The Magic of the Mantra: On the Heresy of Name-Worship

The early twentieth-century heresy of name-worship, the worship of the name of God as if it were God Himself, is a curious amalgam of absurd and ignorant, magical and superstitious idolatry and pagan and intellectualist, Platonizing and Hinduizing pantheism. The crisis of name-worship came to a head in Russian monasteries and cells on Mt Athos in 1913 with acts of violence carried out by ‘name-worshippers’. After the heresy had been condemned by the Russian Holy Synod and the Patriarch of Constantinople as a heresy, the Russian authorities were frightened that the ultra-nationalist Greek authorities of the time, using a ‘foreign’ heresy as an excuse, would send troops and chase all 7,000 Russian monks off Mt Athos. Two Russian naval boats were sent therefore to prevent bloodshed and they took off Mt Athos 736 monks, with 26 ringleaders, who were involved in the heresy of name-worship. It was then found that some of the violent and leading name-worshippers were not monks at all, but novices, army deserters, runaway convicts and drunkards dressed as monks.

It must be said that even after 1913 sympathy for name-worship remained, especially at St Panteleimon’s Russian monastery on Athos, petering out only after the last monks, who had been present in 1913, had either left or died out by the 1950s. Although this crisis only came to a head in 1913, provoked by a book about the so-called ‘Jesus Prayer’, written in 1907 (‘In the Mountains of the Caucasus’), it is clear that elements of the heresy were present in Russia even before this and can be found indirectly in the mid-nineteenth century Russian booklets ‘The Way of a Pilgrim’ and ‘The Pilgrim Continues His Way’. Far more popular among naïve and pietistic heterodox than in Russia (most Russian Orthodox have never heard of them), these booklets, which were in the nineteenth-century criticized by St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) and corrected by St Theophan the Recluse on account of their spiritual danger, do suggest that one can ‘see God’ quite easily. Living outside the Church and its spiritual disciplines of the Psalter and the liturgical cycle and entertaining intellectual and philosophical dreams and fantasies, many unChurched converts to Orthodoxy of all nationalities, Russian, Romanian, Greek and Western, have fallen into spiritual delusion (‘prelest’) as a result. The magic of the mantra indeed.

This explains why although name–worship initially attracted the attention of uneducated peasant-monks, it then became attractive to politicized liberal intellectuals, notably of the Paris School, notably the heresiarch Bulgakov. In their out-of-focus and wishy-washy, ‘spiritualist’ and anti-State philosophy of Disincarnation, some of these individuals found in name-worship a way to attack and undermine the Russian Church authorities, Church discipline and, in Protestant-style, denigrate the sacraments. Seeking self-justification under the mask of ‘spirituality’, they fell into the delusions of pride, abandoning the Russian Church and the Orthodox Tradition. Such pride can easily be identified because it leads its victims to sectarianism (celebrating the services differently from the rest of the Orthodox world) and aggressive and angry self-justification. Doubt them and they at once become enraged. Indeed, this is very common among such individuals, but we always pray both for those who love us and those who hate us, as St Basil the Great ordains. Fortunately, such delusions have never attracted rooted Orthodox in traditional monasteries and parishes, and those in such prelest remain very marginal, attracting unChurched converts and heterodox.