Sonja Luehrmann, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University, heads a team of researchers exploring the role of the senses in Eastern Orthodox Christian prayer in Russia, Greece, the United States, Egypt, India, and Romania. Here, she tells Jennifer Lois Hahn about her research on emerging rituals in Russia related to childbirth and abortion, strategies for ensuring that prayers “reach God faster,” and the productive tension between tradition and innovation at the heart of modern Orthodox prayer. 


Jennifer Lois Hahn: How did you come to be involved in this project?

Sonja Luehrmann: The project I was involved with was a team effort to study the use of different sensory media in Eastern Orthodox Christian prayer. Prayer isn’t just something you say—it involves visual media, it involves chanting, hearing, all of that. I have been studying post-Soviet, post-socialist religion in Russia for about the past ten years, and my focus has been on a variety of religious groups, because Russia is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic country. I’ve worked with Muslims, I’ve worked with indigenous religious groups, but in recent years I’ve become more interested in the Russian Orthodox Church. I think it’s a very understudied section of Christianity, especially when you look at the English-language literature that is out there. In 2005, while I was doing this kind of more multi-religious work, I participated in a conference at the Max Planck Institute in Halle, Germany on Eastern Christians in anthropological perspective. That is where most of the collaborators for this research team met for the first time. We liked each other’s work and have stayed in touch since then. We started thinking is there something that we could do together, that would enable each of us to do our own research, but do it in a coherent way that it would complement each other, and also give us opportunities to meet up and bounce ideas off each other. [Luehrmann’s collaborators were Daria Dubovka, Jeffers Engelhardt, Angie Heo, Jeanne Kormina, Vlad Naumescu, and Simion Pop.]

JLH: Tell me about your own research project. Where did you do your fieldwork?

SL: I did research on texts and prayers in conjunction with a longer ethnographic project that I’ve been doing on new rituals that are emerging in Russia, particularly in connection with issues of childbirth and abortion. These issues did not exist to the same degree in pre-revolutionary Russia and are now requiring the elaboration of new ritual and prayer texts. I’ve been doing this research in a multi-sited way. I worked with people in Moscow, both iconographers and also people who are part of a commission to approve new liturgical texts. I’ve done research in more outlying regions. I went on a pilgrimage in the Kirov region in Russia, which is further out east near the Ural Mountains. So I’ve been looking at these aspects of ritualization of new issues in a church that is known to be very conservative. When people think of Orthodox Christianity they probably don’t think of ritual innovation, they think of people doing things that have been done for centuries.

JLH: What is distinctive about Orthodox prayer versus prayer in other traditions?

SL: One thing that I think both Orthodox Christians and non-Orthodox people think of as very distinctive is certainly the use of icons. Icons are flat, two-dimensional images traditionally painted on wooden boards that are used in prayer. They differ from Catholic art, both in the insistence that you rarely use three-dimensional statues, traditionally you have to use flat images, and also in the way that in most iconographic styles it’s very important to preserve a certain kind of canonical style and way of depicting a person. The idea is that in Orthodox art you cannot do what has often happened in Western painting since the Renaissance: painting an image of a saint and putting in the face of the person who sponsored the painting, or some other contemporary of the painter. The faces in Orthodox iconography are always fairly stylized, but the idea is that they actually give a likeness of what that saint or person looked like in real life. They’re meant to be more realistic than Catholic iconography in some way.

Another thing that is distinctive is the practice of praying with traditional texts. So this evangelical Christian idea of just having a casual chat with God—or even the post-Vatican II Catholic idea where you can also do that—is something that in Orthodox Christianity is not considered a norm. It is not even considered to be particularly desirable. So people I have talked to say, “Well, yeah, you can pray with your own words, but in the prayer book we have the words of people who were spiritually more advanced, who were monastics and who have been recognized as saints and everything. So why don’t we use their words?” The phrase that is often used is that these traditional prayers “reach God faster,” because they are inspired by the spiritual insights of the people who put together these words. In practice, often what I’ve seen people do is that they will recite some of these traditional texts and then maybe if they have a concrete request, they will add it on either silently at the end or they will actually add some language in their own words about something in particular that they are asking God for. But the main emphasis of the prayer event is always the recitation of these canonically authorized texts.

