[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
Playful phenomena often reveal hidden or unacknowledged elements in the practice of prayer. Postcard images of praying children were widely circulated throughout the early twentieth century, and these representations of childhood piety helped to solidify particular understandings of prayer within the popular imaginary. These illustrations, moreover, provide a colorful testament to the “apparatus of belief,” or the ways in which the performative and experiential dimensions of prayer are inextricably related to physical objects that open communicative relays between the everyday and the sacred.
One recurrent motif in this popular postcard genre features the image of a child kneeling beside her bed, praying alongside several dolls who have also been meticulously oriented into a pious posture. Note how the child in this image seems to direct both her gaze and her body in the direction of the praying dolls, as if the toys themselves become the medium through which the successful communication of the prayer is registered. Indeed, we can push this logic of prayer-through-the-object even further, describing the dolls themselves as the locus for the agency and efficacy of the prayer. Thus the child turns to mimic the dolls—the real agents in this relay of divine communication. In this popular illustration, prayers for the object (toys) move through the object.
We cannot simply relegate this objectile dimension of children’s prayer to the typical developmental narrative of the child’s inability to cognitively abstract from the material immediacies of the surrounding environment. After all, the adult’s experience of the toy prayer also subsists upon a displacement. Note for instance in the postcard above the parents’ rapt attention as they attend to the child-in-prayer. For the adult, the praying child becomes yet another displacement in the metonymic movement of divine communication. The receiver of this postcard completes a circuitry of desire and deferral, longing to see that which subsists just beyond the frame of the image (all gazes in this image ultimately culminate in a presence outside the frame of the card—just beyond the bed).
As we consume this holiday season, let us reflect upon the ways that the metaphysical subtleties of the commodity become intertwined with prayer and its promise of miraculous accumulation. Happy Holidays from The Materiality of Prayer.