October 19, 2015

Private Candles in German Protestant Churches

It is now commonplace in German Protestant churches to find private, non-liturgical candles burning in wordless prayer. These candles, lit by individuals who might spend little time in church themselves, represent a transformation of classical Protestantism that highlights shifts between public (congregational) and private (individual) religiosity, and perhaps between what we might call “institutional theology” and “individualistic spirituality.” If Martin Luther (1483-1546) were to visit a Protestant church in present-day Germany, he might be shocked to see the new forms of spirituality that have emerged there. Seeing the candles, Luther might be relieved to notice that the church had no statues, that the candles were lit before plain walls. However, he might be puzzled that the next Protestant church contains a huge statue of the Virgin Mary looking out onto a similar sea of candles and flyers filled with prayers and poetry. But, perhaps on further reflection, he might recognize in such practices some aspect of the Protestant Reformation that he began: namely, he recognize at the core of such practices an echo of the Reformation’s erasure of spiritual hierarchy and the dissolution of centralized power to grant or deny access to God.


In a time of social and religious unrest, the Protestant Reformation began in sixteenth-century Wittenberg (Germany) as the protest of a theologian and other academics against the practice of selling indulgences. Mainstream Protestantism of the Lutheran variety developed out of this protest. Lutheranism developed as a spirituality of reading and memorizing Bible verses, singing, listening to sermons, and reflecting on interior and exterior life. Theoretically, Protestants consider everyone equally close to God, and believe that people require neither human mediators for access to the divine nor a system for the distribution of holiness: salvation requires only faith. (That Protestant theologians thinking about the selection and pre-election of the faithful wrote very thick volumes and used their arguments as a means of power and guidance of the flock is no secret.) This flattening of the spiritual hierarchy made some religious practices obsolete: believing the sacrifice of Christ to have been made once and for all, Luther and other reformers saw no need for priests to re-enact that sacrifice in the mass, no cause to plead with saints to intercede on one’s behalf, and no justification for the practice of paying those seen as higher up in a spiritual hierarchy) to convey one’s prayers more effectively.

The lack of hierarchy was also reflected in the aesthetic of Protestant churches: the number of altars was reduced and statues of saints, no longer necessary as intercessors and guarantors of salvation, disappeared. Many churches changed from dimmed halls into bright prayer rooms, and the choir became largely useless, except for the occasional communion. The pulpit—always a symbol, its place and its decoration reflecting current understandings of the word of God and the role of the clergy—became the new liturgical center.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, dialectical theology sought to purify the Protestant church of worldly contamination by erasing from it everything that did not correspond to the gospel. Again, pure faith was the only answer to God’s call. And again, the theology was expressed in the aesthetic of the church, especially the pulpit. The congregation was placed under the pulpit—under judgment—while the light of the gospel, or God’s grace, fell from above. But, in time, this authoritarian theology collapsed under its own weight. In the 1960s, people demanded new, more personal liturgies, as they sought greater self-expression in religion. Once again, the (re)placement of the pulpit was symbolic: in the 1960s and 1970s, they were lowered, or even removed, as pastors were no longer seen to stand above the congregations, handing down the word of God.

This re-flattening of the spiritual hierarchy was again accompanied by new possibilities of religious expression, including the lighting of individual candles in church. Though private candles had previously been associated with Catholic rituals, bringing light into the darkness of human existence as a symbolic act was close enough to biblical references, and it was not forbidden. Protestant churches developed installations for lighting candles. As with the pulpit, the form and placement of these installations can tell us something about the ongoing negotiation between private and public religiosity in Protestant churches.


Private, individual spirituality in public, Protestant space

As German Protestant churches function primarily as rooms for listening to public sermons, they do not need to be open except during services. There is nothing to be adored, no holy communication except at the time of the service. But, since some churches interest tourists, the congregations open their doors between services. Churches therefore serve a strange double purpose as spiritual hotspots and as non-functional symbols of the congregation’s hospitality and the institution’s openness. The current practice of individual candle lighting must be seen in this context. The churches are public, Protestant spaces; but the motivation to light a candle or to write down a prayer or a sentence is private, and is not bounded by faith or denomination.

We can distinguish three main types of installations for lighting individual candles in Protestant churches. The first is close to the classic Catholic style.

This installation—a sort of spiritual art—is on the floor of St. Peter’s church in Hamburg. It is in a state of constant change, as many visitors write and draw in the sand. There is a prayer on the wall behind the installation, but the theology of the prayer and the spiritual practice of the candles and sand are not the same. Perhaps the provided text is a way for the institution to make a Protestant statement, to serve as a guide in the act of turning candle lighting officially into a prayer, and to juxtapose the transience of writing in the sand with what one might consider the permanence of a plea to God. At the same time, the spiritually private nature of candle lighting and the individual nature of whatever one may write in the sand lets happen whatever may happen there. Quite often, one can see hearts and initials in the sand, presumably created by couples seeking heavenly protection for their love: this tradition speaks in a different spiritual register than the prayer on the wall.

