Sensory Spirituality: Prayer as Transformative Practice in Eastern Christianity

September, 2012 to August, 2014
Social Science Research Council

What does it take to pray well, and how does a regular practice of prayer help remake the devotee into a person who has this ability? This project asks how prayer skills are linked to wider ethical ideas of human thriving in the Eastern Christian churches, where spiritual transformation through embodied practice has long been considered a key purpose of religious engagement. Prayer in these traditions involves a range of sensory registers, whose interplay the research team investigates through ethnographic research at sites in Russia and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, and North America, within Orthodox churches of Byzantine derivation as well as Coptic and Syriac branches. Drawing on anthropological work that emphasizes the role of publicly circulating media in training and orienting human capacities, the research team investigates how various sensory registers support and reinforce one another in order to move devotees toward Orthodoxy’s ideal of human flourishing. It compares prayer practices of indigenous Orthodox Churches rooted in local traditions and yet speaking to a shared spiritual heritage across cultural and geographical spaces. In this context the rich tradition of the Orthodox Churches within St. Thomas Christianity in Kerala constitutes an exceptional site for exploring not only the diversity of media available to address the divine, but also the particular forms Christian prayer and its pedagogies took in this locality. It offers thus a unique insight into the dynamics of historical change and transmission of Eastern Christian spirituality as well as to the interaction of Eastern Christian practices with those of other religious traditions.