JLH: This interplay of the fixity of the textual prayer and the creativity that people bring to it is really interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about how that tension plays out?

SL: I sometimes think about it as dialing God’s telephone number to then tell God what you really want to say. The traditional text is like the telephone number. It is the way to get through to God. Then once you’ve established the connection, you feel that it’s the right moment to add what it is you wanted to say. But another way in which people get creative with these prayers is to abbreviate them. So the morning and evening prayers, if you say the whole thing, it takes about half an hour. In today’s world, not everyone has time to do that. In Russia quite a lot of Orthodox Christians I know just don’t say them. But then there are also people who will pick and choose, maybe stay a bit longer with a particular part that speaks to them on that particular day. When you look at writings by nineteenth-century Orthodox religious figures that talk specifically about how you live this Orthodox spirituality as a layperson, you actually find that as advice. They say that you do not actually have to say the whole thing for it to be valid. So abbreviation is another very common way to get creative.

Another way that people play with this is that they don’t necessarily say the prayers themselves. They can delegate that responsibility to others. That’s not the case for these daily prayers—either you say them yourself or you don’t. But if you have particular petitions or concerns, if you have a particular illness or a relative who has a particular illness, you do have a choice. For instance, do you go yourself to particular icons that are known to be helpful for a particular disease? Or do you pay money to a monastery that has this particular icon and that will do daily services in front of it, and include the name of yourself or your relative? There is this idea that certain people, either because of their spiritual merits, or just because of their position, are better at prayer, God hears them better, God hears them faster. So you can delegate your prayer requests to these people, and hope that with their intercession your cause will be furthered.

JLH: What happens in the case of extemporaneous prayer? For instance, when evangelicals are thrown into a difficult situation, they can use their own words to ask for help. What do Orthodox Christians do? Would they use the Jesus prayer, for instance?

SL: One prayer that is especially popular among Orthodox women in the moment is the Orthodox version of “Hail Mary.” It goes: “Oh Virgin birthgiver of God, rejoice, blessed Mary,” and so on. It’s a fairly short text, and it’s something that people know by heart. Many people also know a melody that goes with it so they might actually chant it. I went on a three-day walking pilgrimage with women where we came by a spring that was considered to have healing properties, so they organized bathing. But the water was also pretty cold. First the men all got to go in, and then the women, because there were no changing rooms. While some of the women were going in and having to overcome this coldness, the other women who were standing at the bank were singing Hail Mary to help them, to give them strength to do it.

The Jesus prayer is something that is a little bit more contentious. It is this very short petition, “Oh Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me the sinner,” and it kind of has this legendary status in the Orthodox world (and to some degree in the western world too) that there are these very committed spiritual people who are saying that prayer constantly in their mind. So it is less this small moment of petition, but more this idea that throughout your whole life you are always close to Jesus, and invoking Jesus. But there are also debates about it: is it good to try to do that as a layperson? Is that only something that monastics should do? If you try to do it as a layperson, could you get too caught up in your spiritual exploits and forget about life as it is? One of our collaborators, Simion Pop, was looking at that in Romania, where there is a post-Socialist revival of Orthodoxy just like in Russia. Part of that revival has been a more pronounced movement of laypeople who are very interested in the Jesus prayer and either use it as meditation tool when they go on retreats or actually have this ambition to be trying to say it their whole lives. That is an issue about which different Orthodox Christians have different opinions.

JLH: Along those lines, could you talk about the differences that you and your collaborators have seen in different parts of the world?