In St. Michael’s church in Hamburg, we see an example of the next style, the cauldron. Here, the candle installations illustrate the difficulty of adapting a liturgical space with its own history and architecture to changing patterns of spirituality. St. Michael’s is a baroque Protestant space resembling a theater, where everyone can see and hear the preacher on the huge pulpit. But, in this picture, we see a cauldron filled with sand in which to place decorated candles. This cauldron and another one just in front of the steps to the choir have been placed in places of no real significance. These are not spaces for prayer, solitude, or meditation—each is a sort of non-place, but within the spatial organization of a church building. Above the cauldron, a table shows numbers corresponding to songs to be sung during the service, but these things are in proximity, not in actual relation.

New forms of spirituality have no adequate place here—the church was not built to accommodate recent spiritual practices, but the need is obvious. This is spirituality seeking a place it has only found in the margins, not in the very center.

The Marktkirche in Hannover gives another example of candles and individual prayers in Protestant churches. In a number of churches, one may find a heavy bronze tree with candles placed at the end of the branches. The tree seems to blossom with fire, possibly in reference to the burning bush that Moses saw; to the grape, a biblical symbol of unity and individuality; or to the tree of life. (It seems to me that the variety of interpretations represents the postmodern openness of meaning.) In the Marktkirche, visitors may write down prayers to be read during the noon liturgy and pin them to the adjacent wall. The connection between the prayers and the tree of light is not obvious, though it may somehow be intended. The tree stands by itself as a strong symbol, and other practices seem to be minor. I interpret this lack of clarity as an unfinished search for adequate forms of emerging expressions of faith.

In the photograph, we also see a specifically Protestant spirituality in evidence. The locked trolley on the left contains the songbooks for the Sunday service: it serves only for public services, not for private prayers or candle lightning. There may be some uneasiness about the mixture of private and public piety.


The ability to light private candles in Protestant churches is one of many new expressions of faith. Installations like the ones examined here contrast the exclusively institutionally expression of faith with a more fluid and personalized spirituality, one that makes accommodations to personal needs and interests. That these Protestant spaces now offer the ability to light a candle is neither completely self-explanatory from the history of Protestant piety nor contradictory to it. It can be understood through the interaction of a fundamentally Protestant impulse and larger social trends towards personalization and individualized spiritual expression.

January 21, 2015

Prayer, Survivors, and the Post-Secular

For the past two years, Robert Orsi, the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair of Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, has been talking with adult survivors of clergy sexual abuse in an effort to understand survivors’ religious practices and experiences in the wake of the abuse. Here, Orsi speaks with Jennifer Lois Hahn about why sexual abuse by a priest is more than a matter of individual psychopathology; how survivors’ continued religious and spiritual engagement challenges functionalist theories of religion; and what he means when he describes survivors of clergy sexual abuse as existing at “ground zero of the post-secular.”


Jennifer Lois Hahn: People tend to see sexual abuse as an individual pathology, the problem of the priests and nuns involved. Is it something larger than that?

Robert Orsi: Clearly sexual abuse is the result of individual pathology, in the sense that there are men and women who are driven by their particular obsessions to abuse children or adolescents, and it is possible for psychologists to develop a profile of general characteristics for such individuals. On the other hand, I think it’s very important to look at the social, cultural, and in this case, religious environments within which abuse takes place, how particular environments may contribute in specific ways to the abuse, giving it meanings and lived consequences in excess of the psychological. I asked a survivor once if she thought it made sense to talk about her abuse as being in some way religious. This woman goes to church today, having returned after some time away. She’s a devout and, as it happens, quite learned laywoman. Her answer was, “Everyone who was abused by a priest was abused in a Catholic way.” So it is this Catholic way that I’m interested in. The sexual abuse is not an act in isolation from other acts, other forms of violence against children, or in isolation from the construction of the child as the object of devotional desire in modern Catholicism, and so on. There was collusion, moreover, on the part of parishioners or parish staffs, who were implicated in the abuse if only by saying nothing or looking away from what they knew well was happening, and on the part of bishops, who protected abusers or moved them from parish to parish. All the figures in these networks of collusion had Catholic reasons for what they did, their choices. Furthermore, the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by priests took place in a particular theological, sacramental, even ontological environment. The priest was a certain kind of being in Catholic theology, the other Christ (alter Christi), ranked higher than the angels because only priests are endowed by virtue of their ordination with the power to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of God. Angels cannot be ordained. So to be abused by a priest was not at all the same as being abused by a high school football coach, as awful as this is too. It was to be abused one step removed from God. And that, I think, sets clergy sexual abuse in a context that needs to be examined from multiple perspectives, including, or primarily, the religious.

JLH: In your proposal, you talked about wanting your project to assess the victim’s survival beyond the “implicitly normative terms of the therapeutic.” In what ways is the standard secular therapeutic treatment not sufficient for some of these victims?

