Praying with the Senses

Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice

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Sonja Luehrmann
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , December
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Although the situation is changing, the rich traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity remain significantly understudied, especially compared to Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Accordingly, Praying with the Senses, edited by Sonja Luehrmann, is a particularly welcome addition to the growing scholarship on Orthodoxy that approaches Eastern Christian spirituality from a perspective firmly grounded in religious studies and theories of religion. The volume succeeds, as Luehrmann puts it, in taking an anthropological approach to the study of religion that gives its readers “a sense of how bodily practices and sensory media shape personal piety and ethical communities” (21). 

Luehrmann has divided the volume into two main parts. Part 1 is entitled “Senses,” and contains four essays focusing on personal spiritual practice and the role sense experience plays in undergirding and shaping these practices. Vlad Naumescu’s essay examines how practitioners of the Eastern Orthodox tradition strive for “deification” through a variety of ascetic disciplines aimed at personal transformation. Jeffers Engelhardt explores how and why Orthodox liturgical music has a strong aversion to musical instruments and a very high evaluation of the power of the human voice. Angie Heo studies the ways in which Orthodox spirituality is bound up with the veneration of holy icons and the bodily relics of saints. Rounding out this section, Luehrmann’s essay looks at the ecclesiastical calendar, and the way daily, weekly, and yearly liturgical cycles are embedded in both the lives of the private home and the public church. 

Part 2, “Worlds,” consists of four chapters examining how Orthodox piety navigates shifting social structures, while also playing a role in creating, sustaining, and transforming these structures. Jeanne Kormina explores the social contexts of prayer as people seek out settings in which to worship, especially when frequently traveling and engaging in “religious nomadism.” Tom Boylston analyzes Ethiopian Orthodox public prayer and the complexities of the encounter with people of different religious traditions, particularly the Ethiopian Muslim community. Daria Dubovka describes the challenges convents in Russia face when trying to balance fidelity to tradition and contemporary economic realities. Finally, Simion Pop draws upon the social theories of Max Weber to discuss how Orthodox revival involves a “charismatization” of that which has become routinized in liturgy, ritual, and clerical orders.

Particularly enlivening to the volume are brief ethnographic vignettes that vividly illustrate the practices analyzed in the full chapters. Placed between the major chapters, these vignettes contain liturgical prayer texts, as well as first-hand accounts of lived Orthodox spirituality across cultures. Also especially helpful in orienting the reader to this well-constructed edited volume are the excellent introduction and epilogue by Luehrmann and William Christian Jr, respectively. 

Praying with the Senses is careful to address two key issues that might arise for those who are neither scholars nor practitioners of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. First, it contains a helpful glossary of terms likely to be unfamiliar to the uninitiated. Second, the volume makes clear that it is not intended to supply the reader with knowledge of Eastern Orthodox theology; for this, Luehrmann helpfully points readers to texts by well-established Orthodox theologians John McGuckin and Kallistos Ware.

The only significant difficulty the volume creates (and does not successfully resolve) is the decision to group “so-called Nestorians, Miaphysites, and Chalcedonians” under the category of Eastern Orthodox spirituality (5). A volume focusing on “Eastern Orthodox Christianity” should have more careful distinctions between Eastern rite Catholics, Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches, non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches, and the Assyrian Church of the East (commonly referred to pejoratively as “Nestorian”). These traditions not only have significant theological differences, they have been shaped in deeply distinctive ways by major linguistic, liturgical, political, and cultural differences. It remains unclear why the decision was made to group all of these ecclesiastical traditions together in such a slim volume. 

Nevertheless, Praying with the Senses is a strong collection of much-needed essays that refreshingly approaches Eastern Orthodox spirituality from a theoretical and anthropological perspective. Religious studies scholars focusing on the study of spirituality in general, or Eastern Orthodoxy in particular, will find this volume to be to be of great interest. Theologians in turn will find studies here that enhance their understanding of ritual prayer and liturgical practices. Several of the essays are suitable case studies for a graduate classroom, and the ethnographic vignettes that punctuate the volume can be useful for generating conversation amongst undergraduates. These essays advance the understanding of Eastern Orthodox spiritual practices from a religious studies perspective, and they will likely stimulate new directions for research and teaching in this largely neglected area.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rico G. Monge is Assistant Professor of Comparative Theology at the University of San Diego.

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sonja Luehrmann is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. She is author of Secularism Soviet Style: Teaching Atheism and Religion in a Volga Republic and Religion in Secular Archives: Soviet Atheism and Historical Knowledge.


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