October 18, 2013

Ambiguity, Reciprocity, and Orthodox Intercessory Prayer

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

I heartily welcome Reverberations’s new prayer portal, “Praying With The Senses,” as it not only tackles significant issues in the study of prayer from a variety of methodological angles, but it also brings much needed attention to that which continues to be a significant lacuna in religious studies—namely, the distinctive characteristics of various expressions of Eastern Christian faith and practice.

Sonja Luehrmann’s curatorial introduction highlights a number of the distinctive factors that affect “the efficacy of prayer” in Eastern Christianity. Many of these factors reveal how the Eastern Christian traditions are fraught with tension between formal regulations prescribed by ecclesiastical authority and the ambiguities and “judgment calls” that confront the individual believer in actual practice. As Luehrmann puts it, some of these factors

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.


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

Icons and Iconoclasm: Praying with and against Images

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.    

The death of such an ascetic monk sets in motion a process of sanctification in which images can be tools for prayer, but also can be impediments to it. After saints die, they are “freed from the battle against Satan” in the popular imaginary. Their devotees are, in turn, freed to publish the saint’s holy life through texts and recordings, in creative memory of those special dead who embodied the image of God. Long before an official canonization process can begin, popular recognition helps saints live on after death, and stimulates creative approaches to prayer.

In the shrine of Abdel-Masih al-Manahri, the small cave where he had once lived, the walls are plastered by his portraits. With his plaintive eyes and crooked smile, the departed saint looks out from all directions, until the faces in his depictions fade from dust and time. Copts come to seek his prayers, leaving behind traces of themselves which hang from the ceilings in large nets: photos of the ill, lettered requests, small gifts of devotion. Once the saint is safe in heaven, it becomes possible to praise him in image and speech.

Behind the shrine, across lush fields of wheat and ink-colored cattle, there is an alcove that reminds visitors that limits to holy likeness continue on, even after death. De-faced and de-limbed, a shattered statue of Abdel-Masih al-Manahri displays the remnants of iconoclasm. One villager explained to me with simplicity, “We don’t worship statues (asnam), this is against teachings of the Church.” Iconoclasm can be a reaction to forms becoming a bit too “life-like.” If prayer works for the good of those who remain on earth, then acts of image destruction expose points where sin is prone to occur, when idolatry poses a danger to salvation. The saint is not here any longer, so don’t forget that he died. Iconoclasm represents the memory that he lives on in heaven, on the very practical condition that he has left the world. As a saint dead to the world, Abdel-Masih is released from the spiritual dangers of vanity, unlike the many followers who pray in his wake.

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.