It took a while before my academic training in Religious Studies stopped getting the best of me. I decided early on in my doctoral studies that I wanted to do ethnographic fieldwork in a religious community, and I left for my fieldsite at the Csíksomlyó Catholic shrine to the Virgin Mary in the Transylvania region of Romania with a research proposal filled with questions about the everyday experience of asking for Mary’s intercessory help.[1] What can devotees expect from the Mother of God, I wondered, after their daily lives were scrambled by the fall of socialism in 1989? But from the get-go, my fieldwork was hindered by assumptions I had picked up over years of studying Protestant theology in a series of Religious Studies departments. In particular, I harbored a very Protestant conviction that answering the questions in my fieldwork proposal meant I had to find devotees offering personal petitions for specific things. I eventually met devotees who felt comfortable speaking with Mary in these terms. But initially, and to my frustration, my acquaintances who identified themselves as devotees seemed only to be saying the Rosary. Catholics in this ethnic Hungarian minority region in Romania seemed never to depart from these proscribed and memorized prayers. If they offered petitions, it was for the repentance of the Hungarian nation, for the leaders of the Catholic Church, for families in general (never their own), and so on. Where were, I worried, the prayers for a brother-in-law’s right eye injured at work, a mother’s dementia, a grandchild’s lingering pneumonia, or even one’s own suffering? Where was the religious healing I was looking for?

One winter evening in early 2011, I felt the metal bannister shake in my hand as I climbed through the chilly stairway of a socialist-era poured-concrete Romanian apartment block in the urban county seat of Miercurea Ciuc, a city whose new and highly sought-after suburban housing developments are quickly encroaching on the nearby Csíksomlyó pilgrimage site. I was early for that evening’s Rosary session, but three of the fifteen or so participants had already arrived and I discovered them chatting amongst themselves when I stepped into my acquaintance’s living room. I listened for a few minutes as an older woman discussed difficulties surrounding her daughter’s recent hospitalization. The daughter had emigrated to Hungary looking for work, one of a wave of young migrants so large that nearly every family I met at Csíksomlyó was now trying to figure out how to sustain family reciprocities across newly expanding geographic and social spaces. The breakdown of the village family economy during the process of collectivizing rural property, the rise of urban industrial production, its collapse after the fall of socialism and privatization in the 1990s, and then transnational labor migration had resulted in growing disparities of wealth among close family members that ramified outward to severely complicate the ways that people showed respect and fulfilled expectations toward one another. Who should take care of ailing and aging parents? Which city-dwelling sibling should round up labor to bring in the harvest for a rural parent’s sustenance? How does a cousin show respect when he can’t make it to a wedding because he is picking vegetables in Switzerland?

My acquaintance in the prayer group had just returned from an extended visit to help with her daughter’s post-hospitalization care. While we waited, the mother shared the details about her daughter’s condition, but she gave up after several false starts, complaining of the incomprehensible orvosi nyelv, or “doctor speak.” She concluded her description by saying, “What should I do,” (mit csináljak), which was less a question to be answered than a way of underscoring her sense of frustration about the professionalization of medicine and the roadblocks that stalled her attempts to give something meaningful to her daughter. One minute more, and the leader announced the start of the formal session. The conversations died down as we lifted the Rosaries to our lips. We kissed—all together but not quite at the same time—Jesus’ crucified, broken, and pained body, which then came to rest in our laps or waive in front of us as we moved our fingers from bead to bead over the next hour.

 

I can’t say if our prayer helped this woman in the midst of her distress that night. Did she feel a little more able to provide for her daughter’s needs?

 

After the Rosary, we came to the portion of the session where we offered what I had called in my fiednotes—adopting, I am embarrassed to say, a somewhat contemptuous tone—“collective prayers” for nation, church, and families. When it came time to remember the sick, the woman leading the prayers inserted a pronoun inside the proscribed phrase: In Hungarian, a betegünkért became a mi betegünkért. The insertion of the pronoun, mi, which literally means “we,” marked the possessive phrase as emphatic. It made our prayer not only for the sick of a seemingly abstract collective, but for the sick of the group present in the room. At this moment, I noticed several participants smile gently and lean towards the woman with the ill daughter. And then we continued on with the prayers.

I never asked this acquaintance how she felt about being part of our sick. I can’t say if our prayer helped this woman in the midst of her distress that night. Did she feel a little more able to provide for her daughter’s needs? Were her own worries slackened so that she could be present to her daughter’s no doubt profound anxieties? What good did praying for “our sick” do for her that night? It is hard to say with any certainty absent her own reflections.

But I think we can offer a reasonable conjecture about the meaning and value of offering a memorized prayer for a collective group in the context of both changing family reciprocities and the transnationalization and medicalization of healing in contemporary Europe. Almost twenty years ago, Robert Orsi wrote in his study of American women’s devotions to St. Jude, that praying to Jude on behalf of sick family members allowed women to make contributions to their care that the Catholic devotional culture of the time made meaningful and significant.[2] While acknowledging the different histories and political economic conditions that separate Jude’s devotees in 20th century America from Mary’s devotees in contemporary Transylvania, I see similarities in the way Catholic women are grappling with uncertainties borne of growing economic inequalities and the increasing privatization and professionalization of health care; uncertainties that make it increasingly unclear how one might enter into reciprocal relationships with family members suffering from health crises.[3] Praying the Rosary helps devotees, in my acquaintance’s words, “do something” for someone else that is recognized by some Catholics in Transylvania as valuable, meaningful, and real. I could not see this so long as my Protestant assumptions about prayer prevented me from understanding that exchanging prayers through Mary can blur the lines between praying for a group and praying for your friend’s daughter without collapsing one into the other. What was crucial in situating my acquaintances’ prayers as meaningful aspects of the everyday lives they spent immersed in trying to get by and perhaps a little ahead was to turn away from an expectation that you must put your desires, hopes, and aspirations into words and propositional statements for others, even Mary, to recognize them. To use a memorized prayer as a medium for exchanges with divine and human beings, as was typical for so many Catholics I met during my fieldwork, means that a smile, a nod, or a slight inclination of the shoulders might be as much of a contribution to a prayer as a spoken word.


Marc Roscoe Loustau is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Divinity School. He is an anthropologist studying religion in contemporary Transylvania, Romania. He complete three years of ethnographic fieldwork at the Csíksomlyó Roman Catholic pilgrimage site and shrine to the Virgin Mary.

 

Image of Loustau doing fieldwork courtesy of Marc Roscoe Loustau.

[1] I use the Hungarian name for Csíksomlyó and not its official Romanian name, Șumuleu Ciuc, because it names not only the place, but also the Franciscan monastery located there as an institution and the annual Pentecost pilgrimage as an event. Otherwise, I use official Romanian names for other locations unless embedded in a quotation

[2] Robert A. Orsi, Thank You, St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[3] For a classic description of the professionalization of reproductive health care under socialism in Romania, with especially tragic consequences for women, see Gail Kligman. 1998. The Politics of Duplicity: Controlling. Reproduction in Ceausescu’s Romania. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Sabina Stan., 2007.  “Transparency: Seeing, Counting and Experiencing the System.” Anthropologica Vol. 49, No. 2  pp. 257-273 Sabina Stan. 2012. ” Neither Commodities nor Gifts: Post-Socialist Informal Exchanges in the Romanian Healthcare System.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 18 (1): 65–82.

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