Alternative and ‘Orthodox’ Christian Religious Healing. Case studies of ‘Healing Energies’ at the Kuklen Monastery (Bulgaria)

The religious culture of Orthodox Christian believers in Bulgaria forms a conglomerate of beliefs which either are post-Byzantine, post-Ottoman, and post-traditional in origin or draw on alternative religious movements. This conjunction of traditional, nominally Orthodox Christian religiosity and esoteric influences of new religious movements has a long tradition in Bulgaria, hibernating in various ideological variants, including socialist and neoliberal ones. Religious leaders play an important formative role in this process. In the closing decades of communist rule in Bulgaria such leaders received a measure of support from the state. Today, they work to keep alive the memory of charismatic figures as the famous prophetess Baba Vanga or Peter Deunov, founder of the White Brotherhood. The influence of White Brotherhood/Deunovian spirituality, an esoteric movement based on Theosophy, exerts a powerful effect on the religious imageries of Orthodox believers, who increasingly come to believe that they can harvest positive energy directly from nature, without recourse to religious hierarchs. As a result, icons, water, sacred springs (ayazmo), and other material objects located in Orthodox shrines come to be perceived as carriers of cosmic energy, or some other kind of vaguely defined energy related to the location’s physical characteristics – contrary to Orthodox Christian theological doctrine, where agency is seen as ultimately deriving from divine energy/grace. Believers often consider as sacred those physical objects whose agency is categorically dismissed by Orthodox clergy (such as a set of healing chains located in the monastery in Kuklen). Those practices are resisted by some Orthodox hierarchs, who exercise a variety of methods to discourage believers from drawing on Deunovian teachings. Based on material collected during field research conducted at the Kuklen monastery  I demonstrate what the two sides of the conflict (including ordinary believers who may or may not realise that they are involved in a matter of religious controversy) understand by “wellbeing” and “healing energies”, and how they seek to enforce their own religious imageries through somatic and discursive practices.