For those of you who are joining us now, these posts began on March 23, 2020 with the blog “Pandemic Homework.” They are Cynthia’s response to our global crisis, received after being alone on Eagle Island for four days. Her hermit teacher, Rafe, taught that: only then “the listening sets into a different bandwidth…the silence is immensely, vastly connected—to presence, wisdom, and compassionate guidance.” Still sitting in this listening, “at the intersection of the worlds, the intersection of the timeless with time…the way Rafe taught me to do it,” the work became clear; and Cynthia continues to write.
The “Lord Have Mercy” exercise is one of five Gurdjieff exercises she suggests as inner work for our times. They can all be found in Joseph Azize’s book, Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises. A “Lord have Mercy” Part II, C will follow soon. More information about the book, as well as the links to the raw homework and the series that gives flesh to those bones, are at the bottom of this post. Now to Cynthia, on the “Lord Have Mercy” exercise:
The body is the doorway to the adventure of Being. So the inquiry has to begin by activating and enlivening the body. The more active and alive the whole body is, the more our inquiry is vital and our unfoldment is alive. Our experience is more robust, energetic, and dynamic. We need to remember that the activation of the lataif (the subtle senses of perception in Sufi tradition, allowing us to peer directly into the invisible realms) requires that the centers of physical location be energized (Spacecruiser Inquiry, pg. 294).
In the absence of a vibrant, awakened presence in our physical body, we default to thinking without even knowing we are doing it. Then everything becomes a projection of the story inside our heads, including, tragically, our deepest sense of our own aliveness.
All meditation traditions recognize that nothing real can happen to us while we are still trapped in the mind. But most try to deal with this by simply “turning off the mind,” or replacing thought with some idealized emotional state, such as peace, bliss, calm. What is distinctive about the Gurdjieffian system is that it goes in the opposite direction; engaging the full aliveness of the body to contain and counterbalance the mind, while at the same time raising the frequency of our presence to a vibrational level where direct perception begins to become possible.
In his introductory remarks on the “Lord Have Mercy” exercises George Adie cuts straight to heart of the problem in his instructions 8 and 9 (pg. 245): “The head is not related to the body, the head is separate, turning in dreams and imagination and identification… I want to free my head. Free it from words. Connect it to the body.”
Whether you work with the basic form of this exercise given by George Adie or the slightly more complex variation offered by his wife Helen (both included here), the exercise itself is fairly straightforward. It’s the straight-up, four-point body rotation: right arm, right leg, left leg, left arm, executed either three times (as in George’s version) or four (as in Helen’s). The plot twist here is that simultaneously with the sensation itself, you gently add the words, “Lord Have Mercy.”
GENTLY means that this is not a mechanical repetition of an external prayer—but rather, almost “an echo,” as George Adie describes it. And “gently” also means that you are not imposing a liturgical formula from the outside, laying onto the exercise a devotional patina. Rather, you are gently opening a question—whose essence is in fact a petition: is it possible to become directly aware of the subtle relational field which in fact surrounds us at all times and is the ground of our own aliveness: the Mercy of God?
It is stunning the depth of feeling that this simple exercise can evoke. Something can indeed be directly tasted here, a something which opens the heart while at the same time verging on breaking it. A sense of yourself as “the thou of an I,” in Ramon Panikkar’s words, infinitely fragile and precious; while at the same time, in Gurdjieff’s words, a poignant draught of “the Sorrow of our Common Father.”
Is this the Jesus Prayer?
