Abstract The Russian Orthodox Church portrays itself as a hierarchically ordered and socially influential “public religion,” but occupies quite a tenuous position in contemporary Russian society. Following Marcel Mauss’s idea of prayer as a social phenomenon, we argue that lay intercessory prayer as a way of assuming social responsibility is key to extending the Church’s reach into the lives of casual believers (so-called zakhozhane). Although individualization of religious practice does occur in post-Soviet Russia, contemporary Russian Orthodox prayer is less about personal self-cultivation than about claiming and exercising competence within interpersonal networks. The notion of prayer as practical competence helps to understand the role of lay prayer in a clerically dominated church, and explains the enduring role of established, mainstream denominations as ambient faith in a secular society. PRAYER AS culturally mediated interaction with forces that are imagined as lying outside the bounds of human society poses an intrinsic challenge to social scientific studies of religion. Anthropologists and sociologists who have taken up this challenge have long echoed Marcel Mauss’s ( 1968) argument that prayer is a social phenomenon by virtue of the publicly available forms it relies on, including verbal formulae and nonverbal gestures and bodily poses. Recent studies have moved from documenting the forms of prayer to probing its social and individual consequences, debating the healing effects of prayer and its role in the formation of ethical persons and communities (Brown 2012; Harkness 2014; Mahmood 2005). Prayer has been conceptualized as a conversation with the divine, an act of imaginative self-extension, or a step outside everyday patterns of action by “changing the subject” (Luhrmann 2012; Woodhead 2015). A rich trend in anthropological inquiry explores the material objects that support human interactions with the divine, ranging from ancient texts and painted icons to digital media, allowing us to look at prayer not just through the lens of people performing it, but also the material infrastructures that support it (Hanganu 2010; Haeri 2013; Meyer 2011). What most of these studies have in common is that they focus on prayer as something that is done in person, either individually or collectively. In this article, we use the case of intercessory prayer in Russian Orthodox Christianity to consider how prayer fits into specifically social and collaborative aspects of human activity. It is subject to division of labor and capable of being shared and delegated, thus feeding on and producing new forms of social connection and hierarchy. In a secular society where religious practice plays a marginal role in most people’s lives, we argue that these are the features of prayer that help it extend the reach of a religious institution into everyday life. What exactly does it mean to call prayer social? In Mauss’s doctoral thesis, it mainly comes down to a question of disciplinary expertise. Theologians had studied prayer in terms of a history of dogma or pastoral practice; the psychologists of the time were looking at it largely through introspection. Only sociologists could study prayer as a public linguistic practice connected to other social institutions. Like areas of formalized practice such as language or law, prayer exists through individual action, while also having “a social existence outside the individual” (Mauss  1968, 384), whose full scope eludes the grasp of any one practitioner. Each element even of a short prayer formula “sums up a whole long history, which individual consciousness cannot perceive” (Mauss  1968, 377). Some commentators have suggested that this justification for a sociology of prayer was not enough, and that the thesis remained unfinished because of Mauss’s inability to reconcile his Durkheimian interest in the collective side of prayer with his evolutionist conviction that these “oral rites” naturally develop toward modern Protestant individualized forms (Jenkins 2008; Morphy 2003).1 This wavering has become an attraction for contemporary scholars, reflecting the heightened interest in the relationship between individual religious experience and collective practice that has characterized religious studies since the late twentieth century. Not surprisingly, the French sociologist’s claim that prayer is a privileged place for understanding the intersections between individual and collective devotional practices has become a favorite point of reference in recent discussions of his work (Mauss  1968, 358; Bandak 2017; Giordan and Woodhead 2015). In our work on lay-initiated prayer in Russian Orthodox Christianity, we are also interested in the intersection between individual and institutional practices in the context of a society that has been affected by state-sponsored secularization. But we propose to add another approach to the social nature of prayer, one that is useful for analyzing how individual and institutional practices become linked. Whereas much of the varied recent literature on prayer assumes that it is exercised in person, either by an individual or a group of people, we argue that insofar as prayer is social, it is also subject to division of labor, specialization, and delegation—those aspects of social activity that, for Mauss’s teacher, Emile Durkheim (1893), form the basis of communal solidarity. While both scholars were attuned to the presence of division of labor in other areas of social life, their assumptions about the progressive individualization of religion may have prevented them from seeing these processes at work in prayer. Re-reading Mauss with the Orthodox Christian case in mind creates a counterweight to the “Protestant bias” that many have identified in theories of religion (Hann 2012; Masuzawa 1993). Orthodox lay people eagerly exploit the divisibility and shareability of prayer to care for relatives and establish themselves as competent religious practitioners. Seeing prayer as a site where individual activity meets collective action not only shows its social side, but also suggests an answer to a key question about Orthodox Christianity in post-Soviet Russia: how does this tradition maintain its presence as a religious default among the vast numbers of Russian citizens who are neither regular churchgoers nor knowledgeable religious virtuosi? And, at a more general level, what shape does postsecular religiosity take when trends toward individualized and idiosyncratic practice coexist with enduring institutional claims from a hierarchically organized church? Answering these questions not only has a bearing on ongoing debates about the political status of Orthodox Christianity in Russia (Papkova 2011; Pankhurst and Kilp 2013). It also challenges a tendency in recent research to privilege those prayers through which religious virtuosi shape their pious selves rather than investigate the more mundane, fleeting, and often socially embedded occasions on which casual believers turn to prayer. AMBIANCE AND COMPETENCE To analyze the prayer practices of casual believers, we draw on two notions, one of which stems from the anthropology of secularity, while the other brings together studies of ritual with the postsocialist everyday: ambient faith and practical competence. The concept of ambient faith comes from the work of Matthew Engelke (2012) on Anglicanism in contemporary Britain, whose activist adherents consciously attempt to blend in with secular cultural forms to create an unobtrusive, almost unnoticeable presence of Christian meanings and symbolism. A historically dominant religious tradition is thereby “normalized” (Oliphant 2015, 353) and treated as compatible with modern secular sensibilities in ways that are not accessible to other religious groups. Catherine Wanner has applied the notion of ambiance to the role of Orthodox Christianity in post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine, where, drawing on a similar identification with national heritage as that enjoyed by British Anglicanism