THIS month is the centenary of an extraordinary incident of
gunboat theology. On 13 June 1913, 120 marines arrived from
Imperial Russia and stormed the Panteleimon Monastery on Mount
Athos, to enforce orthodoxy against those who believed that the
invocation of the Name of Jesus in prayer makes him truly present.
This new mystical movement of the Russian Orthodox Church was
proving popular among the monks there, but opposed by others as
being pantheistic. Both sides were battling for supremacy in the
The political situation was delicate. The peninsula of Mount
Athos, in the north of what is now Greece, had been settled by
monks and hermits for well over 1000 years, and at that time there
were about 6000 of them. Under the Ottoman Empire, in exchange for
heavy taxation, Mount Athos had enjoyed considerable autonomy. In
1912, facing pressure from Greece and Bulgaria, both of whom were
fighting over their possessions in Thrace, the Ottomans withdrew,
and the future of the whole of the peninsula as a semi-independent
territory was in the balance.
Greek troops were ready to move in and annex the territory, and
a bitter theological dispute among the Russian monks threatened to
give them the excuse they were waiting for. Tsar Nicholas II felt
bound to sort out the Russian problem himself, put an end to the
dispute, and so maintain the national influence. A blockade of the
recalcitrant monks in early 1913 had failed, and so in the late
spring, a gunboat and two troop ships were dispatched from the
The marines entered the monastery from the sea, set up machine
guns and water cannons, and set about enforcing a surrender. The
monks resisted as best they could, and many were severely wounded
in the struggle. Once captured by the marines, an archbishop
lectured the soaking wet monks and demanded that they renounce
their heresy. Of course, they refused. In the end, each monk was
questioned individually: 700 complied; 900 still refused to do so.
Meanwhile, in the neighbouring Andreevsky Monastery, further rebels
were rooted out.
In early July, two adapted prison ships set sail for Russia with
1000 monks, leaving some 40 still in hospital. Once in Odessa,
those who remained obdurate were imprisoned, and then unfrocked and
dispersed far and wide. It was a brutal solution, and bitterly
opposed in the wider Orthodox world, but, within a year, the Great
War had begun, and other priorities took centre stage.
THE heresy that provoked so fierce a response was, in essence,
about the presence of God in one who prays. In this case, it
concerned the Jesus prayer, and those who believed, to cite the
most well-known summary, that "The name of the Lord Jesus is as it
were he himself." This was later summarised to the still more
striking, "The name of God is God himself."
The Imyaslavtsy, or "Name-Worshippers" as they were
disparagingly called, used the Jesus Prayer with great devotion -
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" -
understanding that the proper praying of these words, within the
orthodoxy and practice of Christ's Church, would indeed make
present Jesus himself. This was not magic: there was no mechanical
recitation; they remained aware of the need for faith, discipline,
and moral behaviour.
The Anti-Name-Worshippers saw all this as a misunderstanding,
of, for example, the nature of a sacrament. If prayer alone could
make Christ present, there would be no need of sacraments. Surely
they are correct; but the fury of their response belies a
clericalist bias, as if they feared that the Jesus Prayer would
circumvent the Church and the clergy.
And yet, when Jesus said, "When two or three are gathered
together in my name, there I am in the midst of them," did he not
intend to be present, as the Name-Worshippers suggested?
NO ONE can read the Hebrew scriptures without an awareness of
the Jews' more-than-reverence of the name. On the other hand, as
one of the Russian hierarchy put it in 1914: "The name of God, by
itself, is only a holy symbol created by man." As it was fought out
by theologians, I cannot help feeling that the heart of the matter
was being missed, and that there was and is no simple solution.
Criticism of the Rus-sian Orthodox Church's heavy-handed
treatment led to calls for a reassessment of the charge of heresy.
A synod that was convened in 1917 to decide whether
Name-Worshippers should be allowed to remain in the Church failed
to reach a decision, and within months the Communists came to
Initially, this crisis gave support to their cause. Already
persecuted within their Church, and alienated from its buildings
and structures, their secret practice of faith made them better
prepared to face persecution than the orthodox majority.
In the end, the dispute faded, as events overtook the
participants. Looking back now, one would judge that they were,
strictly speaking, wrong (led on perhaps by an excess of
enthusiasm), but that their opponents were more wrong, in their
opposition to the sacramental power of the Name of Jesus, and his
presence in the hearts and minds of those who pray with true
devotion. It is not the task of theologians or the Church to limit
the gift of prayer.
Thanks to the 19th-century Russian classic The Way of a
Pilgrim, and J. D. Salinger's 1961 novel Franny and
Zooey, the Jesus Prayer has wide popularity. Rem-embrance of
those stubborn monks, washed out of their barricaded cells by
marines wielding water cannons, may encourage a more orthodox
appreciation of this great Christian treasure - bringing the Name
of Jesus into the heart and mind of the believer.
Canon Nicholas Turner is Rector of Broughton, Marton, and
Thornton, in Bradford diocese.