“The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage . . .
The milky way, the bird of Paradise
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices, something understood.”
— George Herbert’s definition of prayer
Around the globe, billions of prayers rise up everyday from the world’s peoples; they are “in every language spoken,” as Paul Simon sings about prayer in hard times. Prayers make up a large part of the literary heritage of the world; they are poems that are used — both everyday and at times of great grief or joy — in the most intimate lives of real people. Because they come from the deep heart of every culture, they are a direct route there. And the most astonishing built places in every city are found when you ask, as we will, what pilgrimage shrines, altars, candles, temples, beads, mosques, incense, offerings, cathedrals, and synagogues house and shape the act of prayer? Unlike money or sex, prayers are something many people are very willing to talk about; this class opens conversations everywhere it goes.
We will learn a little about many religions and contemplative methods, read lots of prayers both secular and religious in English translation, and go out to speak with people on and off the ship about their prayer practices, collecting and writing about prayer in the cultures we visit with an eye to beauty, to variety, to the sacred, to ritual, and to the conditions and habits of performance. Bring a pocket journal for your prayer collecting.
Field WorkCountry: Vietnam
Day: 5 - Friday, 12 February
We’ll explore Ho Chi Minh City together on our last day in Viet Nam, looking for the sacred places that are magnets for prayer. The city is saturated with them, and people often patronize several of different religious flavors. Saigon is one of the most tolerant and warm cultures I’ve ever visited – we can expect to be welcomed into many of these sacred places to see prayer in action. Tolerant and open, but still: please plan to wear conservative, respectful clothing –make sure your shoulders, waist, and legs are fairly completely covered: no shorts, tee shirts, etc. for men or women.
Our exploration of sacred sites in Ho Chi Minh City will include a mosque, a cathedral, a memorial shrine to political protest, Buddhist and Taoist pagodas, a Hindu temple, and a shrine to “Uncle” Ho Chi Minh himself. Upon completion of the field lab, write an entry in your field log (3-6 pages) comparing three of the sacred sites, including a discussion of the material supports to prayer (architecture, color, ornament, furniture, jewelry, paintings, birds, turtles, incense, money, flags, food, and so forth) and the human activities that make up prayer at the site. Any prayers you collect there will be excellent additions – and it’s fine to share texts with one another. Your analysis should be based on careful observation, on discussion, and on academic research completed while back onboard the ship. Work with the images you collect with your camera, too.
1. To investigate how the design of sacred architecture is used to heighten, shape, and interpret spiritual experiences and support prayer practices.
2. To develop our skill in collecting observations, images, and texts, our facility in interacting with other scholars and with practitioners of devotion, and our ability to see and articulate the interactions between prayer and the built environment.
3. To enrich our analysis with direct experience and group discussion.