Praying with the Senses: Review Forum Response (Sonja Luehrmann)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Sonja Luehrmann (Simon Fraser University)

Politics and Aesthetics in Orthodox Prayers: A Response to the Review Forum

This is an extraordinarily thoughtful set of responses, and I feel grateful and humbled to read them. As Helena Kupari notes, Praying with the Senses is more than a compilation of essays, but the outcome of a research collaboration in which all contributors enriched each other’s understanding of the poetics and politics of Orthodox Christian prayer. The reviewers acknowledge the coherence and synergy of the volume, and hopefully this will be palpable for other readers as well.

I cannot answer all the rich remarks of the reviewers in this forum, but would like to pick up on some shared threads, one of which is a call for more explicit discussion of politics. Valentina Napolitano asks about “the wider role of the state and post-national formations that make religious spaces new important local and transnational modes of political aggregation.” Earlier in her post, she already notes that Orthodox prayer practices transcend the unhelpful distinction between private inner experience and public ritual practice. Simon Coleman asks about “forms of Orthodox mobility” such as migration, diaspora-formation, and mutual influences among national orthodoxies. These are questions about the political existence of prayer events and their grounding in national, denominational, or ethnic imagined communities.

In answer to this challenge to address the political dimensions of prayer, I am reminded that in the Orthodox church, community is constituted liturgically and collectively. Countering Western images of Orthodox churches as closely welded to particular monarchical or nation state formations (the infamous “caesaropapism”), Orthodox Christians often claim to keep politics out of religion by avoiding the unified transnational hierarchy of the Catholic Church in favor of the communion of equal patriarchs. As the recent severance of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople shows, these relationships are fraught with inequalities and competing interests; in other words, they are political in a secular sense.

However, for ordinary believers and clergy the split manifests in restricted possibilities of participation in worship, bringing into play a slightly different understanding of politics. When lay members of either side can no longer receive the eucharist in churches affiliated with the other, and priests can no longer celebrate liturgy together, what is at stake are not just relations among contemporary hierarchs, but a given Orthodox believer’s relationship to the church as a transtemporal community that spans past, present, and future generations. The immediate cause of the rupture is disagreement over the appropriate national church on Ukrainian territory: the Kiev Patriarchate (now recognized by Constantinople against the wishes of Moscow) or the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. In this dispute, one of the major markers of distinction and points of contention is who gets commemorated in the solemn intercessions during divine liturgy – Patriarch Kirill of Moscow or Patriarch Filaret of Kiev. In the absence of a unified transnational hierarchy, liturgical prayer is a major marker of allegiance that some lay participants listen for attentively, while others ignore it as they pursue health or blessing across the “Orthodox continuum” (Naumescu 2007).

Drawing on Sarah Bakker Kellogg’s (2015) wonderful work on liturgical community among the Syriac Christian diaspora in the Netherlands, one can say that this reliance on prayer and liturgy gives Orthodox communities a degree of independence from particular ethnic and state formations, and enables them to reproduce community in mobile forms. It also allows for different understandings of politics to intersect – one that is concerned with patronage and allegiance in quite worldly ways, and another one that is closer to what Nicholas Heron (2018) calls “liturgical power.” Liturgical power is vested in the figure of the minister as an instrument animated from elsewhere, and in prayer practices that reach beyond immediate location to saints who lived long ago but are still present, and places that are elsewhere but metonymically accessible through church namings and iconography (Heo 2018). If there is a politics of Orthodox prayer, it pushes against the dominant image of modern Orthodox churches as nation-bound, even as it is often implicated in Orthodox nationalisms.

Sarah Bakker Kellogg’s response calls attention to another dimension of politics in Orthodox worlds: the split between the so-called “Oriental” or non-Chalcedonian churches and those that derive from the state church of the Byzantine empire. Kellogg is justified in her critique of our volume as being mainly concerned with churches of Byzantine derivation; with the exception of Heo’s chapter on Egypt, Boylston’s on Ethiopia, and Bandak’s extended vignette on Syria, the Oriental churches get relatively short treatment. However, in reading Kellogg’s retelling of the “legacy of Orthodox Christianity’s historical relationship with empire, which has functioned to obscure other kinds of Orthodox worlds contained within it,” I am struck by how similar her articulation of the non-Chalcedonian position is to how Orthodox Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe articulate their predicament vis-à-vis Western Christendom: they, too, feel that dominant narratives of church history erase and orientalise them in relation to a West that is “heir to the imperial position,” in this case that of Rome.

Susan Gal’s (2002) concept of fractal distinction seems applicable here. A division among dominant and alternative strands of Christianity reproduces itself at various historical and geographical intersections, between “Hellenic” and “Semitic” Christians, “Rome” and “Byzantium,” logocentric Protestants and ritualistic Catholics/Orthodox, etc. At each juncture, one side is made to represent the forward movement of history while the other is relegated to a static past, to be recovered by sympathetic scholars (Hann 2012).

This is not to deny the important warning against an unthinking adoption of imperial histories. As Lars Hedegard Williams puts it, a focus on prayer as “aesthetic formation, discursive tradition, and skill” allows us to keep history and politics in view as we look at sensory practice in its personal and communal dimensions. Hopefully this framework will also prove useful in contexts that the volume leaves insufficiently illuminated.

References:
Gal, Susan. 2002. A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction. differences 13(1): 77-95.

Hann, Chris. 2012. Personhood, Christianity, Modernity. Anthropology of this Century 3, http://aotcpress.com/articles/personhood-christianity-modernity/

Heo, Angie. 2018. The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediations in Egypt. Berkeley/L.A.: University of California Press.

Heron, Nicholas. 2018. Liturgical Power: Between Economic and Political Theology. New York: Fordham University Press.

Kellogg, Sarah Bakker. 2015. Ritual sounds, political echoes: Vocal agency and the sensory cultures of secularism in the Dutch Syriac diaspora. American Ethnologist 42(3): 431-445.

Naumescu, Vlad. 2007. Modes of Religiosity in Eastern Christianity: Religious Processes and Social Change in Ukraine. Berlin: Lit.

 

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