RO: Well, there is not a single therapeutic modality in contemporary psychology, as we all know. There are many different schools of therapy, many different kinds of practice, and survivors have tried one or the other or several over time. In this sense, their experience with therapy cannot be generalized. Furthermore, I don’t think the kind of Freudian orthodoxy that dominated therapy for years, with its rigorous, insistent secularism, retains the credentialing power or authority it once did. Because most of those abused by a priest were abused in a Catholic way, as a scholar of religion, I believed I could bring analytical tools and perspectives both from religious theory and the study of history to bear that might illuminate dimensions of the abuse beyond, or in addition to, the psychological. But I have been struck by the extent to which psychological approaches, language, narratives, and so on, crowd out other idioms of understanding and theory, even among church people who are able, or enabled, by reason of this conceptual singularity to say simply, “Well, it’s a psychological issue.” Likewise, psychologists argue that the perpetrator is sick. Norwegians struggled with this question of sickness versus intention in the trial of Anders Breivik. But I have been resisting this one dimensional psychological explanation because I think it lifts the sexual abuse of children and adolescents out of history and culture, in a way that distorts its reality. At the same time, I’ve been very mindful and respectful of the fact that almost all the survivors I’ve spoken to have been in some sort of therapy and that all have benefitted from it, and also that psychological theory is essential in understanding sexual abuse. But the woman I quoted earlier about clergy abuse being always in some sense Catholic eventually had to break with her therapist because her therapist didn’t want to talk about God, and more, felt that her client’s continued attachment to both God and the church were symptoms, rather than religious choice.

JLH: That must have been painful for her I would imagine.

RO: It was. Because she loved this therapist and she was very grateful for how much the therapist had helped her, but with her devotion to God, Mary, and the saints, and her attachment to the church, she hit a blind spot with the therapist.

JLH: Along those lines, I was really struck by what you have said about survivors of clergy sexual abuse being at “ground zero of the post-secular.” Can you explain more what you mean by that?

RO: I probably should begin by explaining what I think “post-secular” means, because I think it has a wide and not always stable semantic range. After Talal Asad, the “secular” was recognized as itself a religious project, so that it began to make sense to speak of a “religious secular.” It’s also evident that the secular generated various forms of religious expression, understanding, and practice, or the secular religious. But I think what gets left out in post-Asadian accounts of religion after secularism is the enduring life of religious traditions, pre/post-secularism. The survivors I know were all involved, in one way or another, with Catholicism. I make no claim that this is true of all survivors of clergy sexual abuse. But it was true of the ones I have spoken to. So when I say that survivors are at ground zero of the post-secular, I am talking about how survivors find themselves in a situation in which their lives are construed in a set of normative languages that serve to mask the complex realities of their biographies. Again, multiple frames are needed to approach survivors’ lives, including a robust Catholic language. These are Catholics and in many senses they remain Catholics, even when they reject the sacraments, hierarchy, and so on. Despite rejecting certain elements of the tradition, the survivors I got to know spend a lot of time talking about God, they think about the Blessed Mother and the saints, they are knowledgeable about Catholic theology, and in this way they’re not pre- or post-secular. What’s the term then? Perhaps we scholars of religion are overly confident in the reach of our theoretical language. We need to be more attentive to what ways of being are excluded, or hidden, by the terms we use. What lies on the other side of our theoretical languages?

JLH: In relation to the secular, you have written about how important the notion of real presence is in Catholicism. As I was reading that I was actually thinking about Tanya Luhrmann’s work, how difficult it is sometimes for the evangelicals she studies to find this sense of real presence in a modern society. Do you think this is different for Catholics?

RO: Almost all of the people I spoke to had grown up or had been “formed”—in the Catholic word for the processes by which children become Catholic—within the Catholic Church before or during the Second Vatican Council, when the devotional density of Catholicism was at it’s most excessive. The world of their childhoods in the mid-twentieth century could not have been more enchanted, and this was the world that Catholics took as real. For a book to be published soon by Harvard University Press, tentatively titled History and Presence, I am working on a chapter on Catholics and the dead. The dead are present in everyday life to Catholics in all sorts of ways; the boundary between living and dead is porous. In an article I cite from the 1950s popular Catholic press, a priest says that he really likes old ghost and horror stories because he thinks they say more about reality than modern accounts of death. Such tales were truer to Catholic ontology. To the Catholics who grew up in this world, whose bodies, imaginations, minds, relationships had all been made and remade to this reality—not that they were passive in this process—enchantment is given, taken for granted. It is both given and special, it is in their bodies as well as their minds.

JLH: Do you think that having grown up with this enchanted ontology eventually helps survivors to move on from the abuse because they already know how to draw comfort from religion and spirituality?

RO: Survivors would not say that they’ve moved on. This is one of the great lessons of this project for me. As one person I spoke to put it, is there ever really an “after” to the abuse? I’ve said that I thought that as a scholar of religion I had something necessary to contribute to understanding the sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. That said, I also anticipated that the clergy sexual abuse crisis, as history and personal reality, and what survivors had to say about it, could speak to me as a scholar of religion, and I might learn something about religion itself that would allow me to open up some theoretical possibilities in the study of religion more generally. One of the things I have found consistently among survivors is the resistance to closure. This is why the word “comfort” is not really appropriate either. If comfort implies an end, or if it means any sort of ultimate peace, then it’s the wrong word for survivors. Functionalist views of religion—and most theories of religion are functionalist—break against the experience of the survivors because they did not encounter a God that made them comfortable, that provided order or meaning. Nor do they speak about a world put back together again when they turn to God later in their lives. The survivor I spoke about before refers to herself as a resurrected wound. She remains a wounded person, but she’s resurrected. Sometimes I think the most religions offer is scar tissue. This survivor also says everyday she has to make a choice between light or dark, between what she calls the abyss or life.

JLH: The issue of the interplay of agency and structure in religious life has been a central feature of your work over the years. Can you talk more about how this dynamic plays out in the ongoing process of dealing with abuse?