and French Catholicism, Orthodoxy “slips into and among public and private and political and religious domains” without directly challenging a society’s sense of being secular (Wanner 2014, 433). Wanner’s interest is in how religion becomes interwoven with the cultural politics of a nation in subtle ways that stop short of the outright mobilizations José Casanova describes as “public religion” (Casanova 1994). Shifting perspective from national politics to everyday practice, we ask how people without strong religious commitments, but with a “casual loyalty to tradition” (Voas 2009, 155), construct their affective attachments to and ability to derive agency from an established religious institution. As Engelke notes in his dialogue with José Casanova’s idea of public religion, ambient faith does not necessarily mount a fundamental challenge to ideas of modern secularity, but manages to establish an enduring religious presence through a kind of mimicry. In Russia, placing a candle in an Orthodox church or ordering prayers to commemorate a deceased loved one is such an ambient practice that denotes that one is a normal person who cares about family rather than being deeply religious. Developing competence in such practices of materializing and delegating prayer makes it possible for citizens to consider themselves Russian Orthodox believers while also living lives that are secular in the sense that religion plays a rather marginal and malleable role in them. At the same time, ambient prayer practices help extend the social reach of the church as an institution and of the values of hierarchical reciprocity that it promotes. Thinking of prayer as “ambient” shows that secularization does not necessarily mean that religion is fully privatized. Rather, it fades into a societal background that individuals can then mine and adapt to their own projects. On the face of it, there is not much room for lay adaptations in Orthodox tradition. According to some theories of religion, the state-supported ambiance enjoyed by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is a recipe for creating a disengaged laity in a rigid institution whose followers desert it for more independent offerings on the religious marketplace (Finke and Stark 1992). Within this focus on the church as an institution, efficacious prayer is often treated as a monopoly of the clergy. In a 2016 arbitration case, a court accepted an agreement in which the Metropolitan see of Nizhnii Novgorod promised to commission prayers in all churches and monasteries for the director and the sales manager of a construction contracting firm to which it had failed to repay a debt of about 5,000 USD (Devitsyn and Kozlova 2016). This case shows both the normalization of the notion that liturgical prayer offered by clergy is the “work” that the ROC does, and the mutual support of state, church, and business structures: Nizhnii Novgorod is one of Russia’s wealthier metropolitan sees, and arguably could have been ordered to repay its debt in full. However, in other instances the processes of sharing, delegating, and materializing prayer are more participatory and require the active efforts of lay as well as ordained actors. In Orthodox Russia as in Anglican Britain, the ability to fade into the background relies on concrete semiotic forms. Our ethnographic examples will show those features of Orthodox prayer that give it an unobtrusive presence, simultaneously empowering casual lay believers and tying their sense of right religious practice back to the institutional Church as a source of authority. The second concept we use is that of practical competence (Shevchenko 2009, 88). Here, we build upon discussions of “communicative” and “performative competence” in linguistic anthropology and performance studies, adapting them to a post-Soviet context where much of the habitual expertise assumed in these concepts has been lost. As in the work of anthropologists of performance, “competence” includes the ability to adapt traditional, authoritative forms to concrete contexts and communities, taking responsibility for them rather than simply conveying them in a static form (Briggs 1988; Hymes 1981). However, like other anthropologists who work in postsocialist societies, we are dealing with communities where performative competence is in question. The informal settings within families and communities in which prayers, invocations, and other ritual performances were formerly learned were disrupted by antireligious repression, and opportunities for formal religious training were rare and difficult to access during decades of socialist rule (Naumescu 2016; Rogers 2009; Wanner 2007). This crisis of competence-as-skill has brought to the fore another aspect of competence that has long been important in the Orthodox tradition as well as in other settings where hierarchical order matters: that of being the right person to act on behalf of specific others. This understanding of competence is akin to bureaucratic notions of responsibility or being in charge, but also to the skills of “making do” and getting things done that helped even materially deprived inhabitants of postsocialist states keep themselves and their loved ones afloat in times of routinized crisis (Caldwell 2004; Shevchenko 2009). Ideas about the special efficacy of the prayers of mothers for their children, elderly women for family members, and patron saints for their habitual devotees elaborate on quotidian notions of care and responsibility. However, they add a power that the social relations themselves sometimes lack, especially during Russia’s economic restructuring, which some have described as a time when Soviet habits of doing things through social connections no longer worked in quite the same way (Ledeneva 2006; Utrata 2015). Some observers of post-Soviet religious life have found it to be another site of neoliberal individualization, where people reorient toward more competition-oriented notions of selfhood (Zigon 2011; Lindquist 2006). But practical competence in Russian Orthodox prayer, with its central reliance on the relationship between those praying and those being prayed for, sets in motion chains of delegation along which agency is collectivized and diffused (Hull 2012, 115). This complicates the idea that religion, society, and economy are all moving toward more individualistic modes of action. Rather, one of the draws of the ROC is its promise of institutional reinforcement and amplification for ways of enacting responsibility that would otherwise seem isolated and outdated. When people pray for others at home or order prayer for them at a church or monastery, they are connecting particular concerns to publicly available forms, simultaneously using the church for personal ends and strengthening its claim to embody a timeless moral core of Russian society. In exercising their social responsibilities, casual lay believers engage a religious institution that is very protective of its own competence in spiritual matters, but today functions more as a quarry than an all-encompassing “sacred canopy.” A note on methodology: in our interest in casual observances instead of publicly mobilized religiosity of virtuoso performance, we respond to calls for more attention to the religiously (almost) indifferent, doubters, and those who remain disengaged (Blanes and Oustinova-Stjepanovic 2015; McBrien and Pelkmans 2008; Pelkmans 2013). This raises difficulties with the usual ethnographic method of focusing on a particular community or set of key informants, because the kinds of religious engagements we are interested in are by definition fleeting and not central to people’s lives.2 Instead, we offer a number of cases that show common points of contact between life in modern Russia and the institutional existence of the ROC, as we have encountered them in the course of individual and joint research. These points of contact include church stalls where prayers can be ordered, outdoor sacred sites, Orthodox trade fairs, and internet forums. Most of our examples revolve