[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.]
When I was a doctoral student many years ago, Bob Orsi insisted I pay attention to sacred presences in the Pagan rituals I was studying. As a student trained in a field still coming to terms with its theological past, I had not been looking for real presence. Practices and gestures, social relationships and structures: I thought these were the important elements of ritual worthy of my consideration. But Bob has consistently made us aware of what historians of religion and other religious studies scholars have so pointedly ignored. His prayer portal, “Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity,” helped me to reconsider the ways in which prayer is transposed from religious traditions like Catholicism into the unexpected places that I study: backyards where Neopagans raised Catholic pray to statues of the Madonna, who is nestled next to images of Pan and Gaia; a protest site sprinkled with holy water by agnostic radical environmentalists; a temple for the dead at the Burning Man festival decorated with prayer flags by recent converts to Buddhism; and a New Age dance church where former Protestant evangelicals “sweat their prayers.”
I am curious about how presence adapts to and changes in unexpected places, the fluidity with which practices like prayer move across religious boundaries and identities and take on new meanings in new contexts. (Of course this happens within older traditions as well, as Bob’s work on religion in the streets and cities has taught us.)
If prayer is intersubjective, if it takes place in a network of relationships, then who is being prayed with in my examples of unexpected places for prayer? Whose presence makes these spaces sacred to the people who pray in them? Ann Taves asks how anyone knows a supernatural figure is present, but I want to know who, exactly, is present. Is a Neopagan who makes offerings to a statue of the Virgin praying to Mary or to Gaia the earth goddess? If the many “unchurched” Americans now identifying as “Nones” or “spiritual but not religious” have lost touch with the sacred others they grew up with, as many of them say they have, then who is there for them in new contexts like the Burning Man festival?
During a collective mourning rite at Burning Man, an event I have been studying for over a decade, tens of thousands of participants, or “Burners,” send prayers to the darkened sky when they burn a temple for the dead (“the Temple”) on the last night of the festival. These prayers are not monologues, but constitute ongoing conversations with the dead, “Mother Earth,” “God,” the “Great Spirit,” and other unnamed heavenly and earthly powers. Throughout the week of the festival, tens of thousands of Burners bring mementos, handmade altars, collages and letters for dead friends and relatives, treaties to spirits of the earth, pleas for forgiveness and blessings, and lovingly lay them in the crevices or attach them to the walls of the Temple.
There are no directions about how to pray at the Temple; no one tells Burners to whom they should pray when they cross its thresholds, many for the first time, throughout the days and nights of the festival. Some Burners locate themselves within religious traditions, but most do not. So how do they know what to do at the Temple? They know how to pray and mourn by watching and mimicking others and by drawing on childhood experience. They bring the emotions and memories of their inner histories with them, in mind and body, to a new ritual space that bears some resemblance to older familiar spaces. When they invent rituals, participants in New Age, Neopagan, and festival communities borrow from the religious idioms of the pasts they carry with them even when they have consciously left behind earlier religious identities. They pray as their parents, grandparents, neighbors, and friends—Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu—prayed, transposing remembered ritual attitudes into recently created rites.
Through the lens of prayer we can observe that taking on new religious identities is a complex and fluid process rather than a simple replacement of the former self with a new self. As past meshes with present in embodied ritual experience, we glimpse and at least partially grasp how multiple religious identities and relationships with multifaceted sacred others are lived through practice.
Presence and absence co-exist within New Age and Neopagan movements and festivals like Burning Man. What is missing is as likely to be articulated as who is present, but a sense of absence also attests to the centrality of presence in the past. Many Burning Man art installations play with this dilemma of presence/absence. At the “Temple of Idle Worship,” an art piece and playa destination (the playa is the broad expanse of alkaline desert empty of all vegetation in which the festival takes place) created some years ago at Burning Man, a sign instructed visitors: “you can light candles and prostrate yourself all you want, but your prayers won’t be answered: the Deity is napping.”