Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Simon Coleman)

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

By: Simon Coleman (University of Toronto)

Sonja Luehrmann’s edited volume is ostensibly focused on prayer, but in fact the book is about much more, since it ‘seeks to present both the diversity of practices and the shared aesthetic sensibilities that govern how Orthodox spirituality is lived in modern and globalized times’ (p.4). In one sense, using prayer as a means of understanding wider religious tendencies might be seen as a classic Maussian move, an analytical deployment of prayer as an institution not only central to religious life, but also capable of moving across different domains while still remaining recognizably itself (see e.g. Jenkins 2008). According to my reading of Luehrmann’s text, however, the broader question at stake concerns Orthodoxy itself: how might we both recognize and analyze it across very different national and cultural contexts?

Structurally, the book offers at least three different ways of answering this question. First, the contributions range across a wide landscape of national traditions, incorporating research on believers and institutions located in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Second, individual chapters tend to focus respectively on a particular dimension of what might constitute Orthodoxy, including old and new media technologies (Engelhardt), holy personhood (Heo), treatment of bodies (Dubovka), use of shared spaces (Boylston), attitudes towards the book (Luehrmann), and so on. When juxtaposed, these dimensions begin to suggest a ‘total’ picture of what to look out for in studying Orthodoxy. Third, there are brief, cross-cutting reflections on specific topics that act as counterpoints to the longer essays. Thus, for instance, Angie Heo’s short piece on Baraka takes the reader ‘across the Arab Mediterranean world’ (p.163), showing how the implications of this term spill over different concepts (blessing, holiness, charisma, and so on) as well as religious boundaries, helping to mix Muslim and Christian. Andreas Bandak’s piece draws together his conversations with a Greek Orthodox friend in Damascus, the latter’s purchase of a car, and a visit to a monastery to consider how the form and orientation of prayers may reflect the vast changes in the lives of Syrian Christians in recent years.

There is also a more theoretical stance that brings the different parts of the book together and suggests an underlying argument about how to study both Orthodoxy and other religious formations. The clue to this approach is already contained in the phrase ‘aesthetic sensibilities,’ for Luehrmann explains that the emphasis on a sensory ethnography bridges forms of materiality, subjectivity, and emotional engagement (p.10). Generally, the book does not delve very deeply into the specialized anthropology of senses per se. However, its focus on ‘aesthetic formations’ (Meyer 2009) encourages ‘a commitment to recognizable choreographies of gestures, sounds, images, and corresponding attitudes that can produce quite strong distinctions from non-Orthodox outsides’ (Luehrmann, p. 16). Aesthetics here really are meant to be ‘formative’ in the sense that such styles and choreographies take on considerable importance where no transnational Church administration exists to impose liturgical or political order. These broader aesthetics combine with ‘discursive tradition’ (taken from Asad) and the study of prayer practices to provide three further, interrelated areas through which to approach the study of Orthodoxy.

In the space that I have, I highlight just two cross-cutting threads where I think this focus on the aesthetic provides useful food for thought—suggesting the possibility of thinking across Orthodoxy, but also considering more comparative questions. One relates to the issues of religious rhythm. As Luehrmann puts it (p.8), quoting a Finnish Orthodox priest, ‘Orthodoxy is all about rhythm,’ thus also suggesting the significance of regular prayers as a means to create ritualized habits that can permeate different places and contexts. Similarly, in his piece on ‘becoming Orthodox’ and learning to ‘master’ a Christian tradition, Vlad Naumescu suggests that, ‘throughout the Orthodox world, liturgical rhythms are markers of spiritual strength and confessional identity’ (p.37). Such rhythms are obviously evident in monasteries and holy places, but are also detectable in other realms of life, such as the example of a woman unable to recognize herself in patterns of truncated, Protestant-like worship as it adopts a new tempo, unfamiliar to her. Furthermore, they raise questions of how Orthodoxy can adapt to novel environments, such as the ways in which new urban ascetics attempt to combine the demands of secular and family life with regularized visits to spiritual fathers, going on pilgrimages, and so on. Rhythm, like prayer, becomes a useful way to think through and across Orthodoxy because it reaches across so many different scales, from the body of the believer to the national landscape of holy places and sacred events, and it asks to what extent we might detect a ‘choreography’ of faith.

