically.
Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, have mercy on me
Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, help me
Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, strengthen me
Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, comfort me
THE OPENING Invocations on the Jesus Psalter each are begging God for Mercy. If we fail to understand the meaning of “mercy” the whole thing will be lost. When we hear “have mercy” me may imagine a victim being beaten and crying out for mercy. We may imagine a prisoner on death row begging for mercy. Or perhaps we imagine a heroine in a classic drama begging for mercy on behalf of her parents or village. This idea of mercy is rather late though. The idea that we would need God to stop beating us up is not what is implied in these invocations as we can see if we take them together.
In Latin, mercy is misericordiae. In Greek, ἐλέησόν, eleison. In Hebrew, חַסְדֶּ, chesed. The Latin carries the poetic resonance of “let your heart beat with mine”. The Hebrew is such a strong word that traditional English translations like the Authorized Version render it as its own word: lovingkindness. The Greek is even more poetic, for it comes from the word for olive oil. It implies soothing, healing, and luxurious touch. It’s a warm massage after a hard workout. When we pray at Mass, “Lord, have mercy” we should hear these overtones instead. When we pray for peace or healing, an end to violence or injustice, we are not asking God to stop whipping us with these scourges. Rather we are asking for the loving, soothing oil of God’s presence to heal us, struggling through a world of sin.
When we ask for Jesus to have mercy on us, we mean – literally – in his blood, the sacramental and real presence of his mercy in our lives.
When we ask Jesus to help us this is part of the same mystery, is it not? Jesus, soothe our wounded muscles and help us to heal, to get strong again. Strengthen us and comfort us! Do you see how all of these are just deeper unfoldings of the prayer for mercy?
Help me is the plaintive cry of a child, but we need help even in praying the prayer. Without Christ we can do nothing. When we know that, then any action, any prayer, any motion becomes for us either a participation in or a rejection of God’s mercy. Strengthen me is the next logical request! We are moving forward in our skills, we need not only help to do… but to get better at doing. We ask God to add more weight to the bar, to help us bend just a little further, to break us a little more so that we may heal in a better posture.
It’s possible to hear the prayer of “comfort me” as some sort of hand-holding, huggy-squeezy moment. But if you’ve ever had deep tissue massage, physical therapy, or even surgery you know that not all things comforting are comfortable. And, if you’ve ever sat on a soft sofa, lain on the wrong mattress, or had too much chocolate, you know that comfortable is not always the right thing.
But the comfort of God’s mercy may not be the comfort we’re looking for, for it comes in the unshielded openness of Confession, it arises in the middle of a hard day’s work in the vineyard. The comfort of God’s mercy is like the muscle memory where you make the motions because it is easy to do so – where you’ve schooled everything in your life to bend to God’s will. Only in doing God’s will, then, is there any sense of rightness, of comfort.
These four intercessions are not at all what they seem. As you meditate on each in turn, your prayer for mercy may go from “I’m a sinner, forgive me” to “I am lazy, draw me forward” to “I’m tired, kick my backside” to “I’m ready to go again, charge!” As you open to God’s mercy, you may discover that even the cross you bear is, itself, God’s mercy acting on you. And you will be crucified daily because of love.
Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi, Jesu.