Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Lars Hedegaard Williams)

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

By: Lars Hedegaard Williams (Aarhus University)

The pastor of the small, Charismatic church leads us in chanting and singing, as we walk Akello Maria towards her grave. The women are wearing colorful robes and most men are in suits. People hold flowers in deep, bright colors in their hands that stand out in contrast to the brown and yellow nuances of the burnt grass in the northern Ugandan countryside. They place the flowers on the casket. As we arrive at the rim of the grave, prayers break out over the loudspeakers to console the mourning crowd. As the deceased is being placed in the ground, the pastor says a short speech, where he warns the families not to contact the dead again after this day: ‘that was the old tradition here in Acholiland, but now we are modern, we don’t do that anymore,’ he warns us and leads us in a last prayer for Akello Maria, to lead her on her way.

It was during my doctoral fieldwork in the Charismatic churches in northern Uganda that I began to realize how prayer can be a key to understanding, not just ‘religion’, but questions of subjectivity, temporality, epistemology and belief. Praying with the Senses adds to the already expanding literature that connects prayer to these central themes in anthropology. Although the short vignette above is from a Charismatic and not an Orthodox church, and this way of praying is rather different than in the Orthodox tradition, the relevance of the questions posed and of the analytical frame in Praying with the Senses nevertheless becomes highly relevant to these religious organizations as well.

 In Praying with the Senses Luehrmann and colleagues address prayer in Orthodox Christianity, not simply as an outcry from an individual soul, but as a form of practice that reaches both back in time towards tradition and forward towards innovation, inward as ethical practice and outward as communal activity.

The book is divided into two parts: Senses, which focuses on the sensory environments of personal spiritual practice, and Worlds, addressing the contexts people seek out to develop their prayer practice. The first section, Senses, engages with some of the central theological concepts of the traditions, such as deification and ethical discipline (Naumescu), with the shaping of saintly personhood (Heo) and the integration of new media in spiritual practice (Engelhardt), and how these practices are embedded in temporal cycles of days, weeks and years (Luehrmann). The second, Worlds, holds a focus on the landscape in which the persons engage with prayer and how this changes as people move close to and away from home (Kormina), as political fields change dramatically (Bandak), and in the search for the best conditions of prayer (Dubovka). Together these chapters display both great geographical and cultural variation, as well as common features in the aesthetics and theology of Orthodox Christianity. In the following, I will give a short overview of the different chapters, before I turn to some more general considerations on the conceptual framework, which I think adds a great theoretical capacity, not only to the Anthropology of Christianity, but to the Anthropology of Religion more broadly, as well as to interdisciplinary studies of prayer.

In the first chapter after the introduction, Naumescu asks: what makes a person Orthodox? How does one grow into being a practitioner of an old tradition in a new world? This focus on ‘becoming’ emphasizes that faith is not simply a ‘thing’ that one is born with, or receives automatically. Being Orthodox is, on the contrary, something that is developed, a sensibility that exists even beyond belief. As Naumescu writes, “there must be commonly accepted ways to cultivate an Orthodox sensibility that is expanded and carried on in life, even beyond belief” (29). Through an epistemological balance between ‘mastery’ and ‘mystery’ Naumescu shows how the path of becoming is always also a path of uncertainties and existential doubts. In the second chapter, Engelhardt examines the degrees of mediation so central to the Orthodox world. The emphasis here on both ‘new’ and ‘old’ media elegantly parallels the books theoretical framework of old tradition and (also) newer aesthetics, as Engelhardt describes how “media turns [the practitioner] away from belief and towards materiality; away from formalism and towards practice; away from religion and the secular towards the post-secular and in some cases, even back to enchantment” (p. 58, here also quoting Engelke 2010: 375). Through vignettes from his fieldwork in Greece, Engelhardt show us this balance, which at the end is condensed elegantly in one image of his interlocutor Stelios, who uses 30 minutes’ live-streaming of the Great Compline in substitution for the time he would otherwise spend on Facebook. In Heo’s beginning vignette from Cairo’s busy streets, she shows how remembering a holy person “with fullest sympathy is a multisensory experience involving pictures, sounds, smells, postures, and movements” (84). Her account of holy personhood shows how people remember human capacities to become divine through concrete techniques of the imagination. This takes great skill as well, since naming the holy person in the wrong way at wrong times can tempt them to ‘vain-glory’. A lot is at stake for both saints and practitioners. In the fourth chapter, Luehrmann brings attention to another medium; the prayer book. Based on her fieldwork from Russia, she shows how reading from prayer books matter both as sound and as semantics, as an object of focus and an aid to concentration. “When trying to perform a prayer text correctly, worshippers engage in complex negotiations between their own skills and aesthetic preferences, the authority they ascribe to particular aspects of Orthodox tradition, and practical problems, such as how to make time for prayer in a busy day and maintain focus over a prolonged period of time” (120). This quote from Luehrmann illustrates in condensed form how the theoretical framework is operationalized empirically in the field. This chapter concludes the first part on Senses.

