The Bread of Life series consists of two short documentaries about modes of Christian devotion and spiritual pursuit in South India today. Shot between October 2013 and February 2014 as part of Vlad Naumescu’s research on Syrian Christians (St. Thomas Christians) in India, the films explore Orthodox Sunday schools and Christian ashrams, taking a different cinematic approach in each case to grasp their distinct rhythms of prayer. Together, the two films contrast a pedagogy of prayer centered on speech and recitation with one based on silence and contemplation. Each draws on a model of ethical formation that ties together certain values, practices, and aesthetics to shape a Christian personhood.
Praying with the Senses
What does prayer sound, look, taste, and smell like? Can the person praying “feel” if the prayer is successful at establishing a connection to a divine interlocutor, or do all prayers feel the same? The Eastern branches of Christianity have an especially rich sensory culture of prayer, including not only the famous icons and chants, but also the smell and warmth of oil lamps and incense, the feel of prayer ropes or books. In this collection of essays and media curated by Sonja Luehrmann, seven researchers bring together images, recordings, and texts from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North America to explore the sensory conditions for efficacious prayer in the “aesthetic formations” of Eastern Christianity.
What does prayer sound, look, taste, and smell like? Can the person praying “feel” if the prayer is successful at establishing contact with a divine interlocutor, or do all prayers feel the same? The Eastern branches of Christianity have an especially rich sensory culture of prayer, including not only the famous icons and chants, but also the smell and warmth of oil lamps and incense, and the feel of book pages or prayer ropes between one’s fingertips. There are also media that allow a person to materialize a prayer without ever pronouncing it, such as a note on a crumbled piece of paper left in a wall, a prayer service recorded on a CD for home audition, a candle placed wordlessly in a church, or an invocation of a saint on a web forum.
Old Believers are socialized into this textual tradition from early childhood, as the old books are present in their churches and homes. In church the books are placed behind the wooden screen that separates the readers from the community in close proximity to the altar icons, and used on a daily basis for liturgical services and collective worship as is common in Orthodox churches (see Engelhart hyperlink). But the books are also found in almost every Old Believer home, inherited from parents together with the family icons. Inscribed by those who wrote themselves in as copyists, readers, or lifelong owners, the books often recreate spiritual or family genealogies and mark essential moments in their individual biographies. In homes they are most often hidden from view or covered with some clothing and are “activated” once a person literate in Church Slavonic engages with them—which some say needs to be done regularly. Similar to an icon placed in the house, the book constitutes a salient presence that puts the reader, the book, and the text in a particular relationship, prompting an act of prayer associated with specific practices: when taking the book in his hands the reader crosses himself, opens it deferentially and starts reciting from it. This action is as much a recited prayer as it is an occasion to commemorate those inscribed in the book and evoke the broader community of Old Believers.
When distinguishing religious from secular activity, contemporary Russian Orthodox believers often draw a contrast between the spiritual and the sensuous. Coming from Byzantine monastic writings that were popularized by nineteenth-century Russian clerics, this contrast refers to two different modes of human existence. Prayer and participation in liturgy are intended to develop the spiritual potential of the human being, moving beyond mere emotion or esthetic enjoyment. Key characteristics that make churches a spiritual space removed from secular sensuality are iconographic styles that depict saints as timeless, serene beings of no particular age, existing in eternity rather than historical time; and liturgical chants that are performed a cappella, in rhythms that are often governed by the words that are sung. The canonical texts of services and hymns to saints also often shy away from the more gory details of their lives and sufferings, to focus on them as spiritual exemplars. But especially when it comes to more popular and lay-oriented forms of praise and prayer, the elements of a liturgical setting can pull in different emotional directions.
During their earthly lives, Coptic saints must preserve their humility and protect themselves from worldly “vainglory” (al-magd al-batil in Arabic). One monk, Abdel-Masih al-Manahri (d. 1963), who hails from a village in the Upper Egyptian municipality of Minya, is fondly remembered among Coptic Christians all over the world for his loud, flamboyant acts of self-effacement. “I want to get married!” “Don’t thank me!” “I don’t know my name!” In the aftermath of his miracles, outbursts like these, of impossible desire and possible insanity, served as warnings to the witnessing public not to seek human recognition at the expense of eternal salvation. For this reason, saints are known to run away and hide from people, preferring anonymity to celebrity.
“Let us attend!” This is the familiar, urgent instruction directed to all those present in Orthodox Christian liturgy—a call to focus the mind, direct the heart, and attune the senses to what is coming. It is an instruction rooted in the dynamics of collective and individual prayer in the Orthodox Church where, as many emphasize, there is not a tradition of extemporaneous prayer. Ideally, one uses familiar formulae to ask for what one has already received—God’s mercy, for instance—or follows the prototype of Jesus Christ by praying the Lord’s Prayer.
This prayer was performed in a convent of Vyatka region in Russia in the winter of 2012. Every day in the evening a group of novices, lay workers, and pilgrims circled the convent in a procession. They bore icons and sang prayers to the Mother of God. The purpose of this prayer was to protect the convent from enemies—visible and invisible. After that, the group asked the angels and the saints to come to their aid and in the end one person read aloud the prayer for the spiritual father, the priest who serves as confessor for the convent. A fragment of this prayer is available here: the faithful ask to strengthen their spiritual father physically and spiritually, to reveal to him the sins of his followers and to save them by his prayers.
During the elective course “Religion in Contemporary Russia” at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, undergraduate students discuss the relevance of various classic definitions of religion. Then they are asked to speculate about “minimal religion” in Russian society. The stories about meetings with the sacred which they tell are usually about dead relatives who visited them or members of their kin in a dream shortly after their death. Typically, these dreams are interpreted by the family as an alarming message from the deceased who feels neglected and wants to communicate. As a result, the dreamer goes to church to do her minimal religious work, that is, to light a candle.
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.