On the other hand, the other area I wish to highlight appears to be pitched rather precisely against the importance of rhythm in the reproduction of religious life, and can be found most obviously in Jeanne Kormina’s piece on Russia. Kormina talks of alternative regimes of belonging enacted through what she calls ‘the nomadic religious regime’ (p.144) evinced by believers who try to move away from the framework of local parish communities in Russia, to focus instead on making pilgrimages to sacred sites or visiting urban Orthodox fairs. These ‘nomads’ appear to be disrupting or cutting out some of the regularities of Orthodox life, incurring the disapproval of some clergy. Kormina thus quotes a Father Alekssii who states firmly that pilgrimage should be ‘a rare feast rather than a routine of religious life’ (p.151). Such practices seem to be developing a new tempo, with a type of engagement oriented more towards movement and leisure than towards parish-related virtues of situatedness and community-building. In doing so, they raise much broader comparative questions concerning the rhythms and locations of contemporary forms of Christianity in general, where ‘pilgrimage’ modes of engagement are proving more popular than regular participation at the local level (e.g. Coleman 2018).

In one sense, this volume represents a further contribution to the Anthropology of Christianity, and one that pulls us further away from the original impulse of the sub-field to focus on high-profile, globalizing, Pentecostal forms of revival. In this regard, Simion Pop’s piece on Orthodox revival raises intriguing and significant questions as to how ‘a hierarchical, liturgical religion such as Eastern Orthodox Christianity’ might be able to foster ‘interiorization of faith and personal commitment’ (p.226). In her introduction, Luehrmann states that ‘the Orthodox orientation toward tradition and its authoritative transmission’ (p.12) provide an important corrective to studies of Protestantism where the emphasis is on modern forms of individualism and ruptures with the past. However, more interesting, though less expected, are the potential parallels with varieties of Protestantism. Luehrmann herself, in her separate chapter on Orthodox uses of prayer books, notes that at times parallels may be found between Orthodox and evangelical prayer, or even charismatic speaking in tongues, over the interdependence that can be discerned between innovation and continual practice (p.121). Her point is a good reminder that while it is often useful to think in terms of denominational differences, there are other, cross-cutting ways to work comparatively in studying global forms of Christianity.

The final chapter of the volume, by William Christian, points to some of the historical, geopolitical changes that have affected national configurations of Orthodoxy, such as shifts in Ottoman attitudes towards pluralism in the Balkans, or the disestablishment of national Orthodox regimes in the Soviet Union and Ethiopia (p.244). Christian also returns to the question of potential relationships, and contrasts, with evangelicals and Pentecostals. He characterizes Orthodoxy as being akin to Catholicism and Judaism in its status as ‘a legacy religion,’ to which people rarely convert in its home territories except through marriage. The point is that Orthodoxy seems relatively static and place-based compared with the more mobile orientation of Baptists and Pentecostals. Such may well be the case. However, I would have welcomed more discussion in the book of two areas where forms of Orthodox mobility might have been considered in more detail: the importance of migration and diaspora-formation in the shifting of local forms of Orthodoxy into new relations of transnational mobility; and, also, the ways in which national Orthodox traditions might communicate and influence each other—not only theologically, but also aesthetically and materially. Nonetheless, this is an excellent book to consult for anybody wishing to learn about prayer, but also about so much more.


Coleman, Simon 2018 ‘From the Liminal to the Lateral: Urban Religion in English Cathedrals.’ Tourism Geographies Published online 21 March,

Jenkins, Tim 2008 ‘Marcel Mauss’ Essay on Prayer: An Important Contribution on the Nature of Sociological Understanding.’ Revue du MAUSS permanente, Published online 6 novembre,

Meyer, Birgit (ed.) Aesthetic Formations: Media, Religion, and the Senses. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.