In their recent essay, “Connective Implications of the Material Holy,” Sarah A. Riccardi and Aaron Sokoll critique Sonja Luehrmann’s prayer portal, “Praying with the Senses,” for being overly invested in the question of efficacy and its relation to practices of Eastern Orthodox prayer:

In her curatorial introduction, Sonja Luehrmann acknowledges the importance of aesthetics and materiality, but she ultimately suggests that the most pressing issues requiring investigation are the efficacy of prayer and, possibly, the spontaneity of petitionary prayer…. Rather than seeing efficacy as a uniting principle among these fine essays, we see the materiality and visuality of prayer as the most vital part of this portal.

I find this critique extremely productive, not because Luehrmann’s portal actually neglects the question of materiality, but because it identifies the current re-conceptualization of the term “ritual efficacy” by scholars in the fields of anthropology and religious studies. Albeit implicitly, Riccardi and Sokoll’s “Material Holy” piece issues a call for scholars of religion to clearly articulate a new definition of “efficacy” in relation to prayer. Indeed, if we begin to conceive of the efficacy of prayer as an organization of sensory potential and attentive structures that is inextricably related to devotional objects, media technologies, built environments, bodily techniques, etc., then the two seemingly different approaches to Eastern Orthodox prayer appear to be more closely related. In this way, it is precisely efficacy that is the uniting principle between the compelling entries in the “Praying with the Senses” portal—that is, if we define the efficacy of prayer as a sensation of communicative presence with the ‘holy’ that is actively organized, inflected, attuned, and extended by the agency of the devotional object itself. Or to put this another way, we could define the efficacy of prayer as a sensation of presence that radiates or resounds at the interface of the pious body and the devotional object (see for instance, “There is No Distance in Prayer”).

In the early days of ethnology, the concept of efficacy was the critical tool with which scholars drew a line of demarcation between magic and religion. More specifically, they deployed this notion of generative force in an attempt to separate the “automatic efficacy” of the magical incantation from the more abstracted and contingent act of prayer. In the wake of such influential texts as Mauss and Hubert’s A General Theory of Magic, R. R. Marett’s “From Spell to Prayer,” and Freud’s “Animism, Magic, and the Omnipotence of Thought,” prayer became associated with an ever-abstracting act of the intellect that was opposed to technical actions, instrumental processes, and material substances. Although I will not flesh-out this crucial discursive formation in greater detail here, it is important to note the way this history of abstraction has guided the academic discussion of prayer and persists to this day (take for example contemporary accounts of prayer employing the so-called “absorption hypothesis”).  The theorization of ritual itself, moreover, can be seen as a displaced engagement with modern technological formations and the question of mechanicity, automaticity, repetition, motive force, etc.

Riccardi and Sokoll’s essay adeptly evokes an unresolved and pressing tension in our contemporary engagement with prayer and its theoretical legacies. In light of recent concepts such as the “somatic mode of attention,” the “pious sensorium,” and the “sensational form,” I think one of the many challenges for the formation of a truly new direction in the study of prayer will be to demonstrate the way, to paraphrase Luehrmann, that experiences of the successful establishment of contact with a divine interlocutor are sensed through material media that significantly organize, augment, and inflect the appearance of sacred presence.  It remains to be seen if this process of suturing the academic description of prayer to its repressed technical and material residues will be an act of religio—or that of profanation.

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