In Romania today every religious store containing Orthodox items displays a distinct shelf for the multitude of akathist booklets with prayer-hymns dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, saints, archangels, or biblical events. Even lifestyle magazines for women offer them as bonuses around religious holidays. The post-socialist akathist booklet is an inexpensive portable object, roughly printed on poor paper, with the icon of the holy person on the front cover. Their materiality and content, the prayer practices attached to them, make the akathist booklets, like the Catholic holy cards although in different ways, “handy little markers” of the circumstances of a mobile devotional culture.
Each booklet contains the akathist hymn and several additional introductory prayers. The prayer-hymns are modeled on the akathist dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God (Theotokos or God-Bearer in Greek), an elaborate composition written in the 6th century. Expanding this Byzantine legacy, myriads of akathist hymns have been composed in the languages of Orthodox communities. The canonization of a new saint requires the writing of an akathist hymn. Contemporary booklets make use of traditional texts (translating them into Romanian if necessary) accepted by the ecclesiastical authorities but also circulate controversial new texts praising saints who are not yet canonized. The religious entrepreneurs who print and sell these texts help create devotional styles and move them across national boundaries.
Some parish churches offer special vesper services with the singing of akathist hymns, but most congregations rarely use them in public worship. Their use occupies a creative space in between the individual prayer and the traditionally ritualized one. Many believers resort to the akathist prayer, considered to be more powerful than “one’s own words,” to invoke the intercession of a certain saint especially in troubled personal times. Often the priest-confessors recommend to their penitents, according to their problems (health, marriage, work, addictions), a consistent program of prayer using specific akathists (sometimes for 40 days in a row) and involving specific embodied practices such as fasting, lighting a candle, and kneeling or standing in front of an icon while reading, at home or in church.
Believers also cultivate their own personal approach to akathists as part of their devotion to certain saints. Containing references to the holy person’s life, the akathist enables an intense relationship with the invisible companion. Many believers possess collections of akathists reflecting their preferences and the problems encountered in life and often exchange them with their friends. They take the booklets with them in cars, in handbags, in pockets, in wallets, and read them according to their mood, at home or at work, during daily activities or in pilgrimage to the saint’s shrine.