Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Helena Kupari)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Helena Kupari (University of Helsinki)

In her essay on icon veneration in Coptic Orthodox Christianity, Angie Heo (p. 94) relates how, when visiting Thessaloniki, Greece, she and her fellow contributors to the volume at hand came across realist icon paintings from time yet to be canonized elder Paisios. This remark, made in passing, brings home a crucially important feature of Praying with the Senses: it is an edited collection that has grown out of genuine collaboration between the contributors. The authors’ joint efforts at gaining a deeper understanding of contemporary Orthodox spirituality, including concrete field trips like the one described by Heo, are well evident in the outcome. The book is far from a patchwork of separate papers. On the contrary, the individual chapters are remarkably consistent in terms of style and tone as well as standard of argumentation – a rare quality in such edited volumes.

The essays all center on practices of prayer. This constitutes a rich field of study, for the Orthodox tradition, as Simion Pop (p. 223) observes, is “saturated” with such practices. Under the broadly construed theme of prayer, the contributors engage with many characteristic features of Orthodox Christianity, such as the generative interplay of tradition and innovation and the Orthodox interpersonal approach to salvation. Furthermore, the theme of prayer also prompts the authors to address some of the core questions in the study of religions, including the relationship between institutional legitimacy and individual experience, the location and nature of religious agency, as well as the role of materiality, embodiment, and sensory input in generating religious faith. All the individual chapters share an interest in this last topic, and the objective of understanding the sensory worlds of Orthodox Christian prayer.

Praying with the Senses looks at prayer through an anthropological lens, and many of the essays in the book constitute textbook examples of the kind of rich and hybrid knowledge that can be produced through careful ethnographic enquiries. The chapters integrate detailed analyses of local contexts and individual lifeworlds with theological insight – a good example is Vlad Naumescu’s (ch. 1) discussion of Orthodox ethical formation through the idioms of “mastery” and “mystery”. Furthermore, the introductory chapter by the volume’s editor Sonja Luehrmann is beautifully written. In a fresh and compact package, it provides the reader with both a historical outline of Orthodox Christianity and a conceptual framework for approaching Orthodox Christian prayer.

The book contains a delightful variation in geographical and cultural contexts, including case studies from Asia and Africa. This spectrum of glocalizations successfully displays the “unity in diversity” that characterizes Orthodox churches worldwide. Naturally, the picture provided is not exhaustive – but it is comprehensive enough to impress on the reader the importance of paying attention to the various historical, social, and political realities in which Orthodox praxis is embedded. For me, at least, the essays provided a very helpful comparative perspective on the particular context that has been the focus of my research: Finland.

While Orthodox Christianity has had a long historical presence in the borderlands between Russia and Finland, in present-day Finland Orthodoxy constitutes the faith of a very small minority. Evangelical Lutheranism is the historically dominant religion, the confessional “significant other” – a notion introduced by William A. Christian Jr. in his epilogue (p. 248) – of the Orthodox Church. The Finnish Orthodox community is not completely adrift among the overwhelming Protestant majority, however. For one thing, even contemporary Finnish Orthodoxy bears traces of the religious culture of pre-modern, rural North-Western Russia inhabited by various Finno-Ugric peoples. At the same time, Orthodoxy in Finland is also attuned to post-modern and post-secular sensibilities. The Orthodox Church has, in fact, faired quite well in the “spiritual turn” of the past decades, with many Finns turning towards the Orthodox tradition in their search for spiritual fulfillment.

The Finnish discipline of the study of religions has a strong tradition in the study of “folk religion”, including and especially the religious worlds of various Finno-Ugric peoples of Northern Europe and Siberia. Orthodox Christianity has thus entered the grid of Finnish scholars relatively early on, in the form of the ethnically infused beliefs and practices of people like the Mari woman introduced in Luehrmann’s chapter (p. 126–127). Later, Finnish researchers’ interest in folk religion expanded to modern contexts and was enriched with anthropological and sociological approaches to contemporary spiritual and religious landscapes.

One notion through which Luehrmann describes the subject matter of Praying with the Senses is “lived Orthodoxies” (p. 22) – a term that I immediately connect with “lived religion”. What separates the study of folk religion from the study of lived religion? This is a question that Finnish scholars have recently been asking amongst themselves. One possible answer (based on my intuitive take on articulations of the study of lived religion) is that lived religion stands closer to the institutional nexus of religion than folk religion. The most immediate and pressing context for enquiries into folk religion is the concrete material reality of the (often marginalized) people under study, not these people’s relationship with any (remote) religious authority. The lived religion approach, for its part, is centered on individuals’ various and often eclectic ways of “doing” religion, and how they relate to religion-as-prescribed by institutions. In research on lived Orthodoxies (or lived Catholicisms, lived Islams, etc.), I surmise, the focus is even more specifically on the application and adaption of Orthodox (or Catholic, Islamic, etc.) idioms.