around care for kin and acquaintances as a prime occasion for prayer among casual believers (Orsi 1998). Instead of following key informants through various aspects of their lives, readers will encounter key social types of casual religious practitioners, such as the concerned mother or the traveler. For people who find themselves or their loved ones in a liminal state, prayer is one of the gap-fillers that connects them to human meaning-making as well as to sources of power that they may not see a need for in more ordinary pursuits (see also ap Siôn 2015). We will also see patterns of practices that hold special appeal to modern, unchurched believers, such as devotion to Saint Xenia, an urban saint, and commercialized ways of establishing chains of intercession. Following recent suggestions that “the edge” or “the margins” of religious spheres are fruitful sites of investigation in contexts of complex modern lives where different values and institutions vie for attention (Bender et al. 2012; Pine and Pina-Cabral 2008), we work along the margins of institutionalized Orthodox religiosity to find the places where this institution meets the lives of those it claims as its adherents. True to Mauss’s intuition, prayer turns out to be a frequent facilitator of such meetings, motivated by the desire to build and maintain networks of care and responsibility. Especially in a context where rapid secularization and diversification of the religious landscape have led to a crisis of performative competence, prayers as semiotic forms that can be shared, delegated, and copied forge connections between realms of individual and collective practice, across hierarchies of religious expertise. Instead of beauty and meaning flowing from the Church as a unified social organism and informing the way social relationships are formed, casual and not-so-casual believers use isolated elements of Orthodox tradition to support, enhance, and repair existing social networks. Many of those networks are at odds with the values professed by the ROC: they are centered around women and matrilineages rather than patriarchal structures, and they are oriented toward relieving temporal suffering rather than obtaining eternal salvation. At the same time, practical competence in Orthodox prayer protocols remains a naturalized aspect of Russian ethnic and elderly female generational identity, and supports an overall view of a society organized through hierarchical relations of care and patronage (Stoeckl 2014). The notion of prayer as an ambient, unobtrusive way of caring for significant others strengthens female lay agency in a church dominated by male clergy, but also recruits that agency into particular projects of virtuous citizenship. CARE AND COLLECTIVITY IN THE POST-SOVIET CHURCH Contemporary Russian Orthodox lay-initiated prayer offers an intriguing case of a religious tradition with strong hierarchical claims whose practice has become fragmented and diffused, leading to a diversification and reorientation of ambient practices, but not necessarily to individualization. In the theological vision of the ROC, any act of prayer, whether individual or collective, liturgical or extraliturgical, refers back to the Church as a source of authority and guarantor of efficacy. According to the concept of “hierarchical actions” that church historian Hermann Goltz (1974) traces back to the Hellenic Church fathers, the whole cosmos is imagined as an internally ranked socium of heavenly and earthly beings linked in mutual relationships of care and intercession. In this cosmic order, prayer as caring and grateful remembrance of others (Harmless 2000) provides the lubricant for relationships between those closer to spiritual perfection and those farther away. Angels and saints pray for earthly beings and watch over them, priests intercede on behalf of their flock, and parents bestow blessing and prayer on their children. Whether carried out in person or delegated to others, Orthodox Christian prayer gains its effect from the hierarchical principle of complementarity among unequals (Dumont 1966), held together by the divine spirit whose historical abode is the Church. If, according to Mauss’s definition, prayer is an “oral rite” intended to have an effect on unseen spiritual beings, the ideal social setting in which this speech act develops its full measure of felicity (Austin 1965) is a clergy-led, liturgical service in a consecrated church. Home- and family-based forms of prayer derive their efficacy from their alignment with these models. The oft-cited idea that “the family is the Lesser Church” expresses this hierarchical logic. In practice, the contemporary ROC cannot play such an all-encompassing role even for its declared followers, partly because Russia is not a holistic socium where all actions follow the same logic and aim toward the same goals. According to data collected by the Russian poll-center Public Opinion Foundation in 2014, between 65 and 68 percent of the population of the Russian Federation identify as Orthodox Christians. However, almost 40 percent of self-identified Orthodox respondents visit a church less than once a year or never, 60 percent have never taken communion, and only 11 percent say they go to church once a month or more often. Only 3 to 4 percent of the whole population of Russia take part in services for Easter, the highest Orthodox holiday (Fond obshchestvennogo mneniia 2014; Sova Center 2015). Although Orthodox activists have been successful in court cases concerning issues of public morality and artistic representation, the ROC’s political lobbying efforts in key areas such as property restitution, education, and reproductive policy have met with relatively limited success over the past twenty-five years (Bernstein 2014; Luehrmann 2017; Papkova 2011).3 In statistics as well as in policy outcomes, Russia appears as a quite secularized society, where practicing a religion is a matter of choice, and the notion of religious belonging as providing a comprehensive framework for making sense of life is always put in question (Taylor 2007). This situation is in part the result of seven decades of active government efforts to secularize Soviet society (Luehrmann 2011; Wanner 2012). But it also reflects the diffuse and decentered nature of religiosity that many have noted for modern, institutionally diversified societies of capitalist as well as socialist orientation (Bruce 2002; Höhn 2007). In this setting, ambiance and irony can quickly collapse into one another. In the Nizhnii Novgorod court case, it is not clear if the management of the construction firm really valued the prayers of the church at thousands of dollars, or if it was willing to write off the debt as a form of sponsorship or advertising cost (Köllner 2012). In the post-Soviet situation, where religious skills as well as an individual’s capacity to fulfill social responsibilities are often in doubt, the collectivity created by contemporary Orthodox prayer appears less as a monolithic order encompassed by the Church and its male clerical hierarchy and more like an extension of everyday, and often feminized, care work in personal networks (Utrata 2015). The ROC shows its awareness that theological claims and reality do not quite match through internal discussions of the problem of zakhozhane, literally “stoppers-by,” as opposed to prikhozhane, parish members (Agadzhanian and Russele 2011). Zakhozhane may visit a church in times of personal or family crisis to purchase and place a candle, fetch holy water, or order prayers, or they may do the same during travels when visiting a monastery or sacred site on a tourist trip. They rarely stay for an entire service, participate in confession and communion, or engage in volunteer labor for their local church, all hallmarks that priests look for in a prikhozhanin or “churched” parishioner (Kormina 2012). It is difficult to estimate numbers of zakhozhane, but as the above-quoted statistics show, they certainly exceed those of committed parishioners or regular communicants. As Russian