November 6, 2013

Objects, Anti-Objects, and Efficacious Interpretations of Prayer

[Editor’s Note: This post is part of the ongoing conversation in response to “Praying with the Senses,” Sonja Luehrmann’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Partly in response to the prayer portal “Praying with the senses,” Anderson Blanton and Sarah Riccardi and Aaron Sokoll have started an interesting discussion of how to theorize the role of material objects as “media for connectivity” (Riccardi and Sokoll) or bodily “interface” (Blanton) for prayer. I agree with most of what the three authors say, but would like to use an example from my previous research on Pentecostal Christians in Russia to explain what is pushing me away from making the connective properties of sacred objects the sole focus of our exploration of the sensory workings of Eastern Christian prayer. In short, I think  that the “wow-effect” that an emphasis on materiality brings to studies of Pentecostalism and other branches of Protestant Christianity isn’t there for Eastern Orthodoxy. In Eastern Orthodoxy, as Riccardi and Sokoll point out, the significance of the material holy goes “back to key councils and writings of … saints and theologians.”


June 17, 2013

Restraint and Outpour: Emotions Across Genres of Prayer

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.

An example of this are the icon and liturgical texts addressed to the martyr Tatiana (d. ca. 225). The Roman deaconess became patron saint of Russian students by the historical accident that the mother of one of the founders of Moscow University was named Tatiana. In the neo-Byzantine style popular in contemporary Russia, icons of Saint Tatiana (here from a university chapel in Ioshkar-Ola, Volga region) depict her as an unblemished maiden, the cross in her hand the only hint at her sufferings as a martyr.

The troparion verse that is sung as part of the service on Tatiana’s feast day (January 12/25) also spiritualizes her martyrdom. An episode where she was thrown into a lion’s pit becomes a struggle against the “beasts of the mind”:

Following after the Purest Lamb and Shepherd, speaking lamb Tatiana, you were not afraid of the beasts of the mind, but arming yourself with the sign of the cross, conquered them completely, and entered into the Heavenly Kingdom, from whence remember us too, wise martyr of Christ. 

But when students attend the service centering around the akathist hymn dedicated to Saint Tatiana offered at many university chapels on a weekday evening, they find a more complex mix of spirituality and emotion. Often coming to pray for successful exams, they face the same imperturbable portrait of the saint and hear the priest and choir take turns in even-tempered chanting. But if they attend to the words recited by the priest and the refrains sung by the choir, they must imagine episodes of martyrdom in all their physical brutality:

Ikos 10:

You were strong as a wall and a diamond, when you were brought to be devoured by beasts, and they did not devour you;

But when they tried to take away the lion it suddenly became enraged and devoured the dignitary Eumenius, showing the power of Christianity. For this reason we pronounce with awe:

Rejoice, who calmed the beasts;

Rejoice, who tamed them through prayer.

Rejoice, who was tortured for Eumenius’s death;

Rejoice, who was hung upon the tree.

Rejoice, who was torn by iron nails;

Rejoice, who was falsely accused of sorcery.

Rejoice, who delivers us from false accusations;

Rejoice, who protects us from evil sorcery.

Rejoice, oh fragrant flower of virginity, glorious martyr Tatiana.

In such paraliturgical texts written mainly by laypeople, sensual and physical drama returns to the prayerful imagination of the faithful, albeit restrained by the tones of the recitation, the archaisms of the Old Slavonic text, and the stylized lines of the icon. Somewhere in between is the prayer request of a student or parent hoping for good marks, left free to see her own tribulations either in a more spiritual or more emotional light.

June 17, 2013

Spiritual Fathers and Spiritual Children

This prayer was performed in a convent in the Vyatka region of Russia during 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 enemiesboth 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 heard 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.

This prayer shows the complex social relationship implied in intercession: the believers ask God to strengthen the prayers of their spiritual father, but also acknowledge that God hears them only thanks to his prayerful support.

This community of pilgrims and monastics is built around the belief that some people are marked by special gifts from God. Such a person can see other people’s sins, and the weak in faith are saved by his prayers. These spiritual gifts are freely given by God, not caused by merits of the person. The main objective of ordinary people is to find their spiritual father and to live close to him under his spiritual intercession. Regarded as a living saint, the spiritual father becomes responsible for the souls his charges and would be responsible for their sins before God. The quote from the prayer says: “My Lord, you have joined us on earth, do not separate us in Thy Heavenly Kingdom.” The connection between the spiritual father and his children continues after death.

English translation of the recorded prayer:

Save, O Lord, and have mercy on our spiritual father and forgive him all our sins, do not condemn him because of our sinful life, increase in him spiritual gifts, reveal to him all our sins, and grant him wisdom, prayer and love, and for the sake of his holy prayers forgive our sins, increase our virtues, and send down on us abundant grace. O Lord, preserve him by day and by night, overcome his corporal and incorporeal enemies, and deliver him from visible and invisible enemies, save him from flatterers and unrighteous men. Keep also his flock from sin, grant that in repentance we may come to a quiet and peaceful life and by repentance enter paradise.

O Lord, visit and encourage him, heal him from disease and grant him many years, for the sake of us sinners. O Sweetest Jesus […], sanctify our spiritual father by Thy holiness, justify him by Thy truth, protect him by Thy mercy. My Lord, you have joined us on earth, do not separate us in Thy Heavenly Kingdom. And for the sake of his holy prayers forgive us great sinners and all his spiritual children.

For Thou art good and the Lover of mankind. Amen.

June 17, 2013

Minimal Prayer

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 a minimalistic variant of Orthodox Christianity shared by many Russians, lighting a candle means engaging in prayer. In this silent act, the church candle becomes not just a material instrument of communication between the believer and a sacred world; instead, the candle becomes a metaphor for the believer herself and her unsaid prayer.

At the end of the Higher School of Economics’s course the students are invited to a small field trip to a chapel of the popular Saint Xenia the Blessed (or the Holy Fool) of St. Petersburg. Many urban people of different ages and social backgrounds come to ask the saint’s help in their everyday affairs. Only a few of the pilgrims are praying with words, by reading the akathist hymn to the saint, from printed booklets; but everyone is praying with things. The most typical way to send a message to the saint is to write her a letter on a piece of paper, roll it up or fold it to minimize its size and then put this small object into a crack in the chapel wall. Though criticized and even prohibited by the local clergy, this practice flourishes, as it gives to the pilgrims an idea of direct and personal communication with the saint.