The first chapter in the second section Worlds, by Kormina, introduces us to the problem of religious nomads for the Russian Orthodox Church. Issues of modernity and tradition, continuity and rupture, finds its nexus between the self-centering practices of modern Russian worshipers and the community-centered narrative provided by the church. This is exemplified by the icon, who does not adhere to a particular community, but can find its believers everywhere, in any market or any home. The worshipers of Kormina’s ethnography are always on the move to find a better parish, a more suitable prayer to recite or a more powerful spiritual father to confess to. Boylston’s chapter takes up the question of how developments in media technology play into the religious politics of the post-imperial era in one particular part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This is particularly a question of skill, since prayer is here largely a matter for specialists. Prayer is a bodily and public matter, where the “communication with God is achieved not through individual speech acts but through public networks of petition and deference” (167). However, this public nature of prayer also turns it political, and as a result Boylston traces the changing Christian-Muslim relation on the Zege peninsula through several years, as well as how public space is occupied through architecture and media technology. In her chapter, Dubovka, uses the body as an example of the contemporary domain of inscribing tradition. Modern nuns and novices are faced with ancient monastic challenges in the minimization or transformation of “the body into something fleshless” (207). Prayer is here both a mental activity, a collective ritual and a transformative practice, and the body both an instrument and indicator of deification. For the worshippers living in the monasteries it becomes a balance between being part of the modern world, while at the same time emphasizing their difference from it, which again leads to new ascetic potentialities for Dubovka’s interlocutors. Pop argues that the charismatization of tradition enhances believers capacity to “act and participate in their social and religious worlds and sustains interiorization of faith and personal commitment” (237). His fieldwork is done among the Orthodox revival milieu in Romania with a focus on social and ritual spaces. From here, Pop proposes a comparative framework for examining revival activities in other cases of Orthodox Christianity.

Between these chapters, vignettes by Veniaminov, Naumescu, Luehrmann, Bandak, and Heo serve aesthetic purposes in themselves. Particularly, the photographic collection in the middle from several of the authors and Bandak’s vignette from Syria are powerful aesthetic devices.

The volume poses questions so fundamental to much current Anthropology of Christianity: What kind of creature is prayer? How can it be adequately described and conceptualized? In what way do the senses play a part in prayer practice?

To answer these core question, the volume takes interdisciplinary steps drawing from ethnomusicology, comparative religious studies, art history, theology and psychology to create a sensory ethnography of prayer. This approach elegantly captures the dynamics between tradition and innovation, between staying connected to the organization, holding the image of the church fathers in clear sight, and simultaneously engaging with new media: you-tube prayer, loudspeakers and the internet. In doing so, it engages with current debates in Anthropology of Christianity in a way that places additional emphasis on the aesthetic dimensions and training of skills in prayer and by this offers new nuances.

This approach shows both broad empirically variety, with case material from Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, East Africa and India, as well as theoretical ambition in conceptualizing prayer through three dimensions: aesthetic sensibility, discursive tradition and a focus on skill. This theoretical focus makes the volume relevant to all sorts of debates, new and old, in the Anthropology of Religion and of Christianity. I will get back to that below, but first a dive in to the theoretical framework that informs the chapters of the book.