sociologists of religion Lunkin and Filatov put it, “the Orthodox religiosity of Russians today is so amorphous…that any criteria for measuring it and any figures obtained about it are essentially imprecise. Most ‘Orthodox believers’ are Orthodox believers from one point of view but not from another” (Filatov and Lunkin 2006, 43). Some findings suggest that zakhozhane treat the ROC as one stop among many in a religious marketplace, and this can certainly be the case when people visit several religious denominations looking for social assistance or spiritual inspiration (Caldwell 2005). From the point of view of the ROC, however, they constitute a “reserve” of de facto Orthodox who should not be proselytized by other denominations and whose sympathies can be called upon when a parish is in need of donations or popular support (Kazmina 2014). For the purposes of this article, we treat zakhozhane as Russian citizens who do not regularly attend church, but for whom the Orthodox Church is the one they turn to in times of family or life crises. Depending on their life experiences, gender, and family and ethnic background, their relationship to the Church as an institution may range from remote affection to general indifference or detached criticism. Zakhozhane and regular parishioners are not polar opposites. For example, there are people who rarely visit a parish church but have a regular devotion to a particular saint, or people for whom a particular life event brings a period of regularly taking communion at their local church, only to drift out of this habit again later.4 For maintaining connections of variable intensity, prayer practices play an important role, centering on the ROC and its liturgical traditions but also drawing on other sources for efficacy. The following two cases offer different angles on female Orthodox believers at prayer. One example is of a casual prayer at a sacred site that shows both the crisis of performative competence and the role of the ROC in legitimizing even fragmented, alternative forms of religious participation. The other centers around devotions to Saint Xenia of Petersburg, a female saint known to sympathize with the everyday concerns of modern urban believers. Devotees engage with her through internet lore and social media as well as through visiting her shrine. Both stories show how casual stoppers-by simultaneously adhere to Orthodox theological notions of intercession as an expression of often unequal social relationships, and shift the underlying felicity conditions of prayer (Goffman 1983) by using it in personalized ways. Case 1: Crisis of Competence and the Power of Place In August 2005, Sonja Luehrmann took a bike ride across the countryside of Marii El, one of the autonomous republics of Russia’s Volga region. Her guide, Valentina, identified as a member of the Mari ethnic group that gave the republic its name, and she taught Mari language and culture at school. Now in her fifties, she knew the fields and forests from her days as a district secretary of the Communist Party, when she crossed them on foot to visit outlying collective farms. Valentina had suggested the ride to visit the healing spring of Shabashi, dedicated to the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. Although she remembered her years as party secretary as the best of her life, the story of how she received this position emphasized the power of this sacred place over that of the Communist Party: her predecessor, she recalled in a matter-of-fact way, had become paralyzed in the early 1980s after kicking the water spout of the spring to break up the annual gathering of pilgrims on the feast day of the Mother of God of Kazan, July 21. Despite her adherence to widespread beliefs in the power of sacred sites to punish blasphemers (Shtyrkov 2001), Valentina did not consider herself a churchgoer and spoke with great admiration of the pre-Christian Mari religion, focused on groves and hilltops rather than saints and buildings. Her ethnic heritage and her professional career predisposed her to be rather critical of the Orthodox Church as an institution. Nonetheless, before going to the healing water upon reaching the area of the spring, Valentina stopped at the table where a woman from a nearby village church sold candles, religious literature, and small icons. The former communist and self-identified pagan purchased a brochure with the akathistos hymn to the Kazan icon, a lengthy poem of praise that follows a set pattern of twelve stanzas and can be read either by laypeople individually or in groups or in a liturgical setting by alternation of priest and choir (Shevzov 2007). Proceeding to the large cross that had recently been erected near the spring, she invited the ethnographer to recite the akathistos; she had done the same in July when she went to the annual pilgrimage and waited in line to get into the bathhouse. We started to take turns reading stanzas of the hymn, but since neither of us was very good at Church Slavonic recitation, we soon gave up and skipped ahead to the concluding prayers. We then entered the women’s side of the wooden bathhouse with an open floor constructed above the stream. We undressed, climbed down the ladder into the cold water, and submerged ourselves three times. Afterward, we lit candles at the cross. In leaving, Valentina expressed satisfaction at having recited the akathistos—“it doesn’t feel the same without it.” She called the hymn an “optimistic prayer,” because the Virgin Mary was addressed with the constantly repeated acclamation “rejoice.” This story illustrates both the crisis of performative competence in the wake of the Soviet period and the ambient presence of Orthodox practices as a source of legitimate religious experience, even among people who have little sympathy for the ROC as an institution. The Mari woman experienced her shortened, unskilled prayer as efficacious in terms of the sense of satisfaction and purpose it added to an outing to the countryside. The stories of healing at the site and the institutional origin of the text combined to make our unskilled performance the right one for marking the visit as more than a coincidental stop for water. As Mauss points out, part of the social nature of prayer is the public circulation of the texts, which rarely come from individual imagination alone but use culturally available forms to a greater or lesser degree. At the same time, as speech that can be performed by a variety of actors, prayer is relatively more open to situational innovation than other parts of ritual: “More plastic than impersonal gestures, [prayer] has followed the nuances of individual conscience, and, in consequence, leaves the greatest possible liberty to private initiative” (Mauss  1968, 362). While Mauss seems to be thinking primarily of individual modifications to the text, “private initiative” may also involve carrying standardized texts into new performative contexts, thereby allowing new uses and interpretations and new sets of participant roles (Briggs 1988, 356; Irvine 1996). Even for people who rarely participate in the ROC’s core rituals, authorized prayer texts, combined with other portable markers of church-based practice (candles, booklets, crosses), can bring an Orthodox ambiance into places that are formally nonsectarian. Other Maris contested Orthodox claims to sacred springs (Luehrmann 2010, 63), but for Valentina, the markers of the institutional ROC seemed necessary to lift the site out of ordinary existence. Research on Soviet and post-Soviet Christianity has noted that the crisis of competence unsettles established hierarchies of ordained status, gender, and religious training, often leading to the emergence of new performers rather than to the dissolution of traditional forms (Rogers 2009; Wanner 2007). Being alone at the spring with a foreigner emboldened Valentina to initiate a prayer performance in a way that she would not have dared to do in the company of more “churched” acquaintances. As traditional religious skills have become rarer and