Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!
Does it seem to anyone, my brethren, that throughout these present days the holy Church too often and repeatedly fills our ears with this touching appeal? If anyone has had such an idea, then let him labor to examine with us, albeit a little, the whole of human life from its beginning to end. It may be that what seems to be too oft repeated in church now will not seem excessive later at home; and not just in this time of fasting and repentance, but also on other days, on the most festive days, it will come to mind of itself, and at times come forth from our very mouths.
To this end, let us examine first the very beginning of our existence on earth. What do we find there?—Darkness and impurity, lust and passions. For behold I was conceived in iniquities and in sins did my mother bear me (Ps. 50:7). Conceived in iniquities, I am therefore myself iniquitous; born in sins, I am myself a sinner. Is this not what is indicated by the pains of my birth? Why does the one giving birth and the one being born suffer if not for guilt and impurity? Is this not what was expressed by my wail at my appearance in the world? What was it within me that cried out then? Not reason, not memory, not imagination—it was my whole nature that cried out. What troubled it and what did it suffer from? From an innate, inner disorder, impurity, and guilt. My first cry was addressed not to the earth, but to Heaven—to Thee, the Giver of Life, Who formed me in my mother’s womb, and Who alone can recreate me outside my mother’s womb.
Seeing all this now in my mind, mentally penetrating into my appearance in the world, I now cast my face down, ashamed of the impurity of my origin, fearful for the heritage born forth in me, and I cry out: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” Be merciful to this poor creature who has appeared on earth with all the uncleanness of the fathers and forefathers, who instead of an inheritance brought forth a terrible inclination towards evil, who has and will face a struggle with many sorrows, seductions, and temptations! “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!”
After our first birth of flesh and blood followed another, higher and better birth—of the Spirit. Despite my impurity and insensibility, the holy Church took me into its arms immediately after birth; it washed the defilement of my nature in the Baptismal font; sanctified me with the grace of the Spirit; sealed me with the Sign of the Cross; and clothed me in a white garment of innocence. From a child of anger, I became a child of grace.
But where is this royal garment now? Where are the gifts poured out upon me? Alas, I too, like Solomon’s bride, must say: They made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept (Song of Sol. 1:6). I haven’t preserved the grace of Baptism; I haven’t remained loyal to Him to Whom I was yoked! I have defiled the white robe of innocence! I have lost grace and the Spirit! The world has taken one thing from me, the passions have seized another; another has disappeared from negligence and carelessness. All-in-all, I’m like a man who has fallen among thieves: There’s no integrity in me, from head to toe. To whom can I turn for help but Thee, my All-good Creator and All-powerful provider? “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Thy servant (Ps. 118:176). Bring my soul out of prison, that I may confess Thy Name! (Ps. 141:8). Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me! (Ps. 50:12).
After the years of my foolish infancy, of which the first sage couldn’t help but say to the Lord with David: I was as a beast before Thee (Ps. 72:22), came the years of adolescence and youth. The time is most precious when the mind and will are revealed in a man and he can be said to be in some sense himself the creator of his spiritual being. At that time, I, like my forefathers, was in the paradise of innocence, and before me was the three of life with its promise and the tree of death with its commandment. I was able to not stretch out my hand to the forbidden fruit; I had the power to remain on the path of truth and purity. Everything held me back: the grace of Baptism, and the voice of my conscience, and my parents, and my educators; but, alas, nothing held me back! And the serpent tempter seemed to me more reliable than my Creator and Benefactor; and for me the tree of death seemed good for food … pleasant to the eyes, and … to be desired to make one wise (Gen. 3:6). I am a hundred times more foolish than my forefathers, for I had their experience before me, and I, the wretched one, tasted the forbidden food and lost Paradise.
Ah, my brethren, who wouldn’t wish for the days of his youth to return—those precious days when it was up to us to either start out upon the path of the Lord or turn away to the crossroads of sin and worldly vanity? But these days won’t return, and remembering them, we can only exclaim from the depths of our souls: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to Thy mercy remember Thou me for Thy goodness’ sake, O LORD (Ps. 24:7).
