real presence

November 19, 2013

Lee Denson, “He Touched Me” (1978)

Written and composed by Bill Gaither, “He Touched Me” is a standard in the repertoire of contemporary evangelicalism. In it, Gaither distilled a theology of overwhelming presence that definitely answers the question of salvific agency.

He touched me, Yes He touched me

And Oh the joy that floods my soul

Something happened and now I know

He touched me and made me whole

He touches you. Your docility generates both knowledge and ontic wholeness. Case (and self) closed.


November 19, 2013

Irma Glen, “When I’m Alone I Pray” (1969)

Irma Glen heralds from a Divine Science background and the teachings of Ernest Holmes (The Creative Mind [1919] and The Science of Mind [1926]). Her thought, in other words, is new and the organ is her instrument of prayer.

“Throughout the ages,” declares Glen, “music has been the handmaiden of religion . . . You may expect a wonderful new spiritual experience when you pray with me through the divine art of music. Here, we come objectively closer to the shining nearness of God, for Music—Prayer Therapy was composed in dedication and love, especially for healing and attunement to the Infinite.”


November 19, 2013

Jimmy Mamou, “Let Us Pray” (1976)

Jimmy Mamou once jammed with Jimi Hendrix and Big Mama Thornton, before being washed in the blood of the lamb in the early 1970s. His album, I Am He Said (Inspiration Record Co.), is a classic in the genre of calypso gospel. In this exquisite song, Mamou stages a conversation with God and his audience, simultaneously, seamlessly. His struggle for transcendence is a struggle to return home. His public is infinite before the microphone. Pray without ceasing, suggests Jimmy. Pray according to the bongo beat. For as Adorno reminds us:

Today it is seen as arrogant, alien and improper to engage in private activity without any evident ulterior motive. Not to be ‘after’ something is almost suspect: no help to others in the rat-race is acknowledged unless legitimized by counter-claims. Countless people are making, from the aftermath of the liquidation of professions, their professions. They are the nice folk, the good mixers liked by all, the just, humanely excusing all meanness and scrupulously proscribing any non-standardized impulses as sentimental.

Let us pray.

November 19, 2013

The Lewis Family, “Turn Your Radio On” (1972)

Written by Albert E. Brumley, “Turn Your Radio On” is performed here by The Lewis Family, from Lincolnton, Georgia. This classic song delves underneath the circuits of prayer in a secular age. Prayer, here, is both technic and technology; a practice oriented to the world at-large and an intimate calibration; a tuning of self to some other presence and, of course, a translation of that presence into the idiom of self. As such, prayer is an impossible, perhaps even hubristic, thing.

In “Turn Your Radio On,” prayer may be thought of as the instantiation of self as medium, a radical expansion of the self that is promised by and premised upon indeterminate submission to the “master’s radio.” Your dial wide, your antenna out. Turn your radio on.

For the result of experiencing this mechanical interface is a world ordinarily unavailable, embodied here in the physical form of The Lewis Family. The liner notes to Just Us (Canaan Records) testify to the realness of The Lewis Family, or rather, the realness of your capacity to “appreciate sincerity, Christian love, excellent gospel singing . . . It’s ‘JUST US’ . . . The same courteous, genial people you see and enjoy on TV and the platform is a true picture of them whenever they appear, off or on stage.” There is a windedness to these claims of transparency and immediacy, a desperate attempt to cover one’s bases—they are authentic ALL THE TIME. “There is no pretense to these people who have such expressive and spontaneous smiles.”


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.


June 17, 2013

Praying with the Senses: A Curatorial Introduction

  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 crumpled 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.

This prayer portal brings together materials from research in Egypt, the United States, Russia, Romania, and India to show a variety of sensory media used in those branches of Christianity with roots in the Hellenic and Aramaic-speaking parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. Though sharing a common set of sacred scriptures and a claim to succession from the early disciples of Christ, these branches are separated from Western Christendom by liturgical and aesthetic differences that predate the official schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054. However, they also display a great internal diversity and incorporate different political histories and traces of mutual influence with Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu neighbors. Despite these obvious differences, we draw on materials from across the Eastern Christian world to point to liturgical forms, gestures, sounds, sights, and objects that resonate with one another and create an internally connected “aesthetic formation,” in Birgit Meyer’s term.

Some materials occur in different places: believers write requests on scraps of paper at the shrines of Saint Xenia in Saint Petersburg and Saint Abdel-Masih al-Manahri in Upper Egypt; relationships with confessors–known as “spiritual fathers”–shape the embodied practices and prayer texts in Romania and Russia; and akathist hymns dedicated to saints are popular in different countries as bridges between liturgical, collective prayer, and individual observances. A standard repertoire of gestures facilitates attentive listening and connects prayers in church and at home: standing or kneeling, crossing oneself, and bending down in prostrations. Although iconographic styles differ across times and places, there is a common idea that images mediate the real presence of saints and divine beings who are alive in the Church as a transhistorical community.

For the comparative study of prayer, these materials from Eastern Christianity suggest a number of possible lines of investigation: first, not all prayers are equal, and the efficacy of prayer depends on a number of factors. Some of them are internal to the praying person: his or her state of sincerity, undivided attention, preparation through fasting or prostrations, and knowledge of and access to prescribed prayer texts. Others are intersubjective: in a group of people praying together or in a situation where one person is interceding for others, there are social characteristics such as gender, age, clerical status, and training in recitation techniques that determine who recites a prayer and who listens, or whose duty it is to intercede for whom. The Russian proverb, “A mother’s prayer can fetch [her child] from the bottom of the ocean,” refers to one culturally accepted relation of intercession; the mutual, but differently empowered prayers of confessor and spiritual children are another. Finally, efficacy is also related to time and location: the distance travelled to the abode of a dead or living saint adds force and urgency to a prayer request, as does the capacity of a holy place to imbibe and become saturated with the many prayers said there over time. The beauty of a liturgy or the association of a particular saint or feast day with particular human problems can also help amplify a prayer request. All this raises questions about the possibilities and limits of thinking of prayer as a skill, and about the social, temporal, and spatial frameworks that are both essential to efficacious prayer and must continuously be broken up for prayer to reach beyond ordinary frames of existence.

Another fruitful comparative question could be that of creativity and inspiration in non-spontaneous prayer. Eastern Christians are rarely encouraged to pray “in their own words,” and certainly not “in tongues.” But prayer books often attribute texts to named saintly authors who are said to have been inspired by years of spiritual exercises. And even simple liturgical acts such as the reading of evening or morning prayers or the invocation of a saint in front of an icon are not straightforward acts of repetition, but require choices: how to combine specific formulae; whether to use an official prayer book or less regulated sources, such as small booklets or a text transmitted in a particular community; whether to perform that text completely or leave out elements; what tempo and style of recitation to adopt; how to time gestures with text and whether or not to use optional acts of physical exertion, such as prostrations. In looking at the generative possibilities of work within a pre-given tradition, the study of prayer can learn much from anthropological studies of ritual. But assumptions about how ritual persists and changes may also need to be adapted to the conditions of memory, transmission, and creativity in written religious traditions.  

The entries in this prayer portal can be viewed in any order; each is organized around one or more images or recordings featuring a particular sensory medium of prayer or a set of sensory conditions that help prayer unfold its efficacy. Together, these materials show that in a religious tradition known as conservative and favoring collective over individual expression, everyday practice requires a great deal of creative combination of received elements to shape a multisensory whole.

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.