[Editor’s Note: For further reading on this topic, visit Real Presences, a new portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer, in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Robert Orsi presents a curated collection of resources for readers interested in the intersubjective nature of Catholic prayer, and what this tells us more generally about how religion is practiced today.]

Praying in the Roman Catholic tradition takes place within networks of relationships on earth, and between heaven and earth. For Catholic men and women, supernatural figures are taken to be really, literally present in the everyday circumstances of their lives. Catholic sacramental theology holds that bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ at the moment of consecration in the Eucharist. To take consecrated bread out into the streets and fields in a great golden monstrance, as Catholics have done for centuries, is to bring Christ himself to the people.

But Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are also present in images, statues, and relics; in times of great communal distress or personal suffering; in features of the natural landscape and shrines that mark sites of encounters between humans and supernatural figures; and in holy oil and water. Such encounters are not a matter of human interiority; humans meet these real presences as others in the world.

Holy figures are really present in relationship with men and women, but they also possess separate intentionality and will. There are many stories in the Catholic tradition of a saint’s image or relics refusing to remain where people place them, and instead moving of their own power to where the saint wants to be. This means that men and women do not know how a saint will respond to their petitions, or what a holy figure sees as best for them. They may be taken by surprise. For this reason praying in the Catholic tradition is, among other things, an open-ended process of discovery: the person praying discovers his or her own life in the saint’s response to their articulation of needs and desires (or of what they believe to be their needs and desires until the saint shows them otherwise).

The real presence of Jesus, Mary and the saints in the Catholic imaginary proved to be an extraordinarily rich and generative point of intersection with other cultures populated by their own supernatural presences. One result of the period of European missionary and colonial expansion, for example, were the hybrid Catholic/indigenous expressions and experiences of presence in the world of African Caribbean spirits, in which the saints and African spirits are joined into single multifaceted personalities. Over time, Catholic idioms were themselves transformed, even as they transformed local practices of presence around the world.