RO: The short answer to your rich question would be that survivors, like the rest of us, are subject of/subject to our histories. I think it’s tempting to many to tell the life stories of men and women abused by priests as being going from victim to survivor, which is another way of saying from “subject to” to “subject of.” But the from/to language obscures a more complex reality, which is that survivors are always moving back and forth between these positions, and they know it. This is how they talk about their own lives. The longer answer requires a discussion of how survivors come to the recognition that they are both actors and acted upon, which I think of as a realization of the tragic nature of human existence. Maybe I was attracted to this project in the first place because I have a tragic view of history and culture myself, a position for which there are multiple sources, from psychoanalytic theory, post-World War II social theory, and historiography, meaning the very fact of being a historian. Many of the survivors, understandably, share it, not simply for obvious reasons, but because they have lived their lives beneath the cross, in several senses. At some point in their lives they accepted the irrevocability of what happened to them, and it was with this recognition that they became free. Almost all of the survivors I’ve spoken to had a period in their lives as young adults when they were still practicing Catholics, when, in fact, they were the best of all Catholics—dutiful and obedient. They were children or adolescents when they were abused, so practically speaking they couldn’t walk away from the church without community scandal and disapproval. But even afterwards they continued going to church and many of them described themselves as model Catholics in their 20s and early 30s. Then at some point the incongruity just broke them apart and they couldn’t do it anymore. Now they accept the fact that they were abused by priests in a church that some of them now have come to love again; but the reality of the abuse and the reality of the love are not separated into compartments. This is why the resurrected wound is such an apt metaphor. So they have moved in a way beyond absolutes. And maybe they teach us scholars of religion to be wary of imposing any sort of totalizing framework on religious practice, whether it’s the totality of power, or language, or doctrine. The challenge has always seemed to be how to account social historically, politically, and so on, for those times when the polyvalence of religious worlds gets fixed into an absolute. Survivors are the freest people I know, as I’ve written somewhere, because of the clarity of their recognition of the inevitable dual nature of human history.

JLH: You have written about some of the survivors finding an intermediate higher power in Alcoholics Anonymous. At one point you describe the A.A. God as a higher power without attributes. This struck me because I’m writing my dissertation on A.A. and I’m actually investigating what attributes people in A.A. tend to see in their higher powers.

RO: It wasn’t my judgment that this was a God without attributes. This came from one of the survivors I had spoken with, who went through A.A. and then eventually decided to move on to religious idioms more thickly conceptualized. Many of the survivors I know say that A.A. offered them a transitional God, a God they could deal with when they couldn’t deal with God. Nonetheless, they acknowledged the importance of this God who was not the God they knew but another God. People go into A.A. from particular religious traditions, which inflect this signifier, the higher power. The higher power sometimes behaved a little bit like the Catholic God among Catholics. A.A. gets taken up into other ontologies. One of my sources, for example, spoke very movingly about his A.A. sponsor, who had passed away, coming to visit him in the middle of the night, when he was frightened about something. Like many of the survivors I spoke to, this is a man whose life periodically erupts with the pain that has been attended to but does not go away. At the moment he was describing, he felt desperate about his life—then he felt a touch on his hand in the middle of the night, when he was awake, and immediately knew this was the touch of his A.A. sponsor.

JLH: One of the priests you talked to, Father Frank, said his way of dealing with the theodicy issue, why God would allow these people to suffer so horribly, was to say God had nothing to do with what happened. Do many of the survivors buy that?

RO: I think Father Frank was suggesting that it would be helpful if survivors realized this, so that they might move on from debilitating anger. But that’s his view and not all survivors would agree with it. There are long periods of time for many survivors when they wonder what God was doing when they were being abused by one of this God’s representatives on earth. This is particularly a problem because so many predator priests implicated God in the abuse. They told their victims, for instance, that God wanted them to surrender their bodies to the priest, that this was God’s gift to them. What I am about to say is a generalization I am not quite sure about yet, so I offer it as a hypothesis. That is, it seems to me that the generation of priests trained before the Second Vatican Council made greater use of the density of Catholic devotional culture in the abuse itself, whereas afterwards priests exploited some of the new possibilities open to clergy following the Council, being more socially casual and available to laity, for instance, celebrating Mass and devotions in people’s homes (which was often the immediate context of abuse). Before the Second Vatican Council, it would have been very unlikely for a priest to hang out with young teenagers. It would have been really looked at askance, for many reasons, in terms of church culture, but also, the expectations of working class and ethnic Catholics. In the history of American Catholic priests, the priests who came of age in the years just before and then after World War II, into the 1960s, were the most socially remote. But devotionalism was a domain in which the abuse could take place, and it was exploited as such. Later on, priests used the somewhat more relaxed view of the priesthood in their predatory plans.

JLH: As a final question, did you learn anything about prayer from this project that you maybe hadn’t thought about before in your career?