Sonja: One thing we noticed that was going on in all the different countries—Russia, Romania, Greece, Egypt, and India—was the search for specifically Eastern Orthodox Christian ways of praying and living spirituality that I think started sometime in the late twentieth century. In Eastern Europe and Russia, it’s very much connected to the end of socialism. But it also goes back to processes that started in the nineteenth century, a beginning to turn away from Catholic and western European influences in search for this unique and eastern spirituality. In India and to some degree also in Egypt our collaborators were seeing the same thing. For instance, in terms of painting styles, there was this desire to go back to either Byzantine iconography or even the oldest Christian styles of icon writing to be different from the Catholic images. I think we have to still do more to tease out what the different reasons are in the different countries that this is happening. Everywhere it has to do with some sort of identity politics, but also with an idea that there are natural ways in which human spirituality should express itself, and that these old, in some ways very strict, very stylized versions of iconography and chant express that best. Maybe they are most pronouncedly different from secular styles of music and art in all these countries, and there is a certain value that is being placed on that, that the religious approaches have to be very different from the secular ones.

In terms of differences, I think there are definitely differences in how open the different churches are to electronic media or any kind of technical innovations. Jeffers Engelhardt, the ethno-musicologist in our group, has found that in Greece electronic amplification of sound has become the norm, even in the smallest of monasteries on Mount Athos. Sometimes for lighting, they only use candles, but they will still have a microphone in the altar to project the sound of what the priest is saying, even in a tiny chapel where everyone could perfectly hear everything that is being said. In Romania we saw the same thing, whereas in Russia there is much more hesitance against using any kind of these electronic means. It is extreme in monasteries. Another one of our collaborators, Daria Dubovka, did long-term fieldwork in a number of convents in Russia. She has very interesting stories about technology there. In some places you were allowed to have a laptop but not a phone. In other places, nothing at all was allowed. But basically in Russia there was this idea that there was something morally suspect about new technologies and you don’t really want to have them.

JLH: In terms of what holds it all together, what makes Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy, you have mentioned Birgit Meyer’s concept of an aesthetic formation. Could you explain what that is?

SL: I understand aesthetic formation as referring to a style that connects a number of churches or geographical contexts and gives a loose coherence to something that doesn’t have a common institutional body. That is one of the reasons that we’re using it for the Orthodox church, because different from the Catholic Church, there is no pope in Eastern Christianity that would give you a general line on the opinion of the Orthodox Churches on something. There are bishops. There are patriarchs. In most contexts the patriarch is the national head of the church, but he’s really considered to be primus inter pares [first among equals], the one of who has administrative authority, but whose word on doctrine is not necessarily higher than that of the other bishops. So in the absence of this kind of institutional structure, we like this term “aesthetic formation” to think about common ways of responding to media. So for instance, I was just talking about these common debates in different countries about how do we go back to whatever it is we understand as a Byzantine, Eastern Christian, or Orthodox style. That is something that Orthodox people from Romania and Russia and India, if they could somehow get together and to talk about it, they would mean similar things. But at the same time, they might have very different political ideas about what the church should be about or very different historical experiences. Still, there is a common resonance around a certain kind of sound or visual impression. That’s what we meant by aesthetic formation.

JLH: Many of the NDSP grantees seem to have been attracted to the concept of “embodiment” as a new way of thinking about prayer. How has that theoretical orientation informed your group’s focus on the senses?

SL: I think, for us, embodiment was an overarching category under which you can bring together the study of different senses. Part of what we’re interested in for our research is the question of why do you have to have all these different sensory media? Why can’t it be just text or just icons or just chant? There seems to be this abundant saturation that somehow helps people feel that they are in a holy place, that their prayer is going to be heard, that their prayer is in some way appropriate to God. Praying is not something that you just do with the mind or the eyes or the mouth, but you do it as a whole person. What icons do for instance with visual media, is they help the person who is praying orient their body in a certain way. It’s not just about having eye contact with the saint whom you’re venerating, but how you’re standing, you’re facing the icon, you’re orienting your body in a certain way. When Orthodox Christians go to Western Europe and visit Catholic churches, one of the things they talk about is how strange it is to pray at a statute. This bodily orientation toward a three-dimensional body on a pedestal is very different than praying to a flat image that is in front of you. So I think in people’s own sense of what it means to pray and how to pray well, bodily posture and bodily integration of various sensory input is very important, just intuitively. That’s maybe one reason why so many of our researchers in this grant project as a whole are picking up on that.

