[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.]
It was William James who described “religion” as that which enables us to gesture towards what we cannot articulate or describe fully, but in which we place diffuse hopes for being delivered from our confinements, which we invoke with the mere act of speaking. The problems of our subject, and the ambivalent institutionalization of our discipline, appeared regularly for me as I relished Robert Orsi’s writings on prayer, presence, and intersubjectivity (and the writings of other contributors to this project). Thinking through the resonance of sacred presence, and the near impossibility (even audacity) of writing about the religious experience of another person, it strikes me that one of the most valuable things about engaging these topics is how fundamentally they confront us with what we do in the study of religion. That is to say, the intellectual and authorial difficulties they pose demand so obviously a renewed freshness and frankness in our engagements that we might even think of them as the scholarly equivalent of the really real.
As a challenge for our descriptions and for the possibility of our understandings, prayer reveals things to and about us. It shows that the conversation about religious experience cannot turn on the question of either normativity or distance, either summary judgment or free-floating relativism. Unless we maintain a quasi-theological commitment to scholarship as a kind of sorting through or evaluation of epistemological claims (and who would pursue the study of religion for such blunt and unpoetic reasons?), reckoning with religious presence and intersubjectivity (in prayer and elsewhere) demands other things of us. I have been thinking about these issues over the last several years as I write about religion and sonic creation, and in so doing I have thought continually about the relational modes that Orsi’s writings bring up so suggestively. The reason I meditate on authorial position at the outset is because one of these modes is an academic one. That is, when writing about particular kinds of religiosity, we are bidden to cultivate a kind of aesthetics of empathy, receptivity, and imaginative openness. This does not entail that we adopt the simplistic sympathy of the chronicler but urges us to consider empathy in the sense that we are co-experiencers, that we share a condition that drives our inquiry as well as those we study. In other words, to write about religion is possibly to experience something that religious people themselves experience: the absence of language and the attempt to restore it.
As a card-carrying defender of methodological and authorial pluralism, I would not want to suggest that this disposition works for all expressions of religiosity one might study, nor even that it is normative here. But it is suggestive; it is edifying. And in thinking about how to think about prayer, that seems a fruitful start. Orsi’s focus is on intersubjectivity, specifically on the cultivation of relationality. What he finds most significant when considering the everydayness and materiality of prayer in Catholicism is the emphasis on the real presence of supernatural figures: in things, in the midst of activities, in intimate coexistence with us. What do we make of this notion that in prayer we interact with “holy figures” who “possess separate intentionality and will,” that through embodied, enacted, even intoned prayer religious persons situate themselves between heaven and earth? Orsi urges us to take the realness of this presence, and this in-betweenness, seriously. Against a long-gestating disciplinary bias against the “primitive” or “enthusiastic” or embodied (Marcel Mauss, for example, identifies prayer as a kind of imagined conversation or as interaction with a material object, and cannot conceive of the realness of sacred beings), Orsi reminds us that if the study of religion is about anything, it may in fact be about precisely these presences.
What, though, might this tell us about other ways of practicing and experiencing “religion,” ones without the specifically Catholic understanding of immanence and incarnation, of sacramentalism and public display? What else might prayer present to or conjure for both the religious and the observers of religion? What if we focused, as a way of underscoring the vitality and importance of presence, precisely on the category absence that Orsi finds fueling disciplinary bias? By this I mean something different than what he identifies as “the removal of the sacred, the development of alternate ways of knowing, being, self-mastery.” That is, if we can think beyond thinking of prayer via the taken-for-granted bifurcations of the modern (inner and outer, self and other, embodied and epistemological), the bothness or wholeness that presence summons or dwells in presents us, thinkers about religion, with a frank and unavoidable opportunity to think through our own categories and assumptions. This is so because prayer (even without foregrounding presence but especially so if we do follow Orsi in so foregrounding) marks a confrontation with our own audacity in attempting to understand the experience of another.
If we acknowledge the realness of presence, is this audacity, this impossibility reduced or enhanced? Even as we rethink the vitality and urgency of prayer, still the horizon of language and understanding recedes, and the absence I allude to above returns once more. Indeed, a focus on the realness of presence entails a focus on the realness of absence. This is not the absence of the sacred, or of the beings Orsi points to as central. This is, instead, an absence possibly woven into the very experience and practices of prayer as a kind of relationality. To ask “what is the power of prayer?” is to ask “what is the power of being heard?” Even if we swap out the aurality of my formulation, and substitute for it “acknowledged” or “felt,” it strikes me that prayer is not simply about intimacy and a network of sacred beings but also about the practitioner’s sense that the cosmos without these sacred beings might be one in which their experiences of communion and presence would be converted to the experience of being overwhelmed or lost. An awareness of these beings’ lack, their contingency, and the fragility of the very sacred worlds they manifest seems also implicit in prayer; its very power is a sign of our sure knowledge that it might abandon us, not in any moral sense but in the withdrawal of meaning or the erosion of belonging.
It is the possibility of this slipping away—a heightened experience gone too fast, a leaf skittering across your back yard on a night when you desperately miss someone, the keen sense that the unseen strides in your midst—that animates and inspires prayer. What are the conditions under which we become receptive to these experiences, and how are these distinct from the ideas or languages we append to them after the fact (if indeed it is possible to make this distinction at all, either temporally or conceptually)? And if this language of overwhelmedness and lostness is suggestive—again, not as presence’s other or some trite invocation of God the absent signifier—it is to say that one of presence’s textures might usefully be captured by this language directed at the slipping away of things (from descriptions to leaves to memories).
Dwelling amid absence in this way invites a second line of questions that Orsi’s observations open up: How much of what happens in prayer might be thought of as cartographic, where the geography of memory (of immediate subjective experience) becomes converted, through the economies of emotional language, into the openness of the present and the future? If prayer is about re-connection, might the space between absent and present be spanned in the language of reminiscence? During my reflections on this “portal,” I happened for the first time in nearly two decades to engage Georges Bataille’s Theory of Religion, in which the following statement struck me as a reverberation of its own: “The return to immanent intimacy implies a beclouded consciousness: consciousness is tied to the positing of objects as such, grasped directly, apart from a vague perception, beyond the always unreal images of a thinking based on participation.” Bataille writes later that the tears following death never merely express sorrow but form a recognition of the intimacy of a life shared, which is never more apparent than when absence suddenly replaces presence.
This intimacy takes shape on the occasion of absence, in light of absence’s possibility, perhaps, but also through the idiom of memory. These expressions are not simply the refuge of the desperately bereaved or some kind of ontological last-second shot at the buzzer but different aspects or resonances of the relational modes Orsi captures so well. So as I think about the possibilities emerging from this conversation, the registers of absence and memory might bid us to think of new languages for or pathways into prayer and presence: duration and time, emotion and affect, or network and agency. And these might bid us once more to reconsider and make possible refreshed relations with those we chose to write about. What seems salient to the avowed experience of prayer and to the scholarly challenges it poses, then, is the way it moves fluidly among and beyond distinctions and dichotomies. Prayer eludes and exceeds whatever formulations we can give to it, even as it is situated in the textures of everyday life. In this it is like music, played anew continually but always drifting away from us in time. But that’s a subject for another post…