more unevenly distributed, the felicity conditions of prayer have also shifted and multiplied, ranging from hierarchical and institutional legitimations to a more intuitive set of ideas of what feels “right” in a particular place and time. But even in such intuitive arrangements, reference to Orthodox symbolism plays a role in demonstrating the correct alignment between key participants, as our second example shows. Case 2: Imagining and Enacting Responsibility There are other situations of lay prayer where a particular relationship between the person praying and the person prayed for, along with a good choice of heavenly intercessor, makes up for lack of skill or theological qualification. Saint Xenia the Blessed, a recently canonized widow said to have lived in Saint Petersburg in the eighteenth century, is an intercessor of choice for contemporary urban believers, many of whom learn about her through digital media rather than from their parish priest. The following account of a miracle resulting from a mother’s prayer for her son comes from the idealized realm of internet folklore and illustrates wider assumptions about how Xenia supports her devotee’s practical competence in caring for others. A son was on his military duty in Chechnia in a small military unit located at the edge of a forest close to the capital, Groznyi. It was during the Chechen war. Unexpectedly, his mother came to visit him and his commander gave him a short leave to spend some time with his mother. They talked, and walked and wandered far away; when they returned the unit did not exist anymore. It had been totally destroyed by the Chechens, all the soldiers were killed brutally. The mother left, the son continued his service in another unit. Time passed, and finally he returned home. When sitting at the table, he said: “Mom, if you had not come to visit me, we would not be sitting together now.” “When?” the mother asked. - “You remember, when you came to visit me, and everyone in our military unit was killed.” “No, son, - the mother looked at him in alarm – I never visited you.” No, she did not come. She did not walk with her son in a forest and did not hug him when they parted. This is a true story, as that mother herself told it to a priest. Physically, she had not been to Chechnia, but she prayed. She prayed constantly to Saint Xenia of Petersburg who saved her son due to this mother’s tearful prayers. It was Xenia herself who came to him in the image of his mother and saved him from certain death. (Lavrova 2007) This urban legend was published on an Orthodox website, but variants of the story can be found in cheap booklets for believers and other types of printed media for sale in church shops.5 A concerned mother praying for her son in a situation of uncertainty or danger appears in this story as an ideal-typical casual believer who will pray in times of crisis. The son’s life is saved through devotion to Saint Xenia, whose shrine at the Smolensk Cemetery in Saint Petersburg is a popular pilgrimage destination for modern city dwellers with problems in family or professional life (Kormina and Shtyrkov 2011). As was the case for Valentina and the sacred spring, prayer outside of liturgical or sacramental contexts becomes efficacious through social alignment between participants and a peripheral connection to church practice, in this case a canonized saint rather than an authorized text. In ritual practice cross-culturally, actions that are markedly different from everyday life, such as prayer in an archaic language addressed to temporally remote beings, help to forge a link between earthly social relations and forces beyond human society (Keane 1997). But thanks to modern technology such as print and digital media, this example of intercession almost completely circumvents priestly mediation, while affirming and strengthening Orthodox Christianity as a default source of sacred power even for relatively unchurched residents of Russia. The text about the mother’s prayer exemplifies the media strategies with which the ROC and its congregants respond to its prominent, but tenuous position. The miracle story was published in the online Orthodox daily “Pravoslavie i mir” (Orthodoxy and the World), which aims to tell its readers “how to be an Orthodox person today.” Through this kind of internet outreach the Church seeks to turn zakhozhane into more committed churchgoers but also adapts to their habits. Many more people visit Orthodox websites and online forums than regularly attend church (Ponomariov 2016), and Xenia appeals to this group of people and their everyday concerns. Committed churchgoers intentionally use social media to connect to this casual group of devotees, as does Maria, a young believer and habitual visitor to the chapel of Xenia whom Jeanne Kormina met during research there. Maria came to Saint Petersburg from her native town in the Altai region to study at the university. Her dormitory is walking distance from the chapel that she visits several times a week. Similar to the majority of young people in Russia, Maria uses social media for maintaining connections with old friends and reaching out to new acquaintances. As she explains, until recently she did not discuss her religiosity or any religious matters in her social media accounts, such as Vkontakte (the Russian equivalent of Facebook), WhatsApp, and Twitter. When she did “come out” as an Orthodox believer, she received many contact requests from previously unknown women and men of all ages. One day, before the church celebration of Saint Xenia on February 6, she decided to invite her social media friends to send her letters with requests and prayers to this saint. She collected some 3,000 names of people to be prayed for and many personal stories with requests to Saint Xenia for help. Maria printed out the letters and took them to the shrine, as people believe that Xenia can “read” these letters and pray for the people who wrote them. Taking on a role of intermediary usually reserved for clergy, Maria helped people’s prayers reach the famously compassionate saint. As a career after graduation, she plans to create an online platform for collecting prayer requests to be sent to the most popular holy places in Russia, including Xenia’s shrine. Both the story about the soldier’s mother and Maria’s real-life use of online social media underscore the value of relationality in prayer. But where online folklore celebrates intrinsic kinship connections, Maria’s internet campaign was premised on using the medium itself to connect people to one another and a sacred place. What prompted people to send their requests to a near-stranger? By identifying as a young Orthodox woman living in Saint Petersburg and posting the offer in advance of the day on which the ROC commemorates Saint Xenia, Maria proved herself competent in two senses of the term: knowledgeable of church protocols and practically able to take charge of the prayers entrusted to her by virtue of her physical proximity to the shrine and devotion to Orthodox lifeways. The success of Maria’s initiative suggests how a layered structure of intercession helps cope with the crisis of performative competence. The actual performance of the prayer is deferred to the priests (who will read out the names collected during liturgical services) or the saint (whose prayers will convey the concerns of those who wrote her letters), while individual religious entrepreneurs take responsibility for offering access to the right channels of prayer. Although Maria is a committed churchgoer, she did not ask permission from her priest for this outreach initiative to acquaintances with less access to their favored saint. Both Maria and the soldier’s mother used existing social relationships to act on behalf of relatively less “competent” kin and acquaintances, combining “marked” and “unmarked” Orthodox media (Engelhardt 2018) to reach out across geographic and social distances. Through prayers to Xenia, known for her compassion for those on the margins of church and society, or through the