RO: Frank’s perspective on prayer has been very important to me. I had known, of course, about the traditions of prayer being a form of grappling or struggling with God. But the question is: how do people live inside a religious tradition? I think there’s a widespread idea that to live inside a religious tradition is to have oneself dominated by it, that the only possible way of living is obedience or surrender. But this is not always or necessarily the case, as I said earlier. Religious domination is a historical and cultural question. People inhabit a religious tradition in many different kinds of ways. They can improvise, appropriate, alter, ignore. Catholics, as they went through life—not so much as children or adolescents, but even then there were some possibilities—worked within the demands of the tradition. This is not to deny the power of the tradition at specific times and places over people. But the tradition itself is capacious enough that media exist for living both with and against it. How with/against are lived at any point is a historical question. I saw these dynamics at play in the lives of many of the survivors as they got older and contended with the wounding that had taken place in church at the hands of one of God’s agents.

September 25, 2013

Wayside Crosses—Objects that Reveal and Conceal

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

*   *   *

“I forget,” said Jean-Marc. He knit his eyebrows and thought, “Actually, now that you ask me…” I waited, expecting a clarification, a long-buried recollection“I never knew. I never thought to ask.”

There are about 3,000 croix de chemin (wayside crosses) along the byways of rural Quebec. People like Jean-Marc tend to them each summer: painting, restoring, cleaning, weeding and watering the gardens at their base. Like many caretakers, Jean-Marc refers to the cross he maintains as “his.” It was erected by his grandfather in 1948 and has been on the family land for three generations. It is the materialization of a prayer, the “tangible architecture,” as Anderson Blanton puts it, of a vow. It was in this context that I posed the question to which Jean-Marc responded above: Why did your grandfather put it up? What was the vow?

In general terms, most of Quebec’s wayside crosses were constructed to mark or commemorate an event, as a gathering place for families in a rang, to fulfill a vow or to secure future protection. (A rang, literally “a row,” is a rural grouping of houses strung out in a line, usually a few kilometers long, based on the seigneurial system.) The details can be hard to come by. In the 1970s, a survey of over 2,500 crosses found that in at least 62% of cases no one knew why a cross had been erected, though it was quite recent, usually within a generation. In many other cases, the reason was vague (“a vow, I think”) with no defining details. Jean-Marc’s response, in other words, is typical. While the object is carefully maintained and recreated, the stories that cling to it, the original prayer-stories that impelled its construction, are often lost.


September 23, 2013

The Prayers of Flannery O’Connor

It was a delightful coincidence to be rereading Augustine’s Confessions in preparation for a fall course when the September 16 issue of the New Yorker appeared with an excerpt from a forthcoming collection, edited by W.A. Sessions, of a prayer journal kept by Flannery O’Connor as a young writer in the University of Iowa’s MFA program. Judging from the excerpt, The Prayer Journal promises to be as engaging for those interested in practices of prayer as it will certainly be for those more interested in O’Connor as a writer and as a devout Catholic writer at that, though both certainly bear on the construction of prayer practice as presented in the journal.

Speaking toward the end of her life of the relationship of writing and belief, O’Connor insisted that the creative process for her, as it was for Augustine, was about constructing a concreteness in the ethereal experience of the divine-human encounter. “The ma­jor part of my task is to make everything,” she wrote, “even an ultimate concern, as solid, as concrete, as specific as possible. The novelist begins his work where human knowledge begins—with the senses; he works through the limitations of matter… he has to stay within the concrete possibilities of his culture.”


August 27, 2013

Praying Angry

I discovered during my first conversation with adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse that the study of “prayer” in this context presents highly charged questions of language and definition. The group I was meeting with had been affiliated in the early 1990s with the Linkup, a national organization based in Chicago that offered spiritual support for survivors who were coming forward to tell their stories publicly. Many of the survivors at the first Linkup meetings were just beginning to acknowledge to themselves that they had been abused. The Linkup, which also worked with survivors’ families, was founded by two women, one whose son had been abused by a Chicago priest, the other a highly regarded director of religious education in the diocese who was permanently blacklisted for her efforts in having this priest removed from contact with children. (He was eventually convicted and imprisoned; she was unable ever to work again as a religious educator in the church.) The Linkup has since disbanded but the group has been meeting monthly for more than twenty years.


July 8, 2013

Friendship Renders the Sacred Real

[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.]

For many of the artists and intellectuals working in mid-twentieth-century Paris, there was no topic more captivating than that of sacred presence. The public lectures of Henri Bergson had awakened the idea that experiential contact with what he called l’Absolu was indeed possible, and despite the skepticism emanating from the nearby Sorbonne, this prospect was thrilling. Some went on to write about their own inner lives, like Raïssa Maritain whose extraordinary Journal recounts thirty years of locutions and visions, and eventually, a sense of actually incorporating the person of Christ into her own body and soul. Others, like the writer Charles Péguy and the theologian Henri de Lubac, perceived powerful spiritual experiences from ancient sources. So they transcribed, translated, and read them aloud to friends, over and over, hoping to recapture something of it for themselves.

Here in this portal and elsewhere, Robert Orsi’s writing on prayer as relationship turns our attention away from the familiar tools we rely on when we analyze sacred presence– familiar tools like interiority, or even the disciplining power of social norms. He helps us see how the sacred is made real only through the personal spheres of intimacy that happen always within, and alongside, the more diffuse networks of discursive and non-discursive power. This is a shift. We’re not trained to see personal bonds as having much scholarly weight. Constance Furey also writes about powerfully this: “For scholars of religion, things like friendship seem ‘not quaint exactly, but not essential either.’”


June 24, 2013

The Catholic 17% and Modernity's Other Ways

[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.]

