Prayer on the cutting edge

posted by Mike on January 23rd, 2006

Karen Marie wrote:

My favorite prayer tool is a little tabloid called “2006 Milwaukee Archdiocesan Directory”. Twenty five-column pages of a long list of names and places. I’ve been caught by others with it a few times, and tried to explain how a long list of names becomes prayer. Not very effectively.

She later clarified what she meant, but not before speculation ran wild.

Michael Paulukonis thinks praying from a list of churches is a sort of Emmett Williams move, “arte povera as it intersects with Fluxus.”

Adam Villani thinks it’s not quite Warhol: “Warholian prayer would involve meditating on a picture of a single person.”

In his “screen tests,” Warhol filmed a person’s face for three minutes, and the result is surprising. The person’s initial expression disappears, and a series of “real” faces are revealed. Perhaps Warholian prayer would involve meditating on a film of a person’s face, rather than a photo (or the traditional icon).

Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls” is a spin on this same idea: watch people interacting with each other and the camera long enough, and the masks will fade, and you’ll see how people contruct and don their masks. It’s a trick to capture this in a portrait or photo, but anyone can do it with a videocamera by just waiting.

(The idea of Warholian prayer appeals to me because he was a bad Catholic too.)

My atheist brother calls Karen Marie’s prayer “a surrealist kind of technique, the kind that Andre Breton would’ve loved–he, of course, would explain the results through the unconscious and stuff rather than the hand of God, but the basic approach is the same. It’s also similar to some of the Oulipo folks, who were to some degree latter-day surrealists.”

The Oulipo comparison seems apt. One can imagine Georges Perec, who once wrote a novel without using the letter “e,” challenging a fellow writer to “write a short story in the form of a diocesan directory,” and likewise challenging a contemplative to “pray using a diocesan directory as your text.”

Using this technique would be quite similar to the artist’s creative process. Both the artist and contemplative are focused and engaged. But while the artist can point to the completed artwork to justify the activity, the contemplative has nothing exterior to show for it.

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2 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On January 24, 2006 at 11:14 xradiographer said:

    I disagree with the characterisation of Oulipo as “latter-day surrealists.” The Oulipo consciously-chosen constrained and generative techniques are nearly diametrically opposed to the surrealists’ subconscious chance collisions.

    Not that this gets us anywhere towards a new theory of prayer.

    The Dada-surrealist technique would be to pick up a book that you are familiar with (either, say, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake [if you’re Robert Motherwell] or the 2006 Milwaukee Archdiocesan Directory [if you’re Karen Marie]) and let it fall open at random, then plunge your finger onto the page “randomly.” Now, meditate upon the resulting selection as guided by your unconscious.

  2. On January 24, 2006 at 13:19 Mark Benedetti said:

    True, which is why I qualified it with “to some degree,” mainly in that their rationales weren’t the same for their methods, but their sense of play and spontaneity were similar–the carefully crafted formal procedures were nonetheless intended to release a certain kind of “newness,” not a rationalized, predictable outcome.

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