recitation of an akathistos as a form that is flexible in place and time, Maria, the mother, and Valentina take advantage of the forms of lay-oriented, situational prayers that are sanctioned by the institutional church but carry Orthodox practice beyond its boundaries. PRAYER AS SKILL AND GIFT Prayer at the shrine of Saint Xenia is often about concrete purposes, such as finding or retaining a spouse, obtaining an apartment, or passing exams (Kormina and Shtyrkov 2011, 2012). The failed akathistos recitation at the sacred spring, by contrast, did not have any stated goal other than a personal sense of satisfaction. For Valentina as well as Maria and her social media network, the “rightness” (Engelhardt 2014) or felicity of prayer is about more than just results, in part because such results are rarely as evident as a soldier’s saved life. In both cases, the intersubjective aesthetic experience of carrying out (or attempting) the right actions in the right place at the right time on behalf of the right people is as important for establishing the sense of rightness as the palpable confirmation of an “answered” prayer request. As Andreas Bandak and Tom Boylston note (Bandak and Boylston 2014), the “ortho-” in orthodoxy contains just such a sense of mystery and deferral of judgment to God within an overall expectation of deference to church authority and justification in terms of the discursive tradition of the Church fathers. Even casual zakhozhane search for pathways of mediation that are institutionally and aesthetically grounded in Orthodox protocols, while offering flexibility in matching them with other priorities. This search fuels an economy of spiritual services in which hierarchies of skill and institutional recognition intersect with the open-endedness of lived social relations. Popular interpretations of how prayer works underscore its status as a practice that is embedded in social hierarchies and generates new ones. First is the idea that prayer is a learnable skill. Russian Orthodox Christians often speak about prayer as something that certain people are better at than others and that can be perfected through practice. “God hears their prayers faster” or “whatever he asks, God will grant it” is a judgment one can hear about priests and monastics who are known as skilled in prayer (molitvenniki). In the highly literate culture of post-Soviet Russia, books with instructions on how to improve in prayer sold in church stalls confirm that prayer needs practice but also suggest that mastering its skills is theoretically open to all. Prayer skills involve knowing Church Slavonic and recitation techniques, as well as being able to make judgments about the right text, place, and time to address the saint who is competent in solving a particular problem. These elements can come together more or less perfectly, but still produce the sense of satisfaction expressed by Valentina after the relatively unskilled performance of the akathistos. This emphasis on satisfying prayer as the result of a learning process recalls the experience of middle-class Muslim women in Iran who simultaneously cultivate recitation skills and inner focus and receptivity (Haeri 2013). But when it comes to interceding for oneself or others, right prayer is about more than just cultivating the self and its ethical sensibilities (cf. Hirschkind 2006; Mahmood 2005; Luhrmann 2012). The notion of practical competence is closer to phenomenologically inspired anthropological work on skill, where doing things right means calibrating one’s embodied habits and possibilities to the correct time, place, and social setting of an activity (Ingold 2000). Paying attention to where, when, and with whom to pray as well as with what words and internal disposition is learned behavior, but mastery is never guaranteed. In a folk theological interpretation that exists alongside that of prayer as skill, moments of fulfillment that cannot be explained by mere practice are thought of as charismatic gifts (Naumescu 2012). These may come and go unexpectedly (in moments of distress or deep involvement) or be inherent in a person (a monk famed for prayer) or a social position (a priest, a mother). When understood as a charismatic gift, adepts and their observers explain the experience of efficacious prayer as coming from outside the subject (Mittermaier 2012). In the Orthodox perspective, satisfying prayer can never be fully explained by the skill level of the person praying or from his or her connections to other people, but requires an external source. The source of charisma lies outside the temporally restricted realm of the social that Durkheim and Mauss would have recognized as the legitimate field of investigation of the social sciences and is often known as “grace” (blagodat’) in Orthodox discourse, a quality of connectedness to the divine that can be found in people, places, and things (Shevzov 2004). In the stories about Saint Xenia, one can see the contrast between efficacious prayer as pure charisma and the mix of skill, social position, and divine affirmation that is involved in practical competence. The story about the mother’s mysterious appearance in Chechnia is one of many elaborations on the Russian proverb “A mother’s prayer reaches to the bottom of the ocean,” celebrating the power inherent in a mother’s requests on behalf of her child. It is also an illustration of the forces that can be invoked and mobilized by prayer once human-to-human social networking has failed. Many Russian parents draw on social connections to avoid their son being drafted into the army or, if he is drafted, being sent to a “hot spot” where recruits take part in active combat (Oushakine 2009). The mother in this story may have exhausted the connections available to her or never tried to use them, but she knows which saint to choose as a vehicle for her concerns. Besides this apt choice, we learn nothing about her level of performative skill or training in Orthodox prayer protocols. We do learn that her prayer was motivated by deep emotion (“tearful”), and that it was successful not only in saving her son, but in binding him to her in gratitude. As an exemplary tale, the story makes the point that efficacious prayer is a gift from God, often bypassing institutional markers of spiritual as well as social merit, but responding to familiar patterns of “making do” and exercising responsibility among kin. By contrast, Maria has little or no preexisting relationship to those whose prayer requests she collects; she offers to create such a relationship for the express purpose of transmitting requests to the saint. The resonance found by her offer is founded on her assumed know-how as a frequent visitor to Xenia’s shrine, but also on a kind of ambient normalization of Orthodox sensibilities: like prayer cards in English cathedrals and North American hospital chapels, Maria’s call for prayer requests prompted her social media friends to frame life’s concerns in terms of appeals to nonhuman forces, helping to maintain a Christian heritage as an unobtrusive and often unremarked presence in everyday life (ap Siôn 2015, 173; Cadge 2013). Both the idea of prayer as learnable skill and as charismatic gift provide foundations for thinking of prayers as unequal: God does not give the gift of focused, heart-filling prayer to everyone, and it does not come on demand. It is both the result of long and persistent practice and an unpredictable occurrence that responds to need more than ability. Like Catholic or evangelical Christians embarking on spiritual exercises, Orthodox faithful are encouraged to think of prayer as something they might get better at over time (Luhrmann 2012). But they are also warned that expecting automatic results can lead to a state of prideful self-delusion (prelest’) in which demons can easily possess a person’s soul (Noble 2005). At the same time, the exercise of practical competence through prayer contains an element of self-assertion and a claim to equality: people can take charge of the needs of others through a