Have Mercy on Me a Sinner

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The first Psalm begins a long meditation on David’s relationship with God. Over the course of 150 psalms we will encounter every human emotion possible in that relationship. These prayers give us openings to meditations of our own that are as important to us today as they were to David so long ago. Indeed, they teach us how to pray. They are rich in theological insight, but they are also written in a language that is rich with all the full range of meaning that is natural to poetry and to prayer. One of the tools of poetic insight is the pun. Hebrew, like all other languages, is rich with this tradition.

For example, the Hebrew words for ʺhappyʺ and ʺstepsʺ are very similar. This similarity gives us a marvelous poetic pun in this first psalm that underscores the wise person’s happiness which results from daily choosing to walk in God’s ways, in the footsteps of God. David has recognized that when he has not walked in the footsteps of God, he has found only misery. It was only when he had seen the errors of his ways and turned back to those of God that he found the happiness his heart had desired.

The word ʺmeditatesʺ in verse 2 could also be translated as ʺmurmurs.ʺ This marvelous pun evokes the kind of prayer that one enters into in solitude and silence, when one has let go of the worries and pressures of the world and settled quietly into the presence of God. In this kind of prayer, or meditation, one is no longer aware of one’s own words, but finds oneself murmuring the prayers that God has whispered into one’s own heart. The words are no longer yours, but God’s.

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This reminds me, too, of Paul’s words in 1Thessalonians 5:17, ʺPray unceasingly.ʺ How does one do that? In the 19th century an anonymous Russian asked that same question of a monk known for his holiness in prayer. He asked the old monk, ʺHow does one pray unceasingly? One must eat and sleep. How can this be done?ʺ The monk replied, ʺI don’t know, but take this prayer into your heart and repeat it often: ‘Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.ʺ Still skeptical, the Russian man went off and began saying the prayer over and over. He prayed it while he walked from sunrise to sunset on his long and solitary journey. It became a constant meditation for him. Then, one quiet morning, as he was walking, on a country road, without a thought in his mind, he suddenly became aware of the fact that he had been murmuring that prayer. He realized that it had become part of him, like the constant beat of his heart, and that his soul had been praying that prayer, even when he was not consciously thinking of it. His heart was filled with joy.

Let us, then, meditate on God’s ways day and night, as often as we can. Let us begin to practice walking in His ways at all times. When we stumble, or lose sight of them, let us simply repeat a simple prayer, like this Jesus prayer, over and over again, until our hearts begin to murmur it all the time. When we do, like the wise person spoken about in this first psalm, we will begin to experience the happiness that can only come from God. ʺJesus, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.ʺ

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.