JLH: What do you think that the overall New Directions in the Study of Prayer project would be missing if Orthodox Christianity hadn’t been included as a focus of study?

SL: That’s an interesting question. Well, let me turn it around to ask: what is the unique thing that you can see in Orthodox Christianity that is maybe not as clear in other religious traditions? On the one hand, the study of the senses is very important, and we were very much interested in that, but we also always found ourselves pointed back to the institution and the community of the Church. I think in some other contexts, it can be relatively easy to study prayer as this kind of individual activity, this way that people bring out their own innermost wishes or thoughts and bring them up to God. Or a way that people develop themselves and work on themselves ethically, as in a lot of current research on spirituality and self-development. In Orthodox Christianity, I think all of that happens, but I think it is also always very clear that people develop their own styles and preferences and experiences of prayer in relation to this very strong authorizing discourse of the institution. Being Orthodox means that you are part of a tradition of prayer and theological debate. So we understand the Orthodox Church in some ways as Talad Asad talks about Islam, as a discursive tradition. It’s a tradition in which people have argued, people have had all kinds of positions, but in order to do something and call it Orthodox you always have to be able to tie it to somebody’s authoritative position, the position of one of the church fathers, even though maybe all of the other church fathers disagreed with it. The strength of the institution and its authorizing discourses for people’s experience of what is proper and effective prayer, that is something that sometimes can be forgotten in the sensory turn in recent years. The Orthodox Church brings the two perspectives together by showing that yes, the sensory media are very important, and people use them in all sorts of creative ways that are not necessarily authorized by the institution, but they are also always very conscious of their placement in this hierarchy of experts, of the need to get the blessing of your priest in order to do a certain sequence of prayers.

JLH: How does your work on anti-abortion activists in Russia relate to these tensions between the individual and the institutional?

SL: The paradox of the issue of abortion in Russia is that the Russian Orthodox Church nowadays very strongly opposes it and the state is also starting to become more critical of it, mainly because of concerns with the birthrate. On the one hand the church is very opposed to abortion, on the other hand, abortion was the method of fertility control in the Soviet Union. So pretty much any woman you meet who is over 40 or 50, unless she had fertility problems, or she didn’t have a heterosexual partner, she will have had multiple abortions. These elderly and middle-aged-women are also the main support of any Russian Orthodox congregation. Just like in the United States, Christianity is very feminized and dominated by older people. So the church is telling its most faithful parishioners that they’re terrible sinners who have to repent of these murders that they committed during their youth. But the church is also developing these rituals that you can do to expiate your past abortions. And that is often where prayer comes in. There is an icon that has been created of what is known as the slaughter of the innocents in the West, the incident where King Herod had all these children under two killed in the attempt to kill Jesus, that has been adopted as kind of the symbol of aborted fetuses. There was no traditional iconographic depiction of that scene in its own right. I actually interviewed the iconographer who in the 1990s wrote the first full-size prayer icon of this episode in consultation with a priest. So there are these new prayer media, and there are also official prayers that the church recommends women say for their aborted fetuses. But then there are also ways in which women actually pray for aborted fetuses. The main difference between them is whether or not the women come up with a name for the aborted fetus. The church very emphatically says no, because the only way that a name can be conferred is through baptism, and of course having died before being able to live outside the womb, it is not possible for these children to have been baptized. Whereas there are these unofficial rites that are coming up, by which you actually sort of posthumously baptize your aborted fetus, and then you have a name that allows you to participate in official church prayer. So again, that’s a place where we see that the sensory media and experience is one thing, but the little mark of institutional belonging—do you actually have a baptismal name for someone you want to pray for or not—can become very important in the minds of laypeople, more important than the whole long text that might be around it.

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