variety of mechanisms, sometimes creating new relationships as well as giving new strength to existing ones. The complex interplay of skilled, learned performance, divinely inspired charisma, and taking charge echoes observations scholars have made about Pentecostal prayer. In these communities, too, prayer techniques are perfected through intense practice, which may involve speaking in tongues for hours or wrestling with demons and evil forces (O’Neill 2010; Haynes 2017). Through processes of “spiritual body building,” as Simon Coleman (2000) calls them, believers seek to increase in themselves the qualities that draw spiritual gifts, cultivating a spirit of surrender to divine intervention at the same time as they see themselves as warriors on behalf of others. One of Kormina’s informants was such a spiritual body builder without being a regular churchgoer: Vera, who worked as a cleaner in a bank, was often asked by her superiors to pray for them when she visited sacred sites. She also interpreted dreams for them and advised them on which saints to pray to. Comparable to some ethnographers’ interpretations of Pentecostal spirituality, Vera’s prayers give her authority but also come from a relatively marginalized position (Meyer 1999; Comaroff and Comaroff 2000). Prayer here seems to be an alternative kind of social action, a last resort for people who have limited opportunities to influence political and social processes. In the case of the soldier’s mother, her prayers save her son, but the other recruits in the battalion still die, and the war continues on. Different from its Pentecostal counterparts, however, Orthodox Christian prayer rarely involves bold claims of change and spiritual victory, perhaps because it is based on a less confrontational, more harmonic view of the relationship between the physical-social world and the divinely ordained order (Stewart 1991; Wanner 2014). Rather than attempting to change a hostile reality, Orthodox intercessions are an intrinsic part of carrying out responsibilities of care within that reality and deriving authority from responsibilities that few women have a choice to refuse (Kizenko 2013). The social is present in these prayers neither as an abstract notion of common good nor as a field of outreach and intervention, but as culturally and politically validated interpersonal relationships. Rather than appealing to ideas of religiously infused citizenship, Orthodox prayers represent the social as constituted through concrete responsibilities and dependencies. Manipulating the interplay between responsibility and dependency by sending prayer concerns through various levels of delegation is a core aspect of practical competence for Orthodox zakhozhane and a driving force behind their interactions with the institutional church. DELEGATION AND MATERIALITY As noted in the beginning, a crucial aspect of what makes prayer social is that it can be subject to division of labor between multiple participants, thereby connecting the particular concerns of individuals and kin groups to larger institutions and historical traditions. In Russian Orthodox Christianity, delegating prayer to others deemed more skilled and experienced or more endowed with divine grace is a popular way of dealing with the crisis of performative competence. Assumptions about the unequal abilities of different people when it comes to prayer, but also about the ability of particular objects and places to act as conduits of grace, fuel a great part of lay engagement with the ROC, on the fringes or outside of sacramental participation. One way in which the ROC responds to the relational prayer practices of zakhozhane is to offer specialized prayer services (molebny) in addition to the traditional morning and evening services and Sunday or festival masses. Often conducted in front of icons with special competence in addressing particular modern problems such as alcoholism and addiction, cancer, or abortions, these services are priest-led and attended by those afflicted or by relatives of those too busy, sick, or religiously indifferent to attend (Kizenko 2013; Luehrmann 2016). Especially when it comes to alcoholism and addiction, the assumed gendering of those praying and those prayed for is often quite explicit. At one prayer to the icon of Mary “Cup that Cannot Be Emptied” on March 8 (International Women’s Day) in the Republic of Marii El, the priest preached about the dangerous tendency of churchgoing women to see themselves as spiritually superior to less pious, alcohol-consuming relatives. Though women are acknowledged as ritual specialists, their active involvement becomes problematic to the church hierarchy when it is perceived to repel men. As an alternative even more detached from liturgical participation, remote relationships of intercession are available in commodified form, turning religious specialists into paid service providers. Orthodox expos are shows of material and spiritual goods, held in many Russian cities at the time of Orthodox festivals. Stalls sell various goods (candles, icons, oil, etc.) produced or blessed at holy places, such as Mount Athos in Greece and other monasteries. One of these goods is prayer. Visitors to an expo can order prayer to be performed in a place of their choice. An advertisement of the “prayer services” at an Orthodox fair at Saint Petersburg said: “Brothers and sisters! Order liturgy to be served on the Holy Mountain of Athos by the Russian monks who pray by the light of candles. The liturgy is served at night. It follows the strict Athos order. A whole family lineage can be prayed out on the Athos (Na Afone vymalivaetsia rod). It is good to order [the liturgy] for deceased relatives” (Kormina fieldnotes, February 2014). As a seller at the next stand explained respectfully, the monks on Athos devote all their time to prayer, with a single-mindedness that is not accessible to contemporary urban dwellers. This long-lasting practice in prayer removed from the distractions of social life makes them especially good molitvenniki, embodying the skill that comes with long practice as well as the charisma of a place known as remote and mysterious whose spiritual tradition was not interrupted by the socialist era. Comparable to rituals in post-Soviet Buddhism and practices drawing on New Age and popular psychology (Bernstein 2013; Leykin 2015), the idea of “praying out the lineage” is a way of extending spiritual care to relatives who lived and died during the Soviet period without receiving proper rites. The ROC does not support the idea of “kinship curses” that circulates among post-Soviet practitioners of magic, where “a disturbance … affects the health and well-being of the victim and her loved ones, that comes from the past and steers the present into an inevitable disaster” (Lindquist 2006, 62). But it does recognize an opportunity to encourage prayer in the care of relatives who died without baptism or, more commonly, without proper last rites. Again, motherhood and fertility become privileged sites of spiritual renewal of the family line. “Can a woman five months gone with a child pray out the kin by praying in the morning and in the evening and taking Eucharist weekly?” asks Alexander from the village of Polonnoe (Ukraine) in a forum titled “Questions to a priest” on the website “Tatianin den’” (Saint Tatiana’s day).6 The priest wisely explains that there is not one protocol that fits everyone, but that prayer is always a good idea. Echoing developments in twentieth-century Buddhism (Gombrich and Obeyesekere 1988), Orthodox expos and other ways of creating a market for intercessory prayer put a new twist on a long history of economic and moral complementarity between monastic and lay populations, commodifying the image of otherworldly purity. This creates economic sustenance for the monasteries while making it possible for lay people to live their worldly lives relatively unencumbered by the time-consuming obligations of prayer. For different reasons and with appeals to slightly different types of believers, both