Christe Eleison!

The Invocation of Christ in Eastern Monastic Psalmody c. 350-450

by James Frederick Wellington (Author)
©2014 Monographs VIII, 241 Pages
Series: Studies in Eastern Orthodoxy, Volume 2


For centuries the Jesus Prayer has been leading Orthodox Christians beyond the language of liturgy and the representations of iconography into the wordless, imageless stillness of the mystery of God. In more recent years it has been helping a growing number of Western Christians to find a deeper relationship with God through the continual rhythmic repetition of a short prayer which, by general agreement, first emerged from the desert spirituality of early monasticism. In this study James Wellington explores the understanding and practice of the psalmody which underpinned this spirituality. By means of an investigation of the importance of psalmody in desert monasticism, an exploration of the influence of Evagrius of Pontus and a thorough examination of selected psalm-commentaries in circulation in the East at this time, he reveals a monastic culture which was particularly conducive to the emergence of a Christ-centred invocatory prayer.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Part One: The Importance of Psalmody
  • Chapter One: Updating an Alsatian
  • Chapter Two: The Spirit and Practice of Monastic Psalmody
  • Part Two: The Influence of Evagrius
  • Chapter Three: The Relationship between Psalmody and Prayer
  • Chapter Four: Encountering Christos in the Scholia ad Psalmos
  • Chapter Five: The Development by Diadochus of Photice
  • Part Three: The Invocation of Christ
  • Chapter Six: Other Commentaries
  • Chapter Seven: The Invocation of Christ as Onoma
  • Chapter Eight: The Invocation of Christ as Prosōpon
  • Chapter Nine: The Invocation of Christ as Partner
  • Chapter Ten: The Invocation of Christ as Deliverer
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • General Index
  • Biblical Reference Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii → Abbreviations

← viii | 1 → Introduction

For centuries the Jesus Prayer has been leading Orthodox Christians beyond the language of liturgy and the representations of iconography into the wordless, imageless stillness of the mystery of God. In more recent years it has been helping an increasing number of Western Christians to engage with God not only with the lips and the mind but also with the heart, and drawing them into a deeper contemplation through the continual rhythmic repetition of a short prayer which, by general agreement, first emerged from the desert spirituality of early monasticism.

It has been claimed that the earliest source to cite the standard formula of the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’ (Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με), is the Peri tou Abba Philēmon,1 a work dating from the sixth or early seventh century.2

This anonymous piece of writing relates to the teaching of an Egyptian hermit and to his rule of life in the later period of the Roman Empire in Egypt. In the Peri tou Abba Philēmon we encounter many of the words and concepts traditionally associated with the spiritual environment of the Desert Fathers. Throughout the narrative there is a pronounced emphasis on stillness (ἡσυχία), watchfulness (νῆψις), ‘pray without ceasing’ (ἀδιαλείπτως προσεύχεσθε), and secret or inward meditation (κρυπτὴ μελέτη), all of which are acknowledged to have played a part in the development of the Jesus Prayer.

← 1 | 2 → There is also, within this work, an important passage relating to another aspect of the ascetic discipline of this hermit:

Once a certain brother who lived with him asked him: ‘What is the mystery of contemplation?’ Realizing that he was intent on learning, the Elder replied: ‘I tell you, my son, that when one’s intellect is completely pure, God reveals to him the visions that are granted to the ministering powers and angelic hosts’. The same brother also asked: ‘Why, Father, do you find more joy in the psalms than in any other part of divine Scripture? And why, when quietly chanting them, do you say the words as though you were speaking with someone?’ And Abba Philemon replied: ‘My son, God has impressed the power of the psalms on my poor soul (οὕτω προετύπωσεν ὁ Θεὸς τὴν δύναμιν τῶν ψαλμῶν ἐν τῇ ταπεινῇ μου ψυχῇ) as he did on the soul of the prophet David. I cannot be separated from the sweetness of the visions about which they speak: they embrace all divine Scripture’ (Πάσης γὰρ τῆς θείας Γραφῆς εἰσι περιεκτικοί).3

The purpose of this study is not to attempt to provide a comprehensive account of the steps leading up to the appearance of Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με in this sixth- or seventh-century narrative. Nor is its aim to prove any direct causal connection between any aspect of monastic discipline and the establishment of the Jesus Prayer. Its objective is rather to shine a new light upon the culture out of which the Jesus Prayer is believed to have emerged by focusing on one particular expression of monasticism, which up to now has not been strongly associated with the early development of this prayer. To this end, we will consider the relevance of Eastern monastic psalmody of the late fourth and early fifth centuries to the environment which, by general consensus, gave birth to the Christ-centred invocatory prayer which first appeared in its standard form in the Peri tou Abba Philēmon.

