Some years back, I was given instruction on saying the “Jesus Prayer” by Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex. We spoke about the form of the prayer, and the pace it should be prayed. But it was his final instruction that touched my heart: “Pay particular attention to the Name when you pray it.” It is, after all, the Jesus Prayer. The Scriptures have much to say about His holy name. We pray “in His name.” We speak to the Father, in the name of Jesus. The name is “above all names.” “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow”… The list goes on and on.
In the early years of my time in the “Jesus Movement,” I shared an apartment with a dear Christian brother. We developed a very sweet practice at bedtime. The apartment we shared had two bedrooms. But one of us would call to the other in the dark with a “name” of Jesus. “Lion of Judah,” one would call and the response would come, “Honey in the Rock.” We would go on like this, slowly exhausting every “name” image we could remember from the Scriptures. My experience at the same time was one of increasing ecstasy as the “Name” worked within our hearts and pushed us ever further into the heights.
Devotion to the name of Jesus is widespread in Christianity and takes many forms. There are evangelical hymns. There are mystical treatises, both Orthodox and Catholic. In Orthodoxy, there is the Akathist Hymn to the Sweetest Lord Jesus that, like my late teen ecstasies, presses deeper and deeper into the mystical imagery of the Name.
The Scriptures say,“For whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.”(Romans 10:13) This statement, I think, is most often treated in a “legal” manner, that is, as a statement of a minimal requirement for Christian salvation. As such, it becomes like a magical password, guaranteeing deliverance from future punishment and promising future reward. That understanding, it seems to me, trivializes what is taking place in salvation and diminishes our understanding of the holy Name.
If we remember what it means to be “saved,” then we can better understand what St. Paul is saying regarding the name of the Lord. Salvation is much more than a heavenly reward or the deliverance from hell. Rather, salvation is the transformation of the whole person and their ultimate transfiguration into the image of Christ. Salvation is becoming eternally and truly what we were created to be – the very image of God.
With this in mind, it is possible to see that “calling on the Name” is a profound act of the heart, soul, mind, and body. To call on the Name is, in this sense, not unlike receiving Christ in the Holy Eucharist. He says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in them” (Jn. 6:56). This is not a legal status – it is a matter of our entire being. Calling on the Holy Name of Jesus is similar – it is a “communion” with Christ Himself.
Devotion to the name of Jesus has had its own controversies over time. In the first couple of decades of the 20th century, a Russian controversy erupted in what today is called the Imyaslavie Controversy (Imyaslavie=Name Worshiper). In a very popularly read book of the time, the hermit schema-monk, Hilarion, wrote: “The name of God is God Himself.” Over time, there came to be a push-back, particularly in some of the higher circles of the Church. The truth is that Fr. Hilarion’s simple statement lacked definition and could easily be miscontrued in a magical manner (or some such thing). Perhaps the most refined response to that charge can be seen in the works of Aleksei Losev, Russian philosopher and defender of the teaching: “…The exact mystical formula of Imiaslavie will sound like this: a) the name of God is an energy of God, inseparable from the essence of God itself, and therefore is God himself. b) However, God is distinct from His energies and from His name, and that is why God is not His name or a name in general.” Nonetheless, the Imyaslavie teaching was condemned by the Holy Synod of Russia at one point, with monks on Mt. Athos who adhered to it being expelled. The doctrine was slated to be re-examined at the Moscow Council in 1917, but was never undertaken due to the onset of the revolution. Prominent defenders of the Imyaslavie were Fr. Sergei Bulgakov and Fr. Pavel Florensky.
All of that seems to be something of a footnote in Orthodox history. What was under consideration was the statement that “the name of God is God.” Orthodox theology being what it is, I can easily see how such a statement could be reconciled with Orthodox teaching – though, on its face, it is certainly too susceptible to misunderstanding. What the controversy surrounding this did not do – was change the devotional life of the Church in any way. The Jesus Prayer, and devotions to the name of Jesus were and remain at the very heart of our Orthodox life.
For myself, I stumbled across all of this when I was doing doctoral studies at Duke. The question for me arose around the nature of language. What is it that words do? How should we understand them? My “clue” was a statement from the 7th Ecumenical Council that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I followed that lead and spent time pondering the “iconicity of language.” I came to the conclusion then that this approach held promise in thinking about the Holy Name. We would certainly say of an icon of Christ that it “makes present what it represents.” However, we would never say, “The icon of Christ is Christ.”
More important than these theological speculations is the simple experience that I first learned in those late teen years. The name of Jesus is sweet. When spoken by a heart that loves Him, its invocation brings with it the presence of Christ Himself. It is Jesus that our hearts desire and Jesus whom we are given: in the sacraments, in the Scriptures, and in His holy Name.
This new site is still under construction. I ask readers to be patient as we continue the work. Most especially, we have not been able to migrate our subscription list as of yet. If you would like to be assured of notifications when a new article is posted, use the subscription function on the right side of the blog. Thanks for all the support through the years!