Then came adulthood and the time of courage: We created various family ties, friendships, acquaintances, embarked upon the path of public service, clothed ourselves with various obligations. Many of us swore we would be loyal to the truth—steadfast guardians of truth for ourselves and others. What could be expected from us after that? The firm and steady fulfillment of our duties; a courageous struggle with vice in all its forms; the judicious use of the gifts of happiness, to whom they’re sent, and the gracious endurance of the blows of misfortune, to whom they befall; that we’d always be ready for every good deed, far from all lies and untruths; abstinent and strict with ourselves, generous and merciful to others; meek, sincere and loving to everyone and every individual; not remembering the sins of our enemies.
But, my brethren, tell me—are there many who can boast of these qualities? Who, casting the most superficial gaze upon their duties, wouldn’t say: “Ah, I haven’t and won’t fulfill them as I should! At the holy altar I stand not with the purity and reverence befitting servants of the Most High God; in court, I don’t preserve truth and righteousness with the self-sacrifice that the fate of my defendants requires; in the sanctuary of the sciences, I value not so much the truth as the vainglory of my name and am often ready to defend lies that are pleasing to me; in buying and selling, I am self-serving; in ruling I am cruel and capricious; in menial labor—cunning and obstinate. How much time I have wasted and continue to waste in vain! How many talents given by God have been ruined and are lost in vain! Many times I have resolved to do good, and still I do bad. I see that I’m on the wrong path, but I continue on. And when will this hapless battle of my conscience with the passions within me come to an end? Where is the end of my spiritual captivity and slavery? Almighty Creator, my prayer is to Thee! Have mercy upon Thy poor creature! Grant me the strength to break the bonds of sinful habits and passions! Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity! (Ps. 118:37). Touch my sin-loving heart; may it cease to beat for dust and corruption! “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” Save me from myself!
Then comes the years of old age: My body will weaken, my senses will shut down one by one, and the world that now flatters me will start to flee from me. But will all this turn me to God and eternity? Will I use at least this pitiful remainder of my life for good deeds? Will not the same lusts and passions divide it between themselves? Ah, how many elders who seem to grow younger in malice and in love for the world over the years! How many stand at the doors of their coffins and look back! Will I be like them? Will my final years and days pass in vanity and blindness, as happens with so many? O merciful Lord, let me not fall into this terrible blindness! Spare me from this hellish insensitivity! “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!”
Following my infirmities, then finally comes the final sickness: We’ll lie down on a bed from which we’ll never rise. The doctor will back away and the priest will draw near, and relatives and friends will surround our bed, awaiting our demise. In this terrible hour, amidst the final anguish of body and spirit, amidst the everlasting turmoil of thoughts and feelings, what words would you, my brethren, like to have coming from your mouth? I would like nothing else for myself but: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!” Have mercy upon a sinner whose life has vanished into vanity and sins! Show the last sign of mercy and grant that I might come out of this prison of my flesh with the feeling of the thief who repented on the cross!
Finally, the hour of the general universal awakening from the sleep of death will strike: We will have to rise up from the womb of the earth, clothe ourselves in a new and indestructible body, and appear at the Dread Judgment together with our deeds to hear the verdict over us for all eternity. What will you feel then, my poor soul, in the midst of Heaven and hell, between angels and outcast spirits? Will you cry out for the last time: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on?”
Yes, my brethren, this prayer comes to an end at the universal Dread Judgment of God, not before: It will stop when the fate of every one of us will be decided forever, before the face of the whole universe. There will no longer be place for it after that. In Paradise, the righteous will know only joy and the eternal glorification of the name of God. In hell, sinners know only wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Which of these fates awaits us? The Lord alone knows. But if we remain as we are, if we die in our sins, then it’s obvious where and with whom our lot is to be found. Let us cry out to the Lord God from the depths of our soul, each and every one of us: Have mercy upon us! Grant us all repentance before the end! Amen.