The debates concerning how to conceptualize prayer have been a longstanding issue in the Anthropology of Religion and Christianity. As Luehrmann writes, “Prayer happens in many different places and contexts: at home and at church, as collective performance and as a personal aside, as an explicit recitation of a canonical text and as a more general attitude of attentiveness” (8). With a broad conceptual frame the authors include a wide pallet of communicative practices in their scope: private and collective recitation of texts, performance of praise hymns, silent or voiced exchanges with sacred media such as icons, relics and candles, the bodily movements of pilgrimage and chanting and singing along with audiovisual media that brings the sounds and experiences of the Orthodox life into otherwise profane spaces. It is a way of thinking about prayer as “request, but also connection, ethical quest but also utilitarian plea, public statement but also a state of mind that may have no visible outside manifestation” (9). This approach owes a legacy to Marcel Mauss (2003 [1909]), for whom prayer was always a fundamentally social activity. It includes the traditional and the discursive, the things and non-things, living and the dead. As the modern Russian Saint Kronstadt is quoted for in concern of the dead “We name them, and they name us. But he who does not lovingly remember his brethren in prayer will not himself be remembered, and does not deserve to be named” (Kronstadt, quoted in Luehrmann: 9). This communal aspect is what makes these practices ‘Orthodox’, according to the authors.

However, a risk of focusing on cultural practices is that it so often comes at the expense of history, institutional organization and power structures. For the Orthodox practitioner the experienced richness and efficacy of prayer is always informed by a thick sensory environment, which builds its sincerity on historical and institutional legitimacy. No ethnographer can catch it all. Nevertheless, the three dimensions of the volumes theoretical frame – aesthetic formation, discursive tradition and skill – is a thorough way of going about this issue. In the icon, the powerful aesthetics meet a deep rooted tradition and the skill of the practitioner to engage with it in the correct way. In chants, the aesthetic expression of sound meets the historically evolved Byzantine system of modes, which alternate throughout the church year. It is an elegant way to make history and practice meet and to place the political at the heart of the poetic and the poetic at the heart of the political. This approach follows in the footsteps of scholars like Talal Asad (2009[1986]), Birgit Meyer (2009; 1998), Charles Hirschkind (2006) and Tanya Luhrmann (2012).

An intriguing next step using this theoretical frame could be to place it in relation to other debates with Anthropology of Religion / Christianity, for example, debates on belief (Good, 1994; Englund, 2007; Luhrmann, 2012; Bubandt, 2014). We could, for example, ask what consequences does this theoretical conception of prayer (the 3 dimensions) have for conceptualizing belief?
Or what does it mean to believe in something under these circumstances described so well in the volume, where practitioners stand between new and old, innovation and tradition? What role does skill and aesthetics play for belief?

Furthermore, we could ask if the theoretical framework would work on related areas in the Anthropology of Christianity e.g. in studies on Pentecostal-Charismatic churches? The authors pose the authoritative transmission in Orthodoxy as an important corrective to debates on Protestant Christianity, particularly its Pentecostal and Charismatic versions, were individualism and dramatic breaks with the past are often emphasized. As someone studying Pentecostal-Charismatic churches in Uganda, I do agree that these are important nuances when carving out an Anthropology of Christianity as such. However, I think the analytics used in the theoretical frame are highly relevant to studying, for example, Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity as well, and would work well as a comparative framework. This point brings me back again to the Pentecostal burial in Acholiland, northern Uganda.

The burial of Akello Maria was indeed an event where skills, aesthetics and tradition where central elements. Traditions in the plural were constantly at stake as ‘new’ Pentecostal practices of saying a final goodbye were crossing swords with ‘older’ Acholi practices of continuing a conversation with the dead. The sensory display of tossing flowers and singing while walking Akello Maria to her last resting place, would mix with the skills of performing these songs and of the long, rhythmic prayers that would flow from the loudspeakers to comfort the mourning crowd. To paraphrase the questions of Williams A. Christian Jr.’s epilogue to the book, one could go on to ask about the immediate and relevant configurations of which this sort of religious practice is a part. To what extent is the specific religious practice in question positioned as dominant, dual, plural or as a minority in these configurations? Are new forms of media the handmaids or foes of traditional spirituality discourses? Which skills, aesthetics and traditions are at stake? Praying with the Senses enables these questions in constructive ways, and I will ask myself these questions when I return to the churches of Acholiland in the future.


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