Singing clerics, Bodleian Libr. illum MS.

Adapted from: Psalmody and Prayer in the Wrintings of Evagrius Ponticus, L. Dysinger, (Oxf. U. Pr., 2005), pp. 48-53


 DURING THE latter half of the fourth century the psalter came to occupy an increasingly prominent place in Christian worship, both in the liturgical assembly and in private devotion. In the fourth century the Book of Psalms gradually displaced other biblical texts used at the so-called ‘canonical prayers’ which later came to be known as the Liturgy of the Hours.[1] One historian of music (J. McKinnon) has described this ‘psalmodic movement’ as ‘an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm for the singing of psalms that swept from east to west through the Christian population in the closing decades of the fourth century’.[2] Different reasons have been adduced for the increasing popularity of the psalter; but whatever its origins, by the mid-fourth century the central place of the psalter in Christian liturgical life was well-established.

          IN THE liturgical practice of the late fourth century, and especially in monastic communities, the term ψαλμῳδία  (psalmodia) referred to corporate or private chanting of psalms which was interrupted at regular intervals by pauses for prayer. These pauses occurred at the end of psalms or between divisions in longer psalms, and generally entailed, as will be described, a change or a series of changes in ritual posture. The prayer which was offered during these pauses could be vocal or silent and of variable duration (although generally not protracted), depending on circumstances and local practice. The intimate relationship between chanted psalmody and the pauses for prayer which punctuated it was such that late fourth century sources often refer to the practice of psalmody as ‘the psalms and prayers’ or simply as ‘the prayers’.


Antony the Great
18th c. icon

 of  E


AMONG THE monks psalmody was one of the exterior ascetical practices which, together with fasting, keeping vigil, and restraint of speech, were recommended by almost all the desert fathers of the late fourth century.[1] In contrast to these other practices, however, psalmody was a practice which occupied the monk throughout the day. Keeping vigil (which consisted chiefly of psalmody) pertained to the hours when one would normally sleep; the question of fasting arose chiefly at mealtimes; and restraint of speech was an issue primarily when one had the opportunity to engage in conversation. Psalmody, on the other hand, encompassed nearly all the monk’s waking hours.

          In both Nitria and Kellia two formal times of prayer were kept each day.[2] The Vigil office was celebrated before dawn and Vespers at dusk; these were either celebrated in common, especially in Kellia on weekends, or in the privacy of the hermits’ cells. At each of these offices twelve ‘canonical’[3] psalms were chanted, interspersed with prayers after each psalm. During the remainder of the day and for as much of the night as the monk could remain awake the practice of psalmody provided a background against which all other work or study was undertaken. Epiphanius of Salamis summarizes this approach: ‘The true monk ought to have the prayer and the psalmody ceaselessly in his heart.’[4] Monastic biographers are fond of quantifying this ‘background rhythm’ of psalmody and prayer in the case of certain exemplary ascetics, by listing the number of times each day these monastic heroes interrupted their psalmody by arising or prostrating (or both) for prayer. Moses the Ethiopian ‘prayed 50 prayers’ each day,[5] while Macarius the Egyptian prayed nearly that number while crawling back and forth in the tunnel that led to his secret hermitage.[6] Paul ‘the Simple’ of Pherme interrupted his psalmody with three hundred prayers each day; he kept count by placing the requisite number of pebbles on his lap, then dropping one after each prayer.[7] Abba Apollo offered 200 prayers each day,[8] and Macarius the Alexandrian and Evagrius each offered 100 prayers each day.[9] Gabriel Bunge has calculated that Palladius’ attribution to Evagrius of 100 prayers each day means that approximately every ten minutes throughout the day Evagrius offered brief prayers which either marked the conclusion of a psalm or interrupted sections of the longer psalms.[10]

          An important goal of this continuous rhythm of psalmody and prayer was to keep the soul fixed exclusively on God. An apophthegm concerning Anthony the Great presents the ideal of a mind constantly returning to the recollection of God, particularly during manual labor:

From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
( Apophthegmata Patrum (Greek syst. col.) 7.1, SC 387, p. 336)

     1. ONCE while living in the desert the holy abba Antony found himself in the state of acedia, darkened by [tempting] thoughts. And he said to God: ‘Lord, I want to be saved and my [tempting] thoughts do not allow it. What should I do in my affliction? How am I to be saved?

1. Ὁ ἅγιος ἀββᾶ 'Αντώνιος καθεζόμενός ποτε ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ἐν ἀκηδίᾳ γέγονε καὶ πολλῇ σκοτώσει λογισμῶν.  Καὶ ἔλεγε πρὸς τὸν Θεόν· Κύριε, θέλω σωθῆναι καὶ οὐκ ἐῶσί με οἱ λογισμοί· τί ποιήσω ἐν τῇ θλίψει μου; Πως σωθῶ;

     And standing up a short time later he began to go outside, when he saw someone like himself sitting down and working, then standing up from work and praying; then sitting down again to work on the rope [he was making], and again standing up to pray.