To this extent, we will be involved with the quest taken up by the orientalist, Irénée Hausherr. Born in Alsace in 1891, Hausherr entered the Jesuit order and was ordained to the priesthood. He went on to become a professor at the Oriental Institute in Rome, and is the author of a number ← 2 | 3 → of influential works, including Noms du Christ et voies d’oraison, published in 1960. In Noms du Christ Hausherr contends that the Jesus Prayer arose from a search for unceasing prayer in the life of the early Eastern monastics. The premise of this study is that the picture he offers is incomplete. Hausherr’s concentration on the monastics’ private asceticism has been at the expense of the broader picture of their liturgical life. The aim here is to correct this omission and to allow the monastic understanding of the psalms to make its own contribution to our comprehension of the culture out of which the Jesus Prayer developed.

Part One of the study begins with a critique of Hausherr’s work, and goes on to explain the factors which justify the singling out of psalmody for this area of research. Part Two then explores the vital contribution made to this subject by Evagrius of Pontus, with particular reference to his understanding of the relationship between prayer and psalmody, and to his teaching on the manner in which and the extent to which the person of Christ is to be encountered in the Book of Psalms. From there it embarks, in Part Three, on an investigation into four key elements within the commentaries on the Septuagint Psalter, attributed to some of the leading authorities of this period, which were encouraging early Eastern monastics to understand psalmody in terms of a recurring invocation of the person of Christ.

The first of these elements is the recognition of Christ as the divine name (ὄνομα) of the Psalter, while the second consists of acknowledging him as the divine face or countenance (πρόσωπον). The third is the identification of Christ in the psalms as a partner in prayer for divine assistance, while the fourth consists of invoking him directly as a deliverer or indirectly as the agent of deliverance.4 The analysis of the psalm-commentaries seeks to establish the meaning of these psalm-texts for those engaged in their habitual recitation. Following this analysis, the study, by way of a conclusion, makes an assessment of the contribution made by psalmody to the ← 3 | 4 → shaping of the early Eastern monastic culture which gave rise to the Jesus Prayer. It should be noted that, unless otherwise stated, the Greek texts of the Septuagint are taken from Henry Barclay Swete’s edition.5 Furthermore, translations of the Septuagint Psalter are based, in the main, on the work of Albert Pietersma.6


1 Philokalia tōn Ierōn Nēptikōn, Vol. II (Athens: Astir Publishing Company, 1959), 241–52.

2 Irénée Hausherr, Noms du Christ et voies d’oraison, OCA 157 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Orientalium Studiorum, 1960), 239–46; Gerald E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, ed. and trans., The Philokalia. The Complete Text compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, Vol. II (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 343–57; A Monk of the Eastern Church, The Jesus Prayer (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 37–8 note 5.

3 Philokalia tōn Ierōn Nēptikōn, Vol. II, 243–4; Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, Philokalia, Vol. II, 347.

4 See James F. Wellington, ‘Encountering Christ in the Psalms: Antecedents of the Jesus Prayer in Eastern Monastic Psalmody c.350-c.450’, in SP 52 (Leuven: Peeters Press, 2012), 19–26.

5 Henry Barclay Swete, ed., The Old Testament in Greek according to the Septuagint, Vol. II, Pt. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891).

