What does it take to pray well, and how does a regular practice of prayer help remake the devotee into a person who has this ability? Our research team asks how prayer skills are linked to wider ethical ideas of human thriving in the Eastern Christian churches, where spiritual transformation through disciplined, embodied practice has long been considered a key purpose of religious engagement. Prayer in these traditions involves a range of sensory registers, whose interplay we investigate through ethnographic research at sites in Russia and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, and North America, within Orthodox churches of Byzantine derivation as well as Coptic and Syriac branches.
By sensory registers, we mean the role of various senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) and sensory stimuli (images, tactile objects, music, the spoken word, food and drink, the smell of incense, the wetness of holy water, the bodily sensations of standing, kneeling, and bowing during prayer) in human attempts to establish contact with the divine. Departing from approaches that take prayer as either a purely mental activity or a matter of unreflected performance, our research demonstrates that prayer is a practice of drawing closer to non-human forces that calls upon and trains the full range of human senses, involving musical, visual, verbal and gestural expression.
Each team member has anthropological training, but brings additional expertise in such fields as ethnomusicology (Jeffers Engelhardt), theology (Angie Heo, Simion Pop), studies of new religious movements (Jeanne Kormina, Daria Dubovka), history (Sonja Luehrmann), and developmental psychology (Vlad Naumescu). Drawing on anthropological work that emphasizes the role of publicly circulating media in training and orienting the human sensorium, the research team investigates how various sensory registers support and reinforce one another in order to move devotees toward the theological ideal of theosis (becoming god-like). Each team member focuses on a particular sensory register: Engelhardt works on sound and musicality within majority Orthodox Christian countries and in the North American diaspora; Heo investigates the use visual images and imaginaries by Coptic Christians in Egypt; Luehrmann focuses on the relationship of written and recited prayer texts among Orthodox lay people in Russia; Naumescu and Pop study the use of gesture, bodily postures, and disciplines such as fasting among Syriac Christians in India and in the Romanian Orthodox Church; and Kormina and Dubovka consider the range of sensory impressions associated with pilgrimage and the veneration of saints in Russia.
We link individual field sites into a comparative, multi-sited endeavor through the use of joint interview and observational protocols and by collecting objects and media samples for other team members. The team will meet for a field workshop in Romania in June 2013 and for a writing seminar in Vancouver in August 2014. The outcome will be a jointly authored book on Sensory Registers in Eastern Christian Prayer.