Καὶ μικρὸν διαναστὰς ἐπὶ τὰ ἔξω θεωρεῖ τινα ὁ 'Αντώνιος ὡς ἑαυτὸν καθεζόμενον καὶ ἐργαζόμενον, εἶτα ἀνιστάμενον ἀπὸ τοῦ ἔργου καὶ προσευχόμενον καὶ πάλιν καθεζόμενον καὶ τὴν σειρὰν ἐργαζόμενον, εἶτα πάλιν εἰς προσευχὴν ἀνιστάμενον.

     But it was an angel of the Lord sent to set Antony straight and confirm him. And he heard the angel saying: ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ And on hearing this he rejoiced greatly and recovered his courage; and in acting thus he was saved

'͂Ην δὲ ἄγγελος Κυρίου ἀποσταλεὶς πρὸς διόρθωσιν καὶ ἀσφάλειαν 'Αντωνίου.  Καὶ ἤκουσε τοῦ ἀγγέλου λέγοντος·  Οὕτως ποίει καὶ σώζῃ. Ὁ δὲ τοῦτο ἀκούσας πολλὴν χαρὰν ἔσχε καὶ θάρσος, καὶ οὕτως ποιῶν ἐσώζετο.


HERE Antony is the archetype of the monk who continues during manual labor the same rhythm of psalmody and prayer which he practices during the canonical offices of Vigils and Vespers. Other monastic sources confirm that the ‘arising’ from work described in this apophthegm represents the interruption of the psalmody which accompanied work by regular intervals of prayer.[1] The ‘saving’ effect of constant prayer and psalmody lay both in turning the mind back to God, and in turning away from demonic temptations. As Douglas Burton-Christie has noted, memories and personal concerns which arose during the course of chanting the psalms were often regarded as distractions and considered to be of demonic inspiration. The recitation of psalms and other biblical texts was supposed to drive out memories of the past and replace them with holier thoughts.[2]

          A somewhat more positive approach to the goals of psalmody is found in Athanasius’ Letter to Marcellinus on the Interpretation of Psalms. Although Athanasius does not describe his text as exclusively or even primarily intended for monks, he claims to transmit the insights of an ‘old man diligent in asceticism’, evidently a monk.[3] The first part of this text (chapters 1-9) presents the Book of Psalms as a summary of the whole of scripture, and thus of salvation history. The particular virtues of the psalter are then discussed (chapters 10-11), and particular psalms are recommended for different states of the soul (chapters 13-26). The psalter is presented as a means of restoring harmony and balance in the soul (chapters 27-28). The psalms are to be ‘recited and chanted’ (λεγέτω καὶ ψαλλέτω) just as they are written;[4] that is, in their entirety (chapter 29) and without changing or augmenting the words (chapter 30). A striking image which acquires great popularity is that of the psalter as the soul’s mirror:

Καί μοι δοκεῖ τῷ ψάλλοντι γίνεσθαι τούτους ὥσπερ εἴσοπτρον, εἰς τὸ κατανοεῖν καὶ αὐτὸν ἐν αὐτοῖς καὶ τὰ τῆς ἑαυτοῦ ψυχῆς κινήματα, καὶ οὕτως αἰσθόμενον ἀπαγγέλλειν αὐτούς.

 AND it seems to me that for the one chanting psalms, these become like a mirror in which he perceives himself and the movements of his own soul; and thus affected he recites them. 

PG 27.24. Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus 12,

          Not only do the psalms display ‘as in a mirror’ the whole range of human affective life, they also have the power to reshape one’s inner life. By making the words of the psalms his own, the one who chants them may be inwardly ‘pierced’ and moved to compunction along with the penitent psalmist:

καὶ ὁ ἀκούων δὲ ὡς αὐτὸς λέγων κατανύσσεται, καὶ συνδιατίθεται τοῖς τῶν ᾠδῶν ῥήμασιν, ὡς ἰδίαν ὄντων αὐτοῦ.

 AND the one hearing is struck with compunction as if he himself were speaking, and is moved by the words of the songs as if they were his own.

PG 27.21.

Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus 11, 

FINALLY, THE  Book of Psalms is the soul’s great teacher:

πᾶσα μὲν ἡ θεία Γραφὴ διδάσκαλός ἐστιν ἀρετῆς καὶ πίστεως ἀληθοῦς· ἡ δέ γε βίβλος τῶν Ψαλμῶν ἔχει καὶ τὴν εἰκόνα πως τῆς διαγωγῆς τῶν ψυχῶν.  