6 Albert Pietersma, trans., A New English Translation of the Septuagint and other Greek translations traditionally included under that title, The Psalms (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

← 4 | 5 → PART ONE

The Importance of Psalmody ← 5 | 6 →

← 6 | 7 → CHAPTER ONE

Updating an Alsatian

I. Noms du Christ et voies d’oraison

1. Overview

In Chapter 3 of Noms du Christ, Hausherr introduces the reader to what he understands to be the motivation behind the emergence of the Jesus Prayer. Quoting from the nineteenth-century Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, he records the eponymous hero’s question to his staretz: ‘How is it possible to pray continually?’ He continues:

Many other men in preceding centuries had asked themselves the same question the Pilgrim asked. And the answers given have varied widely. It was from this very search for continual prayer that the Jesus Prayer was born. In order to understand and appreciate and situate this prayer we will have to accompany that search, discover its guiding principles and observe the results which it has produced.1

What follows is a Great Trek from the acts of prayer of the earliest Christian communities to Nicephorus and the Athonite teaching on the Jesus Prayer in the medieval period. For the purpose of this study our attention is focused on the third, fourth, and fifth chapters, which are the most relevant to our task. For in those chapters we are offered a detailed analysis of the elements within desert monasticism which, Hausherr claims, constitute the evolution whose end product was to be the invocation, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’. Let us consider a brief résumé of those chapters.

← 7 | 8 → 2. Résumé of the relevant chapters

In the third chapter, Hausherr describes the patristic quest to understand the Pauline injunction to ‘pray always’,2 and he recounts the various interpretations of those two words ‘pray’ and ‘always’. He shows how this discussion moved on to the concept of κατάστασις νόος, a state of prayer, and how this concept was developed in the writings of Evagrius of Pontus to mean an intellectual state free from disturbance and distraction.

From here, Hausherr unpacks the patristic treatment of three key elements in the evolution of continual prayer: the remembrance of God (μνήμη Θεοῦ), the rule of life (πολιτεία), and the secret or inward meditation (κρυπτὴ μελέτη). He relates how μνήμη Θεοῦ was seen as a more attainable alternative to the Evagrian κατάστασις νόος, how scope for individuality in meeting the demands of asceticism was given through πολιτεία, and how the interior activity of κρυπτὴ μελέτη involved, among other things, the memorization of the New Testament and the Psalter, and the recitation of short prayers.

In the fourth chapter Hausherr turns his attention to these short prayers. He gives an account of the occurrence of such prayers in the Gospels, with particular reference to the invocations of Jesus as ‘Lord’ or ‘Son of David’, and notes the presence of the Jesus Prayer in the texts in fragmentary form.3 He follows this up with a list of relevant texts from Acts, Romans, and Revelation. He observes how the Apostolic Fathers directed such prayers to Jesus and Mary. And he considers an array of diverse supplications from such monastic authorities as Cassian, Arsenius, Macarius, Sisoes, Nilus, and Poemen.

He goes on to explain how in the writing of Chrysostom and Pseudo-Chrysostom this diversity evolved towards the uniformity of a monologistic prayer. From here, he assesses the part played by Diadochus of Photice in the story of this development, and concludes that he is a ‘witness to an intermediate stage in the evolution towards a fixed formula of prayer to Jesus’.4

← 8 | 9 → In the fifth chapter Hausherr trains his sights on the place of the petition for mercy in this development. Here he draws on his earlier work, Penthos: La doctrine de compunction dans l’Orient Chrétien,5 in which he accounts for the contribution of compunction, the mourning for sin, in early Eastern monastic formation.

Hausherr contrasts what he describes as two currents within monasticism, represented by two different formulae: the older, identified by Cassian and based on the use of βοήθησον, as a cry for help; and the other, based on the use of ἐλέησον, as a cry for forgiveness. He argues that with the rise of monasticism, a movement for which πένθος was of central importance, and, with the ‘invasion … of the Kyrie eleison style of prayer’,6 the latter formula gradually replaced the former in Christian usage.


VIII, 241
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
spirituality psalmody desert monasticism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 241 pp.

Biographical notes

James Frederick Wellington (Author)

James F. Wellington is a Church of England parish priest. He has been awarded a doctorate through the Archbishop’s Examination in Theology for the thesis on which this book is based. He also holds an M.Phil. from Nottingham University for Qui Imperatori Ecclesia?, a study of Christian understandings of the State in the fourth century, and an M.A. from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He has presented papers at the Third and Fourth British Patristic Conferences, and is a member of the International Association of Patristic Studies.


Title: Christe Eleison!
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253 pages