The “Lord Have Mercy” exercise is one of five exercises first recommended by Cynthia Bourgeault in late March 2020 and available in Joseph Azize’s new book Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises. This post is the latest in a series which began with “Pandemic Homework.” Each post goes a little deeper into the recommended homework. More about the book, and links to the series, can be found at the end of this blog.
These exercises are offered for our work right now. As we begin to allow them, as Cynthia says, to “take root in our own hearts,” may we know ever more viscerally “that through this planetary dark night we are being tenderly held by conscious and loving hands greater than our own. The fundamental requirements are simply to trust…to tune in…to receive…to act on what we receive…” Cynthia continues:
This third installment, Part II, C of the Commentaries on the “Lord Have Mercy” exercises is a bit technical, but may be of interest to those of you who already have the bit between your teeth here. Take it or leave it as you please. I am proud and moved by the stunning work that is being done. I’ll be circling back with commentary on the next exercise up to bat, the “Make Strong,” coming soon on Northeast Wisdom.
There is indeed a way to connect the dots between Gurdjieff’s version of “Lord Have Mercy” and the Jesus Prayer of Orthodox Hesychasm. But the route doesn’t lie through their formal or theological similarities. You have to dive down deeper, to their common ontological core.
Azize properly calls attention to a statement made by Gurdjieff’s designated lineage bearer, Jeanne de Salzmann: that the phrase “I AM”— surely one of the core mantras in the Gurdjieff teaching—can be replaced with the phrase “Lord have mercy.” I would personally be far more cautious than Azize in reading implications into this statement. From the de Salzmann text itself (Reality of Being, p. 73) it is not clear whether this is a general principle of equivalency sanctioned by Gurdjieff, or a situational dispensation granted by de Salzmann. But my gut feeling is that the awareness of a deep reciprocity between these two statements does in fact originate with Gurdjieff himself. It is certainly not alien to his spirituality, and may in fact be at the heart of it. And when you follow his lead here, it winds up revealing some surprising new depths in both the “I AM” and the “Lord Have Mercy.”
At these depths, by the way, it doesn’t really matter whether you hear this phrase as emanating from the Trisagion or the Jesus Prayer. In the end, the two prayers are two streams of the same river.
To make this deeper inquiry into the meaning of the phrase “Lord have Mercy,” and why it might even remotely be considered an equivalent to the affirmation “I AM,” you will need two resources, which thankfully will already be familiar to many of you in the Wisdom Community. The first is Raimon Panikkar’s Christophany—specifically, Section Two (pp. 39-138) on “The Mysticism of Jesus the Christ.”
The second is Olga Louchakova’s extraordinary 2004 essay, “The Essence of the Prayer of the Heart,” which has circulated in Xerox copies for many years within our Wisdom community. The page numbers here, followed by the section heading, are from the original published version; the essay is easily available online, as a chapter in a collection of poetry by spiritual teacher Lee Lozowick called Gasping for Air in the Vacuum.
In his powerful reflection on Jesus’ own deepest sense of selfhood, Panikkar is struck by two apparently contradictory aspects: first, Jesus’ “intense sense of filiation,” as Panikkar calls it, encapsulated in the phrase, “Abba, Father!”; second, his serene sense of connaturality with his divine source, exemplified in the phrase “I and my Father are one.” Jesus experiences himself as both finite and infinite, temporal and timeless, dual and non-dual. These two poles of his being are not static; rather, they become the driveshaft of a dynamic, relational ground held together by the continuous act of kenotic self-giving, summarized in Panikkar’s memorable one-liner: ”I am one with my source insofar as I too act as a source by making everything I have received flow again.” This is the sphere of the Person, in which God becomes recognizable as love.
Olga Louchakova’s brilliant study of the Jesus Prayer brings together her extensive knowledge of the Vedanta and yogic traditions as well as her own initiation in a contemporary Russian school of Hesychasm. Her approach is comparative and phenomenological, taking Prayer of the Heart as a type of spiritual self-inquiry which boldly poises itself on the cusp between dual and non-dual experience, affirming the validity of both while linking them in precisely the same dynamic flow we have already observed in Panikkar’s exegesis.
“Prayer of the Heart is implicitly a dialogue,” she writes (p. 43, The Worship); “It is relational, always I-thou.” But the nature of that dialogue is not static, not simply the petition of a hapless mortal to a divine power-broker—as many still hear in the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Rather, tenaciously anchored in the embodied sense of self carried in the chest—and she insists on this!!!—it morphs into a deepening self-inquiry, and finally into a “whole being engagement in the direct perception of identity” (p. 39, Direct intuition of God). When followed all the way to its endpoint, Prayer of the Heart marks a journey that “collects the self, transcends the self, annihilates the self, then annihilates the annihilation” (p. 39, as above).
In the end, one discovers it is not merely the individual identity that is being systematically onion-skinned; we find ourselves partaking in a parallel process within the layers of divine identity as well, until at last we find ourselves standing at the very precipice of that cosmic wormhole through which the divine Unmanifest is forever pouring itself into form. As Louchakova remarkably writes, “the practitioner becomes aware of the innermost mystery of the ontopoietic (self-manifesting) process” (p. 48, The death of an I).
