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Domestic Churches: Digital Worship and Homemade Rituals among Rum Orthodox

Domestic Churches: Digital Worship and Homemade Rituals among Rum Orthodox
By Roxana Maria Arăş (arasroxanamaria@gmail.com/aroxana@umich.edu)

Keywords: Orthodoxy, Arab Christianity, Lebanon, liturgy, digital, materiality, pandemic

RA.Live Facebook-uitzending van 2020 vastengebeden. RA.Live Facebook-uitzending van 2020 vastengebeden.

On February 21, 2020, Lebanon registered its first known case of COVID-19. On March 2, Orthodox practitioners around the world entered the penitent and introspective period of the Great Lent. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Soon after, a nationwide state of general mobilization was decreed in Lebanon. In mid-March, the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Beirut announced the suspension of all in-person social and religious activities, including the Sunday liturgy. Online streaming alternatives were introduced, with priests leading the liturgical program for Lent and Easter alone or alongside chanters (murattilun) and altar caretakers.

This overlap between the liturgical calendar and the critical period of the pandemic sparked a series of debates within the Rum Orthodox community in Beirut, where I was conducting fieldwork as part of my doctoral studies.[1] Negotiations on “correct” liturgical practice mixed with debates on infection rates and the effectiveness of public health guidelines. While the use of online media in the Antiochian Orthodox Church was not new, the fast-paced changes during the pandemic provided a unique ethnographic perspective on religious and social (re)configurations that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. Drawing from online interviews and immersive participation in digital religious practices, this article offers some insights into how Rum practitioners sensed and made sense of digital liturgies broadcasted in their homes amid a period of social stagnation. Here, I approach the online sphere in relation to domestic environments and to churches as traditional spaces of communal worship. Also, analyzing digital religious practices requires an engagement with the theological, sensorial, and material registers of the Orthodox liturgy. An exclusive focus on digital technologies and their potential to facilitate human-divine encounters would overlook the creative potential and limitations of the Orthodox tradition.

Forms of Engagement and Disengagement

As a central collective ritual in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the divine liturgy is predicated on sensory regimes and objects of devotion that have been shaped through centuries of practice. Bodies in motion follow recognizable liturgical rhythms, voices bring to life liturgical texts, and objects carry ritual meaning in a choreographed event where the divine descends and the human is elevated. However, within the social and technological landscapes of the pandemic, these embodied experiences were significantly altered. Audio-visual footage of liturgies, livestreamed via cellphones on tripods, displayed a uniform imagery featuring close-ups of the iconostasis and royal doors (bab al-mulki). The footage displayed an ideal liturgical engagement: focused attention on the altar and total immersion in liturgical soundscapes. Meanwhile, homes became spaces of individual improvisations, where creativity and necessity mixed with a deep commitment to Orthodox ‘correct practice.’

Roxana Aras. wierook. @Creative Commons

Consider the case of Salwa, a Rum practitioner from Beirut. In our WhatsApp conversation discussing her experience of observing Lent during the pandemic, she stated,

Today I was very sad because it is Lazarus Saturday (sabt Lazar). We wanted to go [to church] since it is a celebratory liturgy. So what I did, I put the liturgy but I could not manage to follow the salat al-sahar (orthros) from the beginning. Don’t think that I am a saint. Allah yerhamni (God have mercy on me). But I tried. For John [her youngest son], I put holy water and holy oil that I brought from Romania, from a monastery. I have many types. I burnt bakhur (incense) and incensed the house so I felt I created jaw el-ʿid (an atmosphere of celebration). I continued with the entire liturgy while doing my chores and the mobile phone was with me. I was moving around as I was chanting. It was rewarding. I did not feel that I had a temptation, nushkur Allah (thanks God). (Salwa, WhatsApp interview by author, April 11, 2020).

Salwa contrasted her experience with the spiritual proficiency of the saints. She stressed that her prayer was a way of gradually shaping her mindset and mood for worship. Achieving these was predicated on creating jaw el-ʿid or what is canonically deemed an atmosphere of celebration. This atmosphere was cultivated sensorially and materially, as she appealed to religious ‘things’ that are integral to Orthodox worship. However, achieving jaw el-ʿid did not exclude attending to domestic responsibilities. Devotional rhythms mixed with household chores as the mobile phone allowed her to move around the house without constraints. Her physical presence in church was replaced by a mobility of the liturgy, where it was not Salwa who went to church but the liturgy that ‘followed’ her around the house.

Lazarus Saturday, observed just before Palm Sunday in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, centers on the miraculous resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany, as recounted in the Gospel of John, 11:1–44. Paradoxically, what is missing from Salwa’s narrative is her physical involvement in the prescribed movements of the liturgy. The aspiration for a synchronized collective participation in the liturgy receded and made way for an individual engagement in household chores. Nevertheless, the echoes of a disciplined religious self lingered on, with dispositions ingrained in the body reviving like Lazarus every time she had the chance to attend the liturgy in person. Salwa’s sensitivity to the sensory and material features of Orthodox practice was not episodic or circumstantial; rather, it was predicated on her prior formation as an Orthodox practitioner. For instance, she would often draw on her experience as church chanter (murattila) to channel her visual, aural, and olfactive sensibilities towards worship at home. In other words, online accessibility and physical isolation spurred innovative forms of digital worship for my interlocutors. Yet, these forms were negotiated with deference to clerical authority and standards of liturgical practice.

