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.

February 21, 2013

Electric Votive

[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.]

The introduction of the electric votive machine into Catholic churches during the early twentieth century organized a new devotional environment within the space of the side altar. The steady glow of the electric bulb chased away the chiaroscuro play of shadow upon the forms of the saints. The sound of falling coinage as it actuated the electronic switch mechanism of this new technology of illumination marked the disappearance of wax and soot accretions—the residual traces of prayer—from the votive space.

On a basic sensory level, the performance of prayer was no longer accompanied by the feeling of warmth radiating from the votive stand, or the thick smell of smoke, sulfur matches, and melting wax. The act of striking a match or of igniting an elongated wooden stick to illuminate the votive candle collapsed into the single action of dropping a coin or pressing a switch; votive prayer became a moment of electric shock and mechanized coincidence. The very form of automaticity itself shifted from the irregular holocausts of an ensemble of cotton filament and beeswax to the precise temporal mechanisms of the time switch.

Through the introduction of the electric votive, a crucial sensation of divine presence retreated into the inner machinations of the apparatus. The flicker and intensity of the naked flame no longer registered the presence of the sacred or the efficacy of the prayer for the devotee. Some votive machines were not automatically actuated by a coin in the slot, but by the pressing of switch-buttons surrounding the donation box: the apparatus believes in you.