And one final gorgeous insight:
This continuous [repetition of the name of the Divine Person], accompanied by the inward flow of worship in the direction of intimacy with the unknown Other, open the focus on the origins of Being…This engagement with the unknown God-Other is the pivotal moment where the emotion of love loses its willed direction and instead becomes a continuum, a field….the individual self does not exist…it is not voided, but becomes a locus of the manifestation of the Larger Life. (pp. 47-48, The death of an I).
That field—that dynamic flowing continuum between finite and infinite—is what Panikkar senses as the essence of the mind of Christ. It is also a pretty good felt-sense approximation of what Gurdjieff means by “Lord have mercy.” And remember, if you will, that venerable insight from Helen Luke’s iconic book Old Age that the word “mercy” originates in an old Etruscan root whose meaning is exchange. Just like in “commerce” and “mercantile.”
Connecting the Dots
Once that continuous backdrop of exchange is recognized, it is not difficult to connect the dots between “Lord have Mercy,” the Jesus Prayer, and the I AM. They join precisely at that “innermost mystery of the ontopoietic process.”
Gurdjieff, Panikkar, Jesus, the Jesus Prayer: all implicitly recognize that Being—by which I mean not just our individual being but divine Beingness itself—arises within a relational field. It is nobody’s ontological possession, not even God’s. “I AM” is not an a priori assertion, not a statement that can be made or even cognized apart from that field. The spiritual modality being shared here is not the “Atman is Brahmin” mode, not a non-dual realization that cancels all particularity. Rather it is a supremely Western acknowledgement of and self-entrustment to the coherence and dynamism of that relational field.
To the degree that Louchakova is correct in the assertion that the Orthodox Prayer of the Heart has at its epicenter the burning quest to discover and abide in that true I AM, then I think the affinity between this tradition and the mainspring of the Gurdjieffian teaching becomes evident.
But to say that the two terms “I AM” and “Lord have mercy” are equivalents, that they can be used interchangeably, is to say something still more: that they invoke each other, that they are implicit in the other—“bidden or unbidden.”
For me, this radically shifts the picture, makes me hear both phrases with new ears.
Whenever I say “I am”—as within Helen Adie’s version of the Lord have Mercy exercise, at the sectional divisions in the Clear Impressions Exercise, or the “Make Strong,” it is with the implicit recognition that this is not about me finding “my” Real I, “my” realized being. It is all going on within the wondrously mysterious and irreducible sphere of the divine Mercy. One bows the knee of the heart.
When I say “Lord have Mercy,” I am not making a pious devotional statement. It’s not about worthy or unworthy, shame and guilt, blame and punishment. Rather, I am feeling to my very bones that yearning for being and sharing of being that permeates the entire created order. I am implicitly acknowledging that one cannot know without also BEING KNOWN. I am affirming my willingness to stay awake, to endure the vulnerability. I am actively engaging humility—not obsequiousness, but a recognition of the scale of things, the depth of the suffering and the yearning that binds the created order to the uncreated light.
Jesus is the tie-rod holding the “I AM” and the “Lord Have Mercy” together. That is Panikkar’s point. And hence, whether there is or is not a FORMAL connection between Gurdjieff’s “Lord Have Mercy” exercises and the Athonite traditions of Orthodox monasticism, there is definitely a heart resonance there, a path that will become increasingly clear as the exercises take root in your own heart.
A Note from Northeast Wisdom:
Joseph Azize devotes a chapter in Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises to the “Lord Have Mercy” exercise:
My deep wish is to submit entirely to an inner voice, the feeling of the divine, of the sacred in me. I know that a higher energy—what religions call God or Lord—is within me. It will appear if the mind and the body are truly related…We can say, “Lord have mercy,” in order to Be. (Jeanne de Salzmann, p. 244, Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises)
We are grateful to Joseph Azize for this work, chock full of carefully gathered and relevant notes and references like the one above. It is available here on Joseph Azize’s website, for a 30% discount from Oxford University Press. It is also widely available online.
Cynthia Bourgeault shared her response to the pandemic sweeping the world in a post entitled Pandemic Homework on March 23, 2020. From the Eagle’s Nest (the background to the instructions); Foundational Points for the Five Pandemic Homework Exercises; and Raised Cyber Eye-Brows: More on Internet Technology and the Pandemic Homework followed.
The posts continue with a series of “Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises,” which began with “Clear Impressions“: Part I; “Lord Have Mercy”: Part II, A & B and now, with this post, Connecting the Dots: The “Lord Have Mercy” in Commentaries Part II, C. Coming soon is commentary on the “Make Strong” exercise, in two parts, and the “Atmosphere” exercise, as well as the tentatively titled: Going Forward… A Personal Statement re Time, Tides, Benedict and Zoom. Stay tuned!
Photo credits from the top: Eastern Orthodox Monk image (fair use, origin unknown); logo image for The Society for Phenomenology of Religious Experience (SOPHERE), Olga Louchakova- Schwartz, founding president; Biblical Tree of Life tapestry, British 1600-1650, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY; Oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator (6th or 7th century, public domain); Cynthia Bourgeault, New Zealand, spring 2015, photo courtesy of Pip Nicholls.