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Christe Eleison!

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


James Frederick Wellington

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.
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The picture which emerges from this extensive investigation presents us with an intriguing alternative to the narrow depiction of the monastic milieu as presented by Hausherr. In this picture words such as dialogue, partnership, and meeting-place play significant roles, both in relation to the Psalter and to the Christ who lies hidden among so many of its verses.

On the basis of what has been unearthed in this excavation, it is possible to describe a spiritual and theological environment which was particularly conducive to the emergence of a prayer which was centred on the invocation of Christ and a plea for divine assistance. A re-evaluation of Hausherr’s Noms du Christ et voies d’oraison is certainly in order. On the one hand, we may reaffirm his basic hypothesis that the Jesus Prayer developed from within desert monasticism as a result of a similar quest to that which gripped the author of The Way of a Pilgrim. However, on the other hand, we need to draw on the wealth of insights generated by subsequent publications, and allow them to provide us with a broader understanding of the background and context of that quest, thereby correcting the omissions which have been identified in Hausherr’s work.

We may therefore conclude that the Jesus Prayer developed from within a culture in which late fourth- and early fifth-century Eastern monastic psalmody:

The weight of evidence assembled in this study would suggest that when Diadochus of Photice sought to...

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