Jim Wellington is a Church of England parish priest. He is married to Hilary, and they have a daughter, Catherine. He has been praying the Jesus Prayer for over thirty years, has been on pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain, and is a great admirer of the Orthodox Church and its theology and spirituality. He holds an MA in Theology from Cambridge University, an MPhil in Patristics from Nottingham University, and is being awarded a PhD through the Archbishop's Examination in Theology for the thesis upon which his new book is based. He is a member of the Friends of Mount Athos, the Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius, and the International Association of Patristic Studies.
How do we pray the Psalms? We should surely take our lead from the Holy Fathers of the Early Church and learn from their wisdom. Whilst researching the origins of the Jesus Prayer, I came across some fascinating insights in psalm-commentaries accredited to Fathers of the third, fourth and fifth centuries. These insights and the understanding of the Psalms which they promote, would have been available to the earliest monks and nuns of Egypt, from where the Jesus Prayer is believed to have emerged.
The most important of these insights presented to us by the Holy Fathers is that praying the Psalms involves us with an ongoing conversation with our Lord Jesus Christ. Over and over again, we find the writers of these commentaries interpreting the various verses of the Psalms Christologically – seeing in the Psalm-text a clear reference to Jesus. It is not an exaggeration to say that these Fathers make a habit of identifying the God of the Psalter with the Person of Christ.
St. Athanasios of Alexandria (296-373) regularly finds references to Jesus in such phrases in the Psalms as the “name of God” and the “face of God.” For example, “Let them acknowledge his great name, for it is awesome and holy” in Psalm 98.3 (99.3) he takes to mean the name of “Jesus,” with an implicit reference to Philippians 2.10-11. Again, with regard to Psalm 4.7, “The light of your face was made to shine upon us, O Lord,” he understands face to mean Christ, for, he says, “Christ is the Light of the World.”
Furthermore, like the other commentators, St. Athanasios also makes a connection between verses of the Psalms which include a short prayer for divine help – such as “have mercy on me,” “save me,” “deliver me,” etc. – and the person of Christ. Either these prayers are seen to be offered by the psalmist acting as a mouthpiece for Christ – where the prayer is a prophecy or foreshadowing of what is to come – or else they are seen to be offered directly to Christ Himself in His own right, or indirectly to Him as an agent of God the Father.
For example, he sees Psalm 15.1 (16.1) – like Psalm 21 (22) – as a foreshadowing of the Passion, and therefore the words, “Protect me, O Lord, for in you did I hope,” constitute a prayer of Christ Himself to the Father. Here he claims that Christ prays to the Father “on behalf of humanity,” that is, as our corporate representative interceding for us.
Again, he reflects on the prayer in Psalm 53.3 (54.1), “Save me, O God, in your name, and you will judge me in your power.” Here he says, “in your power, that is, in your Son.” He therefore sees the psalmist invoking Christ as the embodiment of the power of God – as the instrument of salvation and justice for the supplicant.
For St. Athanasios – and indeed for the other Fathers – the praying of the Psalms therefore involves us in a recurring encounter and conversation with the Lord Jesus Christ. We find ourselves constantly invoking His “great and awesome name” or requesting that the light of His face should shine upon us – Psalm 66.2 (67.1). We find ourselves regularly joining in with His prayers offered “on behalf of humanity” or making our own calls upon His mercy, His salvation, His deliverance.
How should we pray the Psalms? What better place to start than the writings of the Holy Fathers of the Early Church? These writings I endeavour to explore in my book recently published by Peter Lang, and entitled Christe Eleison! The Invocation of Christ in Eastern Monastic Psalmody c.350-450, ISBN 978-3-0343-1789-4. It is the second volume of a series entitled “Studies in Eastern Orthodoxy”, and edited by Graham Speake and René Gothóni, members of the Friends of Mount Athos. May we forever benefit from the wisdom and insights of the Patristic age.
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