Azize drives the point very hard that Gurdjieff’s “Lord Have Mercy” exercises have their origin in the Jesus Prayer, or “Prayer of the Heart,” of the Orthodox Church, particularly in the Athonite tradition (the monastic mystical traditions tended by the monks of Mt Athos). I must admit that I am not fully convinced by his arguments. It seems clear that the root of Gurdjieff’s deep resonance with the phrase “Lord have Mercy” (which shows up again and again in his work, not just in the exercises, but also in the movements, in Beelzebub’s Tales, and in his own more openly orthodox religiosity during the last years of his life) emanates not in the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, only son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” but in the Trisagion—that triune invocation of the threefold nature of God which is a bedrock of orthodox mysticism:
Holy and Mighty
Holy Immortal One
Have mercy on us
Or in the Greek form, which he would have sung as a choirboy during his years at the cathedral school in Kars:
Agios o Theos
Gurdjieff refers to this prayer extensively in “The Holy Planet Purgatory,” his sweeping cosmogonic exposition which ends book II of Beelzebub’s Tales. The triune God is at once the Trinity and the Law of Three, the two of them joined at the hip. For attuned readers, you’ll see that he even alludes to the Greek version in his otherwise “nonsensical” nomenclature (Arkana edition, 1992, pg. 687; or Arkana 1999, pg. 751), describing these three forces as ‘Surp-Otheos” (O Theos), “Surp-Skiros” (Iskyros) and “Surp-Athanotos (Athanotos). Gurdjieff’s “Lord” is irreducibly a Trinitarian, cosmogonic, personal, law-of-three relational field in which all is held together, given life and breath in the fundamental exchange which is the source of the entire created order. The Mercy is its shape, its color, its substantiality, and it can be tasted directly when perceived directly in the awakened heart, grounded in an enlivened bodily presence. That is definitely the pot of gold awaiting at the end of the rainbow in this exercise.
To try to capture the spaciousness of this feeling within the classic Jesus Prayer, whose take-off point is the invocation of a particular person within the Trinity, is to hold it too tightly, in my estimation. Jesus does not figure prominently in Gurdjieff’s own devotional mysticism (nor for that matter does the anatomical heart, around which the Athonite mysticism gravitates so powerfully). For Gurdjieff, Jesus is definitely one of the highest attained sacred individuals sent to offer aid, but he is on the order of other such cosmic helpers and messengers, like Buddha and Mohammed—not an ontological singularity. Jesus is a finger pointing at the moon, and rather than looking directly AT Jesus, Gurdjieff looks in the same direction as Jesus and sees what Jesus sees—the broken heart and deep sorrow of “our Common Father” as He continuously takes into His own heart the anguish and fracturedness which is the shadow side of all manifestation.
The real resonance in this exercise is not so much with the Jesus Prayer as with Gurdjieff’s own Fourth Obligolnian striving;
“…from the beginning of one’s existence to pay as quickly as possible for one’s arising and individuality in order afterward to be free to lighten as much as possible the Sorrow of our Common Father.”
And it is this same striving, which I believe offers the most spacious container for holding the otherwise almost unbearable tenderness that flows through this otherwise mysteriously simple exercise.
We are grateful to Joseph Azize for this work, so relevant to these times. Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises is available here on Joseph Azize’s website, for a 30% discount from Oxford University Press. It is also widely available online. The “Lord Have Mercy” exercises begin on page 241 of his book.
“Work diligently,” says Cynthia in Pandemic Homework, her first post in this series. There she offers a four point “to do list” recommended to Wisdom practitioners worldwide. First on the list is to purchase this book and begin to work with four exercises, of which the “Lord Have Mercy” is one. To the others: “Make Strong,” “Four Ideals,” and “Clear Impressions,” she soon added the “Atmosphere” exercise. Please see Pandemic Homework for all four items on Cynthia’s list; the total of these exercises comprise only the first! Many folks in the Wisdom community have responded to this call, in myriad ways.
Please share your comments below!
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; 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 and continues with this post, “Lord Have Mercy” in “Commentaries Part II, A & B.” More on the “Lord Have Mercy” exercises are coming next, in “Commentaries Part II, C.” Stay tuned!
Photo credits for this post: beginning at the top with a painting Joomooloony (Boab Tree) by artist April Nulgit, courtesy of Artlandish Aboriginal Art Gallery; an image of a sculpture by John Flannagan, 1895-1942, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; photo Mount Athos, courtesy Gabriel, wikimedia commons; image courtesy of Motoi Tom, unsplash.