Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice

Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice

Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice

Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice

Synopsis

How do people experience spirituality through what they see, hear, touch, and smell? Sonja Luehrmann and an international group of scholars assess how sensory experience shapes prayer and ritual practice among Eastern Orthodox Christians. Prayer, even when performed privately, is considered as a shared experience and act that links individuals and personal beliefs with a broader, institutional, or imagined faith community. It engages with material, visual, and aural culture including icons, relics, candles, pilgrimage, bells, and architectural spaces. Whether touching upon the use of icons in the age of digital and electronic media, the impact of Facebook on prayer in Ethiopia, or the implications of praying using recordings, amplifiers, and loudspeakers, these timely essays present a sophisticated overview of the history of Eastern Orthodox Christianities. Taken as a whole they reveal prayer as a dynamic phenomenon in the devotional and ritual lives of Eastern Orthodox believers across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.

Excerpt

Sonja Luehrmann

One of my first encounters with Orthodox Christian prayer was a Good Friday service in 1993 in the Moscow church of Saint John the Warrior, one of the few churches that had remained open throughout the Soviet period. I remember a gilded, dimly lit interior; the operatic sounds of the academically trained choir; the air heavy from incense, smoke, and the breath of many people; and small old women shoving past me on their way to light candles in front of the icons. I also remember the realization that following along with the movements of others, crossing myself and bowing when they did, was the only way to make it through hours of standing with no place to sit. At some point, my body simply decided to end the experience: my eyes went so black that I could no longer tell if the candle in my hands was burning or extinguished. the friend who had brought me escorted me outside, where we waited for the procession with the plashchanitsa, where a black cloth representing the death shroud of Jesus is brought out and carried around the church. My friend, who had been baptized at the age of sixteen in 1991, assured me that she had also felt sick and faint many times as she became used to incense, candles, and overcrowded churches. Her secular Soviet childhood had done as little to prepare her for the body techniques and rhythms of Orthodox prayer and worship as had my German Lutheran upbringing.

Mystery, learning-as-you-go, and physical and mental exertion are constant themes in outsiders’ and insiders’ discussions of Orthodox prayer. Another constant is the multiplicity of sensory input, the sense of a physical environment in which the prayer takes place and through which the person praying orients his or her own body. This volume grows out of a collaborative effort . . .

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