parish-based specialized prayer services and opportunities to purchase prayers at a distance are important institutional “edges” where the ROC leans into the lives of contemporary Russians. At all levels of delegation—to icons and monastics as well as to priests and saints—ideas about prayer as skill and divine charisma come together in valorizing some prayers over others. Monastic elders are religious virtuosi by long practice and through the unexplainable gift of knowing the future and the spiritual state of those who come to them (Paert 2010; Kormina 2013). The akathistos to Saint Xenia calls her “skilled in prayer (molitvennitsa) who prays for our souls” (Akafist 2010, 160–72). In comparison, the skill and emotional involvement of those sponsoring the prayers recede in importance. It is perhaps his inability to appreciate the crucial role of delegation—both through material objects and division of labor among persons—that kept Mauss from fully showing the social nature of prayer. Mauss sees only degeneration in the transformation of prayer into the material forms of “small chapel, prayer tree, prayer mill, amulet, phylacteries, mezuzoth, medallion, or ex voto” (Mauss  1968, 365). However, the possibility of such materialization (as a final form of which one might add money) is a crucial way for prayer to move between unskilled sponsors and specialized religious virtuosi, sustaining and creating social connections. To conclude, we discuss the role of such a material and relational notion of prayer for understanding both its social nature and its place in casual, postsecular religiosity. CONCLUSION: UNEQUAL PRAYER AND AMBIENT FAITH Because it moves between individual and collective practice and connects them in variable ways, Marcel Mauss considers prayer to be a privileged site of religious innovation. In modern times, he observes, the movement of innovation has been from collective to increasingly individualized practice, to the point where “one sees the ancient collective prayer, mechanical and immutable, obligatory for recitation, become, thanks to the poetic qualities ascribed to it, just another means of expression of the individual soul” (Mauss  1968, 365). An analysis of contemporary Orthodox prayer supports this view up to a point: for many believers raised in secular families, searching out canonically sanctioned texts, charismatic intercessors, and remote pilgrimage destinations is part of a modern, event-centered religiosity that privileges extraordinary experiences over routine repetition (Hervieu-Léger 1997). At the same time, laypeople who court the romance of ancient practice rarely do so as isolated individuals. Rather, they are often motivated by a gendered sense of responsibility for relationships that bind them to others as (grand)mothers, spouses, and children, and by an understanding of national history that makes a turn to the Orthodox Church seem a less marked form of exoticism than, for example, initiation into ancient Indian spirituality. The Russian Orthodox case helps to question several of the assumptions underlying Mauss’s approach to prayer, some of which endure in contemporary scholarship. Though most scholars today would reject the teleological thinking behind Mauss’s assertion that prayer evolves from collective and ritualized to individual and spontaneous forms, much ethnographic research on prayer focuses on people who pray in person, either alone or collectively. The Orthodox Christian emphasis on hierarchy in prayer centers the view on delegation and sharing as core features that make an activity social. This changes both our view of what counts as prayer—bringing back the ex-votos, prayer mills, and stones—and why it matters in contemporary society. In Russia as elsewhere, few people have the luxury to approach prayer purely as a means of self-expression, self-discovery, or self-improvement. They do have a deep interest in it as a means of securing the temporal and eternal well-being of family and loved ones, and their own standing as responsible family members. The will to do right by one’s loved ones ties the choices of casual believers back to religious institutions that provide the means of successful intercession, but also provides points of connection to national political projects that promote conservative family values. For an institution such as the ROC, this means that what at the center looks like an inert religious monopoly with minimal sacramental participation appears much livelier along its edges, where the ambient presence of Orthodox aesthetics stabilizes a frayed social fabric. Contemporary Orthodox prayer is thus neither a bastion of ancient communalism nor an expression of individual spiritual quests. Rather, it is a site of social as well as religious innovation, where cultural familiarity allows casual believers to exercise familiar care roles in extended ways. For our understanding of lay spiritual practice, the implication is that prayer is not just any social activity that can be shared, such as tilling a field or assembling a car. Prayerful competence plays a relatively marginal role in many people’s lives precisely because the human-to-human division of labor is generally sufficient to accomplish most tasks. But where needed, prayer can mend social gaps, tying what would otherwise be isolated and idiosyncratic pursuits back into a common web of meanings that are ambient by their cultural resonance but extraordinary by their supernatural referents. Ties that have become weak and sporadic can be revived through prayer, at least in the imagination of the intercessor. In today’s Russia, where winners and losers of social and economic transformation often seem very starkly delineated, expertise in prayer remains accessible to relatively marginalized people, such as women and rural or poor people. Through the lens of intercessory prayer, church and society in Russia look less static in their hierarchies than they would in a sociology where prayer is absent. 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Footnotes 1 Other explanations why Mauss never defended the thesis include his difficult relationship with his uncle and academic mentor, Emile Durkheim (Pickering 2003), and the paradigm shift away from evolutionist armchair anthropology toward fieldwork-based functionalist analysis, which generated new evidence that undermined Mauss’s initial arguments (Morphy 2003). 2 On the general problem of studying the “non” of nonreligion ethnographically, see Engelke 2015. 3 A telling example of the extent and limits of the influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia’s public sphere is the introduction of religious education into the school curriculum. Since 2012, “Foundations of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics” is taught once a week for one year in the elementary school curriculum as an additional subject without exams. Parents have a choice between different modules, including Foundations of Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and a secular ethical perspective. Russian regions differ greatly in terms of how the parents of fourth-grade pupils make their choice. In 2013, 20 percent decided in favor of the module “Foundations of Orthodox Culture” in Moscow compared to 63 percent in the Southern Federal Region and 16 percent in the Urals Federal Region. Secular ethics was the most popular module, followed by Orthodoxy and Islam (Interfaks-Religiia 2014; see also Köllner 2016). 4 See Pop 2018 for a case where difficulties experienced by an adult son caused a period of intense prayer, confession, and communion for a Romanian Orthodox woman. 5 See the more detailed analysis of this miracle in Shtyrkov 2011, 284–85. 6 Message dated December 21, 2009, http://archive.taday.ru/vopros/20285/246601.html, accessed December 17, 2015. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com. 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Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 17, 2017
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