FOR all of Sacred Scripture is a teacher of virtue and the truths of faith; but the Book of the Psalms somehow contains as well the image of the souls’ course of life.

PG 27.25.

Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus 14, 

          Thus the psalter is a workbook for the soul’s whole course of life (διαγωγή/diagoge): the remarkable variety of images evoked during psalmody both reflect and provide direction for human life in all its complexity.




[1] A. Veilleux believes that in the primitive Pachomian office there was no particular preference for psalmody, and that the office consisted largely of consecutive scripture readings, each followed by the prayers Cassian describes in Book 2 of the Institutes: i.e. standing with arms outstretched, prostrating, then arising for silent prayer. Vielleux, La liturgie dans le cénobitisme pachômien, pp. 276-323.

[2] J. McKinnon, ‘Desert Monasticism and the Later Fourth Century Psalmodic Movement’, p. 506. The same author describes, ‘that great wave of enthusiasm for the Old Testament Psalms which swept from East to West in the second half of the fourth century. Nothing quite like it has been observed either before or after in the history of Christianity or Judaism,’ ‘The Fourth Century Origin of the Gradual’, p. 98.




[1] The term ‘exterior’ is used here to distinguish these practices from ‘interior’ or mental disciplines such as vigilance over thoughts, compunction, and humility.

[2] This simple practice of twice-daily formal (‘canonical’) prayer gave way within a few decades to traditions of more elaborate, fixed liturgical prayer every few hours which have characterized the liturgy of the hours in both East and West ever since. In Books 2 and 3 of the Institutes Cassian attests to both the older, simple practice of the Egyptian desert and the newer approach of his communities in Gaul, which included the hours of Terce, Sext, and None. Taft traces this shift towards more frequent canonical prayer in Egypt (The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, pp. 57-73) and in the urban monastic offices of the eastern (pp. 75-91) and western (pp. 93-140) churches. Recent excavations in Kellia have revealed the architectural and artistic/decorative changes in the cells of the monks of Kellia which accompanied this liturgical shift: G. Descoeudres, ‘Die Mönchssiedlung Kellia: Archäeologische Erkenntnisse als Quellen zur Spiritualität der Wüstenväter’, pp. 26-39.

[3] Cassian writes of the ‘canonical’ number of psalms offered at each office in Institutes 2.12.1, cited and discussed below, p. 58 , n. 30 .

[4] Apophthegmata Patrum, Greek alphabetical collection, Epiphanius 3, PG 165.64: Dei= ga\r to\n a)lhqino\n monaxo\n a)dialei/ptwj e)/xein th\n eu)xh\n kai\ th\n yalm%di/an e)n tv= kardi/# au)tou=.

[5] Palladius, Lausiac History 19.6, Bartelink, p. 100.

[6] Palladius, Lausiac History 17.10, Bartelink, pp. 74-76.

[7] Palladius, Lausiac History 20.1, Bartelink, p. 102.

[8] (Anon.) Historia monachorum in Aegypto 8.5, Festugière, p. 48.

[9] Macarius describes himself, e(kato\n eu)xa\j poiw½n (Palladius, Lausiac History 20.3, Bartelink, p. 104); and Palladius reports of Evagrius, e)poi¿ei de\ eu)xa\j e(kato/n (Lausiac History 38.10, Bartelink, p. 200).

[10] Bunge, Geistgebet, pp. 31-32. On the question of ‘the prayers’ signifying the alternating rhythm of psalmody interrupted regularly by prayers Bunge refers to the examples of Antony the Great (cited below, p. 54 ) and to Barsanuphius and John (Letters 40, 140, 143, 150, and 176), Geistgebet, pp. 32-34. He also refers to texts from the Ethiopian collection of apophthegmata (13, 26, 42, and 43; Arras, Collectio monastica, pp. 66 and 70) which indicate that these ‘prayers’ often consisted of brief formulae such as: ‘Jesus have mercy on me! Jesus help me! I bless you, my God!’ Geistgebet, pp. 39-40.




[1] Palladius describes the chanting of psalmody which could be heard coming from the cells of monks engaged in the manufacture of linen at Nitria: Lausiac History 7.5, Bartelink, pp. 38-40. Cassian explains that the discipline of psalmody begun during common liturgical prayer was continued in private during manual labor: Institutes 2.14-15, SC 109, pp. 82-86.

[2] Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 117-129, esp. 124-127.

[3] Rondeau has described the monastic ethos which this work reflects: Les Commentaires, v. 2, p. 222; ‘LÉpître à Marcellinus’, pp. 196-197.

[4] Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus 12, PG 27.41: ta\ gegramme/na lege/tw kai\ yalle/tw, w(/sper ei)/rhtai.



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