[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
Bob Orsi’s prayer portal, “Real Presences,” draws on his exceptional work highlighting the sense of “real presences” in Catholic devotion. This sensibility is of course deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and its Jewish antecedent. The celebration of Passover is the most prominent example in Judaism of what theologians call anamnesis, in other words a ritual that makes present the saving realities that it celebrates. In Judaism, those who celebrate Passover are not merely engaging in a pious recollection of an historical event; through ritual the salvific power of that event is present in the here and now. The work of liberation God accomplished on behalf of slaves in Egypt millennia ago continues to unfold in the lives of those who ritually participate in their forebears’ exodus. Similarly, in a sense Catholics believe there is only one celebration of the Mass or Eucharist: the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. When Catholics gather to celebrate the Eucharist, they are not celebrating the Eucharist anew. Rather, they are actually present with Jesus at the Last Supper which is extended through time and space in ritual remembrance, and Jesus is really present to worshipers in the consecrated bread and wine, as well as in the Word of God and the gathered assembly.
Orsi is the premier scholar whose work examines how this sensibility of real presence plays out in the everyday lives and devotion of American Catholics. One important aspect of such devotion beyond what Orsi is able to address in his portal reflections is how Catholic devotion often transcends time and space. A particularly poignant instance is the widespread devotion among Latino/a Catholics to the crucified Jesus and his suffering mother on Good Friday. In many faith communities across the United States, this devotion encompasses a public reenactment of Jesus’s trial, way of the cross, and crucifixion, or some other public procession.
For example, Karen Mary Davalos’s outstanding study of the Way of the Cross in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood cites the testimony of a leader named Patricia, who summed up the intersection of yesterday and today: “Christ suffered way back 2,000 years ago, but he’s still suffering now. His people are suffering. We’re lamenting and wailing. And also we are a joyful people at the same time. . .So this is not a story, this is not a fairy tale. It happened, and it’s happening now.” Another interviewee for Davalos’s study put it even more succinctly, stating that in the Way of the Cross “we are reliving that moment which is actually happening now.” For these devotees the power of the ritual is its capacity to mediate an encounter with God that transcends limiting distinctions like those between Pilsen and Calvary Hill, Chicago and Jerusalem, our “secular” age and the “sacred” time of Jesus. They do not see their religious traditions as mere reenactments, but as an opportunity to be truly present to sacred events that are integrated with their everyday world and its meaning. This presence and integration enables them not only to endure present trials and hardships with the power of faith; it also animates many devotees to struggle for the transformation of their personal and collective lives.
I fully agree with Orsi’s conclusion that “Fundamental to this disciplinary work of boundary construction [in contemporary theories of religion] is the absence of real presences. The problem is that this is the way most of the world is ‘religious’ today.” We modern thinkers make too sharp a distinction between what we consider to be empirically real and “merely symbolic.” The Latino/a Catholics I have known and studied are well aware that a person taking the role of Jesus or Mary in a Way of the Cross ritual are not the historical persons they represent. But these devotees’ religious imagination has no difficulty making contact with those sacred persons and events through their religious traditions. Orsi is right: we cannot adequately examine their prayer and that of numerous other practitioners of religion if we do not grasp their understanding of real presences.