One of the more fascinating findings of the huge “Catholics in America” survey—conducted in 2011 for the fifth time by Catholic University sociologist William D’Antonio and his team—concerns the Roman doctrine of real presence.

Robert Orsi, in this artwork of a portal on prayer, and in Between Heaven and Earth (2006)—speaks of real presence, too. Orsi deals much less with the Roman doctrine and much more with the Catholic cosmos, woven of relationship between seen and unseen beings. But in his curation, the one gestures toward the other. Doctrine and cosmos become two more presences in relationship, like a rosary and hands.

Officially, real presence undergirds the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, asserting since a 1551 Council of Trent document that the “body and blood,” “soul and divinity” of Jesus Christ are “truly, really, and substantially contained” in the sacrament.

Unofficially, real Catholics vary in their knowledge and belief about real presence. The survey found that about half of U.S. Catholics know the official teaching, and half do not. Of the half who know it, about 90 percent believe it. So, that translates to about 46 percent of all survey respondents.


April 8, 2013

Holy Cards

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]


Simple wood-block print holy cards existed as early as the mid-fifteenth century, but it was the introduction of lithography at the end of the eighteenth century along with advances in modern printing that made possible the mass reproduction of holy cards and their wide distribution throughout the Catholic world in the modern era. Holy cards were everywhere in Catholic culture; they were one of the essential media of Catholic piety and social life. From the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, the cards shared a common devotional aesthetic. Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and the saints were depicted in warm colors, rich blues, reds, and browns that heightened the drama and emotional intensity of the imagery. The holy figures looked out from the cards at human affairs with plangent sympathy and concern.

Catholicism is a culture of sacred presence. Relics of saints (pieces of their bodies or objects touched to their bodies); water, soil, or other matter associated with sites of miraculous events; statues, images and crucifixes are all media of presence. (This is not an exhaustive list!) Holy cards belonged to this culture of presence too. This was most obvious in the case of cards that came with a miniscule relic affixed to them and visible in a small transparent window cut into the paper. One of the most popular holy cards of the twentieth century showed the southern Italian stigmatic Padre (now Santo) Pio, saying mass, his bloody hands folded in prayer, and included a tiny piece of stained fabric that had been touched to his wounds. But all holy cards were media of presence. The devout kissed them; they held them while they prayed; the cards were exchanged from hand to hand; they were tucked into the frames of bedroom mirrors and taped to walls. They were used in the making of household shrines. Holy cards were carried into all the spaces of the modern world, onto battlefields in soldiers’ pockets, for example, into industrial and post-industrial workplaces, and especially into hospitals.


March 28, 2013

Losing Religion, but Keeping Prayer

There’s been a lot of praying going on around the globe, what with the recent elevation of new leaders in the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. Throughout the Christian Holy Week, both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby called on the faithful to join them in prayer, but they also made a point to included the religiously unaffiliated—Nones—in the prayerful love. In a recent article for Religion Dispatches, I wonder what all this might mean:

As more and more people pull away from institutional religion, do  have any real meaning in the wider world? Do they connect in any significant way to private, personal expressions of prayer? Does prayer matter at all?

A majority of Americans still answer “yes” to those questions. Close to 90 percent of those affiliated with religions report praying on a regular basis, and 40 percent of Nones in general say they pray with some frequency. Indeed, a plurality (17%) of those identified as “Atheist/Agnostic” by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report that they pray. Among those who described their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular,” more than half say they pray regularly.

But do the prayers of Nones have anything in common with the prayers of Pope Francis or Archbishop Welby and their flocks?

The rest of the article is available here.

March 28, 2013

Lived Mysteries: A Response to Robert Orsi

[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.


March 19, 2013

Public Prayer in France, a Vexed Question in the Cradle of Revolution

Why can some believers pray in the street in France, the home of revolution and laïcité or strong state-enforced secularism, while others are forbidden?

As I wrote in my opinion column for Quartz, a new all-digital news platform published by Atlantic Media, publishers of The Atlantic Monthly, the principle of separation of church and state seems to apply differently depending on your religion.

If you are bowing down in the direction of Mecca, and uttering your daily prayers as a devout Muslim in a big assembly in a Paris street, you can risk arrest. 

But a radical group of breakaway Catholics is using prayer, and specifically prayers like the Rosary, to protest in the French street against moves to legalize gay marriage. They had legal permits to assemble in a public demonstration of opposition to attempts to give same-sex couples the right to marry. So far they have done so without any attempts by police or the executive arm of President Francois Hollande’s government to stop them. 

In contrast, Muslims lacking Mosques or perhaps in some cases wanting to challenge deep-seated public suspicion about France’s second religion after Catholicism have since 2011 had to adjust to a Nicolas Sarkozy-imposed edict pushing them off the streets.

Yet as one French law student argued in a Twitter response to my article, ‘‘there is a difference between praying one day for a cause and praying everyday in the street like it’s a mosque, don’t you think?’’

The line between acceptable public displays of religion, secularism, and illegality is not always a clear one in France. Prayer is a flash-point for deep-seated views about who has the right to express their devotion and difference in the public square.

