“The Jesus Prayer” is a one-sentence prayer that has been prayed/breathed since the 5th century A.D. The essence of the prayer is this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” a petition that can be faithfully prayed by the most inadequate disciple.
This prayer, so eloquent and powerful, was once the focal point for angry debate, fisticuffs, beard-pulling, water cannons, machine guns and an assault on an isolated Greek monastery.
How could an innocuous prayer provoke such animosity? The debate was ignited when a Russian monk named Hilarion wrote a 1907 book titled “In the Mountains of the Caucasus.” This mystical monk and his Russian followers contended that reciting the Jesus Prayer was effective because the name of God is God and the name Jesus is holy in and of itself, being more than a set of letters.
To grasp this line of thinking is to become mystical: Is God “out there”? Is God as close as the name of Jesus? Or, as Hilarion advocated, is the reality of God contained in the name God and the name Jesus? This may seem like hair-splitting, but the Russian Orthodox Church had a clear answer: God is God and the name of God is not God nor is the name of Jesus. Therefore, those who followed Hilarion were declared heretics.
A three-page article in The Economist (Dec. 22, 2012) titled “In the name of the Name” describes the depths of the conflict. Those who sided with the Orthodox Church labeled their opponents “name deifiers” who turned the name (syllables and letters) of Jesus into an idol. But those who recognized the mystical significance of the Jesus Prayer called themselves “name glorifiers” and their opponents “name fighters.”
And so name fighters they all became. Literally.
The argument boiled over in 1913 when the Russian navy sailed to the monastery at Mount Athos, Greece, to root out the mystical and unrepentant monks from their isolated mountain retreat. A once quiet monastery had become a place of fist fights and beard-pulling by passionate monks on either side of the debate until Russian seamen using water cannon and the threat of machine guns rounded up the heretics and sent them packing. This story contains enough mysterious Russian figures, Rasputin included, to require a Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn to write the full account.
Followers of Hilarion were mystics and mystics commune with God and perceive God’s holiness with less reliance upon church or leader to define belief and practice. Such a stance is understandably threatening to the organized church, which likes things neater, more clearly defined, even graspable.
Although the Jesus Prayer controversy seems far-fetched to modern sensibilities, echoes of the debate reverberate in the Russian Orthodox Church where “name glorifiers” are still being accused of undermining the authority of the church. For that matter, though the conflagration of the last century is barely a footnote in history, the church will always struggle with the temptation to use power to define the parameters of holiness and reach consensus on the nature of God. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us, all sinners.
Creede Hinshaw, of Macon, is a retired Methodist minister.