The examination of a particular faith tradition “as lived” presents itself as a promising research strategy especially in the case of religions with a strong centripetal impetus. As Luehrmann (p. 12) notes, “[t]he Orthodox orientation toward tradition and its authoritative transmission [acts] as an important corrective to studies of Protestant Christianity, where the emphasis is on its connection to modern individualism”. Indeed, this orientation toward tradition is beautifully presented and exemplified in many of the individual essays of the book. Jeffers Engelhardt (ch. 2), for example, describes how Thessaloniki Greeks cultivating a pious lifestyle make use of modern media technologies to better orientate themselves toward the sacramental life of the Church, whereas Simion Pop (ch. 8) discusses the efforts of Romanian Orthodox faithful influenced by a revivalist drive for personal and social transformation to live by the Orthodox “spirit”.  Nevertheless, in both essays it is well in evidence that the people studied are not any average church members, but individuals who actively seek to position themselves as close to “authentic” tradition as possible. From this perspective, a refreshingly different case study is presented by Jeanne Kormina (ch. 5), who writes about Russian religious nomads, their innovative and unorthodox ways of tapping into the sacred, and the Orthodox Church’s endeavors to “domesticate” them. The religious sensibilities of Kormina’s informants are not primarily oriented toward parish life but toward permanent or provisional sacred sites situated farther away.

My own research has mostly been about the routinized everyday religiosity of people who have been socialized to Orthodox Christianity in childhood, who have struggled with marginalization in Finnish society, and whose religion has therefore been oriented toward coping and stability rather than spiritual advancement. This type of religious observance is not very well represented in the essays of Praying with the Senses. While it is rightly acknowledged that repetition and routinization as well as casual and occasional performance also constitute prevalent modalities of Orthodox prayer, the chapters are more concerned with the “spiritual exploits” (Luehrmann, p. 8) of what could be called lay virtuosi. However, as these individuals in question are, after all, laypeople (for the exception of the nuns discussed by Daria Dubovka, ch. 7), the contributors are able to identify and articulate fascinating negotiations taking place in the intersecting and overlapping terrain between this-worldly and other-worldly. They describe techniques of “everyday asceticism” through which the cultivation of a prayerful state of mind is immersed in the flow of daily life with its disturbances and responsibilities. Luehrmann (ch. 4), for example, discusses the complexity involved in correctly performing texts of prayer books – an act she compares to the generation of new texts (I would say new speech, on-going dialogue) with the help of grammatical structures. Moreover, her chapter also nicely illustrates how ordinary Orthodox faithful bend the rules of proper prayer to accommodate their own needs and interests, as in the case of prayers targeting non-Orthodox and unbaptized loved ones. I would have liked to read even more about such “deviant” behavior from the pages of the book.

One thread that runs through Praying with the Senses is the understanding of prayer as a skill that needs practice. Learning is an interesting theme in the context of Orthodoxy for, as Naumescu (p. 29) points out, whereas the process of becoming Orthodox is often described with organic metaphors that emphasize growth and the gradual maturation of a pre-existing essence, the Orthodox tradition includes myriad concrete ways of molding one’s sensibilities towards Orthodox ideals. In fact, from this perspective praying actually constitutes both something that needs to be learned in and of itself and an instrument of further learning. As someone who is in the early stages of a research project on conversions to Orthodox Christianity in contemporary Finland, I found the contributors’ engagement with the theme of learning of particular resonance and interest. How do you learn to pray, and what do you learn by praying?

The essays of the book present a wonderfully rich array of Orthodox pedagogies of prayer. Learning takes place through ritual participation (Naumescu; Pop), embodied interaction with icons and other sacred objects (Heo; Kormina), and immersion in religious soundscapes (Boylston; Engelhardt). It is also achieved through the practice of monastic obedience (Dubovka), as well as through developing personal relations with moral exemplars such as saints and spiritual fathers (Luehrmann; Naumescu; Pop). Overall, the chapters truly demonstrate that in “a tradition made up of many different voices” (Luehrmann, p. 15), people are able to choose from a plurality of paths.

In his discussion on Orthodox self-formation, Naumescu (ch. 1) grounds the “Orthodox ideal of human becoming” (p. 30) in the image-likeness model of Orthodox anthropology, suggesting that learning in the Orthodox context is always ultimately about the process of growing from image to likeness of God. This, he reminds the reader, is an endeavor that requires two parties: advancement is part human effort and part God’s gift (p. 35). The idea of divinely inspired learning (p. 39) is just one example of the many interesting and inventive notions introduced in Praying with the Senses that will help me to advance my own thinking about Orthodox Christianity and religious praxis more generally. Nevertheless, when I think about the elderly Orthodox Finns of my previous study, whose primary religious exemplars were their own (mostly illiterate) grandparents, or about the newly converted Finnish artist who in a recent interview stated that he is not, in fact, religious (, I cannot help but wonder whether all learning achieved through Orthodox tools is indeed geared toward theosis or toward securing oneself firmly within church-authorized tradition.

Praying with the Senses is a strong, coherent, topical and altogether fascinating compilation of ethnographically informed essays on Orthodox Christian prayer. As a scholar sensitized to the folk religion approach to religious phenomena, the one thing that I was left craving for after my reading experience was more voices from the margins of tradition. How do those people pray who do not have the skills, resources, or interest to try to pray “by the book”? This question merits further study, also in the context of Orthodox Christianity.


Kupari, Helena. 2016. Lifelong Religion as Habitus: Religious Practice among Displaced Karelian Orthodox Women in Finland. Leiden: Brill. DOI: 10.1163/9789004326743.