March 2, 2013

The Higher Power

“Prayer” is not a good word among many adult survivors of clerical sexual abuse. I learned this at the first meeting of survivors I attended in the Chicago area last winter. These survivors have largely broken with the church. They associate “prayer” with the authority of the church and with the church’s determination, as they see it, to deny their experience. “Prayer,” when it is attached to the idea of “healing,” is especially toxic because it appears to insist on closure. “Pray to be healed” sounds like a command. “What’s a better word than prayer?” I asked.  The word this group agreed on was “spirituality.” Here’s where I had to confront and rethink some old assumptions about praying and about religion. I had been certain for a long time that “spirituality” is an empty category, signifying nothing. But if spirituality is nothing, then it makes no sense to think of prayer as a “spiritual” practice, which is precisely how these survivors were thinking of it. And if prayer is relational, as I believe it is—taking place within webs of relationships that extend between heaven and earth, living and dead—then what does it mean to pray to the pallid abstractions, who have no personality or substance, that float through the realms of the “spiritual?”


February 26, 2013

Hammering the Devil with Prayer (Prayer to Relieve Affliction from Evil Spirits)

This project is a comparative ethnographic study of Roman Catholic prayer for exorcism, a form of ritual healing prayer performed by a priest and the aim of which is relief from affliction by evil spirits. Insofar as exorcism is an institutionally sanctioned form of prayer practiced in culturally diverse settings throughout the Catholic world, the project addresses the nature prayer in social and institutional contexts and comparative perspectives on prayer. Insofar as it is a form of prayer concerned with counteracting the debilitating force of evil understood as an obstacle to spiritual life, the project also addresses the contribution of prayer to virtue, human flourishing, moral development, and ethical formation. 

The study begins with the observation that exorcism is not only a form of religious practice but also a dynamic social phenomenon. My approach is defined by explicit attention to the intimately intertwined relation between the concrete experiences of social actors and the broader cultural processes and social forces in which they are embedded. Specifically, exorcism prayer can be understood both experientially in terms of the therapeutic process put into play by the practice of ritual healing as an attempt to promote flourishing, and institutionally in terms of the religio-political stance established in the face of global cultural processes in social context. This approach is the basis for two interrelated propositions: 1) Exorcism prayer articulates a conservative world view and a discourse of evil at large in contemporary society framed by processes of globalization including migration, mobility, missionization, and mediatization; 2) Exorcism prayer can be genuinely therapeutic if it fulfills all four criteria of a rhetorical model of therapeutic process in ritual healing including disposition, experience of the sacred, elaboration of alternatives, and actualization of change.

The research centers on ethnographic comparison of exorcism prayer in the United States and Italy. Italy is the center of the Catholic world and the United States is the home of a globally influential Catholic community, with vivid social and cultural contrasts between them. My methods include ethnographic interviews and observations with exorcists, their clinical mental health consultants, and persons for whom they pray, as well as observations of training methods in exorcism prayer and examination of relevant published literature.

The intellectual merit of the study lies in its contribution to the social science literature on two primary areas: 1) the nature of experience and trajectory of therapeutic process in healing prayer, and 2) the manner in which prayer articulates the relation of religion and globalization in contemporary society. The study’s broader impact will be 1) in providing an example of the intertwined relation between two levels of analysis, namely the concrete experience of social actors and the broader cultural processes and social forces in which they are embedded, and 2) in contributing to understanding the social implications and consequences of the discourse of evil in contemporary society.

February 26, 2013

Prayer Machines: Case Studies in a Secular Age

My project examines the profound effect that technological forms (material, conceptual, linguistic, epistemic) have had, and continue to have, on the practice and study of prayer. My project addresses: 1) social and technological contexts in and through which prayer has been represented, 2) the relationship between these contexts, these representations, and the dynamics of the secular age, and 3) the use of machines to measure one’s prayers and the prayers of others. Chapter topics include the mechanization of prayer in recent American history; the institutional and technological contexts that have shaped the Catholic practice of the rosary in the second half of the twentieth century; the use of the E-meter among Scientologists as a self-conscious displacement of prayer; and brain-imaging machines currently utilized in cognitive inquiries into religion.

My project is a blend of two scholarly genres—1) genealogical excavation of the mechanization of prayer and 2) thick description of three sites of mechanical interface where the discourse of prayer becomes operational. Through historical documentation and case studies I will address how prayer is constructed, what social and political factors contribute to these constructions, how these constructions change over time, and how these constructions compare with one another.

In addition to the relationship between prayer and technology my project addresses larger questions concerning the secular age—its emergence, its maintenance, its tensions and contradictions. If, as Charles Taylor argues, the secular age is marked by a notion of choice—a necessary stance one must take vis-à-vis the religious, then a pressing line of inquiry revolves around the question of what conditions the possibilities of such choices being made in the first place. Consequently, the secular age must be understood in light of that conditioning and those possibilities and the effects that such necessary stances generate. Consequently, my project on prayer machines will engage ongoing debates about secularism. Secularism refers, here, to those processes by which the truth and falsity of religion become charged with meaning and affect and how those charges, in turn, precipitate epistemic and political practices. Such processes exceed the boundaries of any single tradition of prayer—be it confessional practice of or scientific discourse about. To this end, my project will identify discursive threads that connect living traditions of prayer—conservative and liberal Protestantisms, Catholic sacramentalisms, new religious movements, medical and scientific considerations of prayer, and the amorphous modes of spirituality that have emerged over the past century.