Roxana Aras. Saint Elias Btina Church1 Beirut. July 2022. Archive of the author     Roxana Aras. Saint Elias Btina Church Beirut. July 2022. Archive of the author
Saint Elias Btina Church Beirut. July 2022. Archive of the author

They were also experienced in relation to the larger realities that people inhabit. For Salwa, celebrating sabt Lazar was relational to her son, John, whom she taught how to pray. It was also relational to a world turned upside down. Her homemade rituals were a means to seek the familiar and expand her potential of action amid precarious socio-economic and medical conditions in the country. At the time I conducted my research, there was no prospect of a vaccine in sight. A severe economic and financial crisis increased social inequalities and moral uncertainties. The costs of food and essential items surged, and the lack of basic public services made it difficult for people to follow public health recommendations of isolation. Together, these religious, medical, and social dimensions speak to the in-betweenness of human existence, relational to God, nature, and social others.

Salwa’s remarks on creating and embodying jaw el-ʿid also hint at the potential of rituals to go wrong. Take the example of Johnny, another Rum parishioner from Beirut. Upon me asking about his home-based Lenten practice, he replied,

J: I lived it at home but not properly. Once, you know what I did? While abuna was praying, I displayed the icons at home. I lit a candle. I brought a cup of wine and I put it with the bread next to the icons and next to the phone where abuna was praying . . . maybe, maybe, they will be blessed. Then I gave myself communion. [chuckles]. [ . . . ] I thought that maybe the Holy Spirit will descend on them since they are present next to abuna’s words of consecration. I took a photo and sent it to abuna. He said that it does not work [like that], but I did it. [ . . . ]

R: What did you feel?

J: Of course, I did not feel it [the communion]. There was noise and there were cars everywhere, and Maria [his daughter] shouting around wanting to watch TV. You cannot, one needs peace in order to live it. (Johnny, in-person interview by author, June 6, 2020).

Johnny was an involved member of his parish and part of the church committee (majlis al-kanisa). Yet, in his isolation at home, the commotion of everyday life was an obstacle for his prayerful moods. Electricity shortages, the noisy neighborhood, and the attention required by his daughter hindered his immersion in jaw es-sala (atmosphere of prayer). Similar to Salwa’s case, the success of (re)creating this jaw was dependent on relational and sensorial factors. It was relational to instituted patterns of Orthodox devotional life and to widespread pandemic regulations. For instance, Johnny could not fully immerse in a mood of prayer without seeing the iconostasis. For him, looking at the iconostasis was not just an act of seeing but an act of worship, where the act of looking is a form of submission to the gaze of God and the saints.

Roxana Aras. Archangels Michael and Gabriel Church Mazraa Beirut. April 2023. Archive of the authorArchangels Michael and Gabriel Church Mazraa Beirut. April 2023. 
Archive of the author Roxana Aras.

Moreover, his reply reflects an intense sensibility to the materiality of communion and the physical act of consuming it. At the heart of Orthodoxy, the church sacraments (al-asrar al-kanasiyya) are institutionalized formats of God-human encounters, where believers apprehend divine revelation through regulated communal worship and embodied ways of knowing. In other words, the Eucharist has a hands-on character, where the mystery is not something to be debated, but physically engaged with. Prescriptive actions, objects, and ritual hierarchies are all part of a dialogical performance that culminates in consuming the mystical body of Christ. Ingesting sacred matter is not an act foreign to Christian history and sensorial practice, yet the Eucharist is the epitome of bodily engagement as those who commune incorporate Christ and are incorporated into the body of Christ. When this intense habit was unavailable, negotiations like Johnny’s ensued.

Roxana Aras. Saint Nicholas Church - Achrafieh Beirut. Archive of the author. klein (2)Saint Nicholas Church - Achrafieh Beirut. Archive of the author Roxana Aras.

For Johnny, not taking communion felt like a physical lack that he was ready to fill through ‘unorthodox’ means. On his homemade altar, he displayed the gifts to be consecrated in the hope of a digitally mediated transfiguration. Yet, merely replicating liturgical objects and assuming prayer postures were not enough. Abuna’s reply of impossibility invoked authorized divisions of religious labor for ritual effectiveness. For instance, once the gifts are consecrated, only a priest can handle them, him being the first and last to commune. Johnny’s efforts to replicate this sacrament at home introduced a context where domestic materials posed a risk to authorized liturgical ritual. This compelled practitioners like Johnny to push the limits of what counts as right practice, and clerics like abuna Boulos to intervene and mitigate against this risk. However, Johnny’s actions were not intended as an anti-clerical statement or a departure from church canons. Even though creative in his worship, Johnny deferred to the authority of the priest for approval or, better said, for confirmation of what he already knew––namely the unavailability of long-distance communion.

These examples are not necessarily meant to highlight particular individual stories, but rather to underscore the dynamic relation between individual creativity and church canons within Antiochian Orthodoxy as an institutional tradition. The shift from communal worship settings to remote media platforms allowed for some degree of innovation that pushed the limits of centrally controlled Orthodoxy, yet did not necessarily undercut religious authority. Furthermore, countering arguments about the disembodied nature of online worship, my interlocutors’ religious practice remained anchored in authorized prayer formats and religious objects. These were reinforced by familiar repertoires of worship that dictated possibilities of praying in the right way, even from home.

Roxana Aras. Archangels Michael and Gabriel Church Mazraa Beirut. April 2021. Archive of the author (002) Archangels Michael and Gabriel Church Mazraa Beirut. April 2021.
Archive of the author

[1] The term ‘Rum’ is derived from the Arabic word al-rum meaning ‘Roman.’ It was used to denote Christians under the Eastern Roman (or what came to be known as the Byzantine) Empire, and it later referenced an Ottoman millet. Today, “Rum” refers to the Arab-speaking Christians who fall under the authority and guidance of the Rum Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, located in Damascus, Syria.