“Lord, hear our prayer.” That was the sound of religion to me growing up, Sunday mornings in the darkened warmth of Saint Mark’s Episcopal on Capitol Hill, D.C. I heard these intonations not as the sound of heaven and earth mediated so much as a response to silence, and the courage to overcome it while also dwelling in it. Indeed, there were vast expanses of silence in this part of the service, some of them seeming to stretch out almost audaciously. Even as an altar boy (a pretty bumbling one, I admit), I wondered, was this how people did and sounded out religion elsewhere? Years before I knew about Quaker meetings or the range of meditative practices in religious traditions, the oscillation between prayer’s orality/aurality and those silent chasms unnerved me. But always, almost mercifully, a lone voice would rise up from some distant corner of the church, those vast vaulted ceilings giving the prayer a gravity, a context: a plea for strength as a relationship frayed, or for comfort during illness, to which the congregation responded as one, “Lord, hear our prayer.” I remember being stunned when my father became one of those voices, praying in 1985 for Uncle Bill, in 1989 for Grandma, in 1992 for himself. The possibility that one of those voices might be so close by, his hand in mine, had never even occurred to me. It terrified and consoled me at once.
[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
“To our knowledge this is the first time the ‘gift of tongues’ has been recorded.” Liner notes, The Gift of Tongues: Glossolalia LP, Scepter/Mace Records MCM-10040, circa 1960s
I often head back to my hometown of Olathe, Kansas, the “Cupcake Land” of Thomas Frank’s description. And when I’m back I usually try to make a couple of short day trips—one up I-35 north to Kansas City and another along K-10 to the west and Lawrence. The latter is a classic college town, bearing the stamp of its Beecher Bible carrying forbearers, who trekked across America in the 1850s to set up a little slice of educational and reformist utopia. So strong was the northeastern, Yankee imprint that the novelist Thomas McMahon dubbed Lawrence a whaling town on the prairie. These migrants from New England might not have been as zealous as the hirsute, broadsword-wielding John Brown, but they were dedicated nonetheless.
“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 scholars and practitioners 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.
When Orthodox Christians attend to prayer, they are often led by the voices of those reciting from a service or prayer book or singing specific hymns. Performance and memory come together in the texts of prayer to create effective continuity between praying and prayerful audition. In the Orthodox tradition, texts mediate between those who give voice to prayer in a pastoral role—clergy, readers, and singers—and those who attend to prayer as listeners. As these two images suggest, such mediation can extend beyond the time and place of services to recordings of prayer that circulate through physical media and online. Orthodox Christians encounter and interact with these media as additional ways of attending to prayer through technologies of prayerful audition.
In recent conversations at an Orthodox seminary in the United States, one person likened this kind of attentive, efficacious listening to another technology of Orthodox prayer—the prayer rope (a knotted rope customarily used to count repetitions of the Jesus Prayer):
Just like in church, you’ll have the deacon or the choir leading you in prayer that you all know, and somehow in this way it’s awakening that in you, it’s almost strengthening it in you, so having such a prayer recorded is a goad for you to actually be doing it, almost like a prayer rope is reminding you that this is what you’re doing right now. It’s a very helpful thing. It’s a way to keep your feet on the pedals, and you know you’re riding the bike now.
Others spoke concretely about the context of these listening practices and their relation to prayer as mediated in Orthodox services:
If you are using a recording as a means of prayer then, like all prayer, it must have your undivided attention. Maybe if you know the route well, you can listen while driving, if driving isn’t going to require too much of your thought, and I know many families where, when they go to church on Sunday morning, one of the family members reads the Communion Prayers to the others in the car. So if you can do that, and you’re driving by yourself, so long as you are engaging the CD with your mind and heart to make the words that you’re hearing your own words, the way that you would when you listen to a reader reading the prayers in church, you’re making those words—even though they’re not physically coming out of your mouth—you’re making them your own words.
There is the potential in Orthodox Christianity to attend to prayer by recontextualizing recordings through the kind of intent listening to pastoral leading described above. Although these technologies of prayer might seem novel in the Orthodox tradition, many were quick to point to their connection to the theology of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 where the body of Christ is composed of individual members, each sensorially attuned to the other so that when one suffers, all suffer, and when one is honored, all rejoice. Some members of the body give voice to prayer, while others make that voice their own through the work of prayerful audition.