Activities during the grant period range from the collection and analysis of twentieth-century prayer ephemera and the systematic study of the arguments of cognitive science to hands-on experiments with the E-meter and field visits to working laboratories in Philadelphia, Boston, and Copenhagen. My emphasis on the mechanization of prayer across different confessional traditions as well as beyond them will: 1) initiate a new direction in the study of prayer by reconsidering questions of technic and agency, 2) reconsider the content of American religious history by foregrounding the role technological intimacy plays in constructions of religious experience, and 3) contribute to discussions about how technological forms structure the human sensorium and effect broader cultural fields.

February 26, 2013

From Surviving to Thriving: Religion, Spirituality, and Prayer among Adults Sexually Abused as Children by Priests

Co-Principal Investigator is Terence Mckiernan.

I propose to study the religious/spiritual histories of adult Catholic survivors of clerical sexual abuse with a view toward understanding the role of prayer in their efforts to reclaim their lives from destruction and alienation. The most disastrous consequences of abuse included a radically diminished self-image; persistent feelings of shame; a perceived loss of agency; a corrosive and objectless anger; pervasive anxiety; self-abuse (with drugs, alcohol, violence, and destructive sexuality); relational failure and social isolation. The project explores the extent to which prayer and praying played a role in restoring survivors to themselves and to their worlds (in the process remaking both themselves and the world). What makes these questions so vexed in this context is that the abuse of children by priests was always religious in nature. Survivors were profoundly hurt in that area of their lives from which they might have drawn the deepest sustenance. Prayer and praying contributed to survivors’ flourishing, but this often entailed great internal struggle with God (in the various forms God assumed for survivors over time), with their inherited and embodied Catholic imaginary, and with their circle of significant relationships (on earth and in heaven). Survivors first needed to restore a capacity for praying that had been effectively taken from them by their abuse. They invented or improvised new hybrid ways of praying to replace the ones lost to abuse, sometimes by reworking childhood prayer practices, but just as often looking beyond Catholicism to spiritual sources available on the wider American religious landscape. Survivors prayed in communities of survivors, with prayer serving to organize and empower a counterpublic that prayed together while seeking justice and recognition from other Catholics and from the church, creating a prayerful practice of redress. The project approaches prayer in its full polyvalence, including prayers that are retributive and condemnatory. I am in the process of establishing a network of contacts among survivors in Chicago and around the country, among those who remain in some relation to Catholicism and those who have more or less rejected it. I will establish field sites in four dioceses with the help of Victim Advocates, a diocesan office mandated in 2002 by the American bishops, as I work with survivors in Chicago and nearby cities who are for the most part unaffiliated with the church. Initial conversations with survivors will be by telephone, e-mail, and Skype (if they are outside of Chicago), in person locally, and I will work from a list of questions prepared with the assistance of survivors as a starting point. I will follow these with more open-ended conversations in person, which will be recorded (and eventually transcribed by a bonded transcription service). The focus throughout will be on survivors’ evolving life stories, with special attention to their prayer practices over time, their relationship to the ways of praying they inherited and those they have chosen or created as adults, in order to understand prayer’s contribution to the restoration of their confidence, happiness, relationships, and social and moral connectedness. The project looks at lived prayer practices in a religiously perverse context, in which the resources and figures victims may have called on for help were turned against them. Nonreductively it takes praying as the medium by which people engage supernatural figures and realities they understand to be really real and efficacious. The broader impact of the project is that given the number of survivors, the social consequences of the deep and lasting pain of abuse, the impact of the crisis on Catholicism and on the reputation of institutional religion, the project addresses matters of wide-reaching public import.

February 26, 2013

The Role of Prayer in the Development of Religious Cognitions

Co-Principal Investigator is Nicholas Shaman.

Children’s religious concepts undergo significant transitions during the preschool years. Their understanding of ritual actions, God, and supernatural causality undergo qualitative shifts. Despite the dynamic nature of development during these years, little research has examined the cultural factors that contribute to preschool-aged children’s understanding of religious activities, like prayer. The proposed research is significant for advancing knowledge of how children’s understanding of and experience with prayer can shape their religious experiences and understanding. The guiding hypothesis of the project is children’s learning about and conceptions of prayer influence and is influenced by children’s understanding of religious entities and supernatural causality. The specific aim is to examine if differences in exposure to, understanding of, and participation in prayer are related to individual differences in the development of religious concepts during the preschool years.

The proposed research method will be a cross-sectional study conducted with children in the preschool years, which mark a transition period in the development of children’s religious cognition. Parent-child dyads, representing Catholic, Evangelical Christian, and Reform Jewish religious traditions, will participate in a one-time visit to the Childhood Cognition Laboratory at UC Riverside. Children will be between the ages of 3.5 and 5. The visit will be divided into two segments: parent survey/child interview and parent-child interaction. Children’s and parents’ concepts of God, supernatural causality, and prayer will be assessed through separate interviews with trained researchers. The measures will assess how children and parents attribute anthropomorphic attributes to God, how children and parents judge the possible occurrence of impossible events, and how children and parents view the purpose of the actions of prayer. Analyses will involve correlating these measures with one another as well as with aspects of the parent-child interactions. A long-term goal of this program of research is to increase awareness of different prayer practices as well as further understanding about the influence of different prayer practices on development.