Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice

By Sonja Luehrmann | Go to book overview

4   AUTHORIZING
The Paradoxes of Praying by the Book

SONJA LUEHRMANN

ALONGSIDE ICONS, MOST ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN FAMILIES own one or more prayer books. Often kept on the same shelf as the sacred images, the most obvious use for these books is to be taken up from the shelf and read aloud from while facing the icons. In Russian, one refers to “reading a prayer” rather than to reciting it. This expression comes from a shift in the meaning of the verb chitat’ from Slavonic “recite, say out loud” to modern Russian “read,” analogous to the semantic shift between Anglo-Saxon raedan and modern English “read” (Howe 1993). The persistence of the old meaning in the religious field reflects the close association between Russian Orthodox practice and the Old Church Slavonic language. It also shows a popular understanding that praying means to faithfully reproduce texts that are recorded in books, no matter if this happens by literally reading or by recalling a memorized text. For those who pray regularly, reciting from a prayer book is part of a complex process of actualizing pre-given elements in an act of correct worship, comparable to the generative process of using grammatical structures to create a new text. When trying to perform a prayer text correctly, worshippers engage in complex negotiations between their own skills and aesthetic preferences, the authority they ascribe to particular aspects of Orthodox tradition, and practical problems, such as how to make time for prayer in a busy day and maintain focus over a prolonged period of time.

At the same time, like other sacred things collected on icon shelves, prayer books have many uses that go beyond their ostensible purpose. The small books bound in cloth or leather may be given as gifts at baptism or by a more pious acquaintance but then rarely if ever opened. Because of the cross imprinted

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