Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Valentina Napolitano)

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

By: Valentina Napolitano (University of Toronto)

Via a rich ethnographic lens this timely collection sheds new light on a long scholarship of Orthodox Christianity.  Rather than addressing the themes of each single piece, I address the collection as a whole. Therefore, my comments aim to highlight only a few themes forwarded by this collective effort without, of course, doing full justice to the richness of the material.

This collection’s perspective stands between an Asad/Mahmood approach to the study of religion and praying -as disciplined inclinations of ethical subject-making – and a renewed effort to take seriously the ontological reality and the affective histories of saints and holy figures. In this reading, praying is not just a drama within a discursive tradition, or only a mediation of ethical encounters, but it is also a way of calling into being ontological presences via multiple aesthetic formations and material exchange. Within a long and complex durée of Byzantine and Orthodox Church’s history, these ontological presences – if taken seriously – help us recalibrating what we come to understand as a socio-historical regime of the visible (see Sonja Luehrmann’s Introduction).

This collection refreshingly takes up stories not only of praising the holy and the saints, but also of doubting them. Self-doubt and doubting the world, through a multisensorial unfolding of praying, is an interesting avenue through which this approach to Anthropology of Christianity can help us to overcome the unhelpful division between the domain of the religious and that of the secular. When praying ‘by the books’ transtemporally connects the present event to past and future ones, the nature of those events becomes both personal as well as communal and public – and always in the making (see Sonja Luehrmann’s chapter). This clearly pushes against another unhelpful distinction in Christianity at large, that between a public domain of rituals and a private, inner dialogue, with the holy.

If for the faithful Syrian Christians -comparatively addressed in Ukraine, Romania and South India (see the chapter by Vlad Naumescu) – a tension between mystery and mastery is both a question of discernment as it is of purification of the heart, then praying is also a site for creativity, with and beyond conditions of pain, suffering and the process of salvation. When praying is lived as a received gift to call into being the spirit of fathers (and doing so in a diaspora), this human-divine relation sparks a capacity for imagination.  Praying as fabulation (which of course has a long history, see the work of Michel de Certeau) is not only a technique of subject-making, but also a site, a space of porous boundaries between ordinary life and death (in relation to saints) – between the co-creating worlds of the dead and the living. To approaches based on ethical subjectivity and Aristotelian poesies, through these different chapters, we are invited to pair a perspective of the prayer-event as one of creative, embodied and affective acts of fabulation – indeed an enriching angle in bringing the study of Orthodox Christianity to the anthropological table.

The miraculous, the fathers of the desert, the histories of schisms and exile (see chapters by Heo, Pop, Luerhmann, Kormina) are treated as imaginative, lived cartographies, graphic moments in the witnessing relation between saints, the holy and the people. Through praying with the senses, a place, a site becomes the creative potential for a present and future and cannot be contained in a generic space, but is always situated and enlivened through specific code switching. So, praying with the senses is not only about engaging with conditions of consolation, affections, but it is also an attuning to code switching between public, collective and personal realms, especially, but not only, in liturgical events constantly remade by histories of revivalism. Moreover, through an ethnographic reflection on Coptic practices (in Angie Hoe’s chapter) we learnt that there is a living threshold which constitutes self-orientation, communal memory and remembering. This threshold is actively constituted by specific form of materiality such as baraka, a particular substance that mediates between the human and the holy.

Overall this collection’s approach to the study of Orthodox Christianity combines a focus on generative grammar with an historical long durée and analytical angle on material religion and mediation. This is in line, but also pushing forward, approaches such as the ones by Webb Keane and Birgit Meyer on the study of religion, mediation and subjectivity. However, there are a few areas that this collection could have addressed further. For instance, gender and how the gendered body, through the prayer-event, shapes differently the synergy of material mediation and generative grammar.

We have a hint of this domain while we learn that women may show particular forms of consumption of orthodox praying material (see Jeffers Engelhardt’s intervention) and that in Ethiopian Orthodox Christian circles the availability of religious media for women transform their space of work in temporary religious and devotional spaces, without disrupting household gendered division of labour (see Tom Boylston’s chapter). While this material contributes to a burgeoning of research on the role of social media and how they have significant effects on people’s religious experience, we learn, specifically, that mediation not only defines what is magically imaginable, but also allows an imagination of a community with particular divisions of labour.

Moreover, this collection brings to view a reframing of local, national and transnational spaces through the prayer-event, and the nature of the accidental.  In an intervention, itself a lovely fabulation, by Andreas Bandak we are presented with a Syrian story of an indented car, masculinity, marriage and (failed) blessings – all in a space of a few days. We learn that the prayer-event has to be set in a sociality of the accidental. If one of the friends/informants of Bandak would had not dented this newly acquired car – bought in preparation for his wedding to come – a narrative of a later collective pray-singing, in that same car, would have taken a different route. A wide canvas of animated signs is part of the devotional urge for praying, but so it is a capacity for the accidental and the fortuitous in life to make its mark in a religious register.

To conclude, perhaps my main question to this collection is the wider role of the state and post-national formations that make religious spaces new important local and transnational modes of political aggregation (see, for instance, how currently some aspects of Catholic praying are championed in Poland and Hungary against undocumented immigration). Simion Pop’s intervention, while revisiting charismatic Orthodox revivalism in Romania, starts to address this topical domain of inquiry. His work shows that orthodox Christian revivalism has multiple faces and political purchase. If we pay attention to renewed forms of charisma and the ritual labour they express, we can also grasp how orthodox Christianity allows people to try to legitimize other forms of authority, which are normally dominated by clericalism. By doing so people struggle for emancipation from historically given forms of authority, while fabulating new economies of prayers. So how do we understand these ecclesiastic vis-a-vis revivalist authorities as part of state-crafting? And how to grasp, more generally, state-crafting via a focus on the praying-event?  If praying with the senses help us to see the multivocality and interdisciplinarity of a study of religious mediation, we need to further address how this sensing is political.