Essays & exchanges:

Practice and performance in ritual language

posted by Thomas J. Csordas

In deep prayer | Image via flickr user johnragaiDoes it make a difference to think of ritual language such as prayer in terms of a relation between practice and performance? I do not mean this in the sense that a musician practices an instrument in preparation for a concert performance, or an athlete practices in preparation for performance in a competition. I mean it in the sense of practice as carrying out a particular activity in a regular or habitual way, in contrast to performance as a marked or highlighted form of action distinct from everyday action and addressed to an actual or imagined audience. Someone may engage in the practice of singing every day, but may also sing every day for an audience, real or imagined. One can identify a continuum of “degree of performance” between informal everyday speech and formal ritual utterance.1

In my ethnography of the Charismatic Renewal, a synthesis of Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism that began in the late 1960s, I placed considerable emphasis on the interaction of ritual performance and everyday practice among movement participants, and described the closely intertwined processes of radicalization of charisma and ritualization of life in a Charismatic intentional community.2 In this sense the processes I was describing entailed the convergence of practice and performance insofar as ritual transcended the boundaries of specialized events and permeated the domain of everyday practice, while everyday life became increasingly marked and performatively ritualized.3

Focusing specifically on prayer as a mode of utterance present both in ritual events and in everyday life allows for a rethinking of practice and performance as simultaneous modalities of action. The simultaneity of performance and practice in this theoretical or conceptual sense is not the same as the collapsing of performance into practice in prayer that I observed ethnographically. In this sense, any act of prayer has both a practical and a performative component. Practice is guided by a logic while performance is impelled by a rhetoric. Both are necessary features of prayer as ritual language. Practice is structured in such a way that one knows intuitively what to do within a certain situation and in relation to other forms of practice and aspects of the practical world–Pierre Bourdieu has demonstrated this in copious detail. Performance is directed toward an audience (implicit or explicit, present or absent), and is designed to have some kind of effect.

Figure 1- The Structure of Performance

Figure 1- The Structure of Performance

The following exercise is an effort to tease out the consequences of applying this distinction to ritual language using the example of prayer in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. In the accompanying diagrams I present a schematized synthesis of the conceptual elements that underlie the basic distinction between these two interacting, interpenetrating, and parallel domains of action. These structures of practice and performance do not comprise an a priori model, but a model that emerged from my ethnographic analysis of Catholic Charismatic ritual language, and that I hypothesize may be useful in understanding other forms of prayer. The left column of each diagram identifies levels of analysis beginning with the general domains of practice and performance themselves. The subsequent levels of analysis correspond across the domains (frame, mode, message, and element), but each is characterized by a basic distinction that provides its structure as practical or performative. My intent here is threefold: to suggest that these domains have a parallel structure that is the condition for them to be mutually transformative; to distinguish the different levels of analysis (identified by the terms in the left-hand column of each diagram) in these parallel domains; and to indicate how prayer can be understood in these terms. The issue of context is inevitably raised by such an exercise, and here it is safest to invoke Charles Goodwin and Alessandro Duranti’s broad understanding of “a relationship between two orders of phenomena that mutually inform each other to comprise a larger whole.” In this sense, in each specific instance practice and performance provide context for one another, while a comparative analysis across ethnographic contexts would require a third dimension of context in order to portray variations in social life.

To begin, consider what could be a simple prayer of praise uttered by a Charismatic, similar to countless prayers I have heard during ethnographic observation: “Praise you, Lord Jesus in all your glory and for your gift of salvation. Alleluia, Lord, praise you.” What I am drawing attention to is that the prayer belongs simultaneously to the performative and practical domains. The first establishes motivations, sentiments, and orientations among performers and their audiences, and the second situates them coherently in relation to other utterances and the organization of social life. In this respect, performance and practice correspond in large part to what Peter Stromberg has labeled the constitutive and referential domains. The fundamental difference in Stromberg’s view is between language and other action that set the conditions for social life and those that form the connective tissue of mundane social life. In our sample prayer of praise, the broadest rhetorical and constitutive function is to establish value by identifying that which is praiseworthy, and the broadest logical or referential function is to situate the utterance with respect to activities in service of divine salvation.

Within the performative domain (See figure 1), social action can occur within either an illocutionary or a predicative frame, a distinction elaborated by Stanley J. Tambiah. Insofar as this distinction identifies the aspects of action executed and qualities attributed in the rhetorical function of performance, it allows us to weigh the relationship between force and meaning in ritual language. In our example, the enthusiasm, intensity, and volubility in which the prayer of praise is uttered assert and contribute to the eminence of the deity. The praiseworthy quality predicated onto the deity in our example is generosity with the gift of salvation, and this contributes to building up or constituting the character of the deity.

At the next level of analysis, I have glossed the mode of social interaction associated with illocutionary force as “authority” and that associated with predicative meaning as “creativity.” Authority has to do with hierarchical constraint, while creativity has to do with autonomy and intuitive inspiration and innovation. Ethnographically, in the case of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal this is precisely a relation that is problematic, since on the one hand, divine patriarchy, and on the other hand, idea of spiritual renewal and liberation, are highly elaborated. In this respect the prayer of praise expresses a submission to authority, clearly placing the speaker below the praiseworthy deity in the role of Lord, as opposed to, for example, praise that might be given to an inferior or child. An aspect of creativity can be identified as well, insofar as praise is given of one’s own free will and with the intent of helping to bring about salvation by contributing to building the Kingdom of God.

Performative interaction in both the authoritative and creative modes is characterized by two options for encoding messages, the next level of performative analysis (See figure 1). In the authoritative mode these two options are elaborated by Roy Rappaport as indexical messages that point to the immediate state of participants and canonical messages that articulate cosmological truth. Stromberg’s analysis demonstrates that messages in the creative mode can be encoded either in canonical language (in Rappaport’s sense) or metaphoric language. In both modes it is the relation between the two types of messages in performance (indexical/canonical or canonical/metaphoric) that is critical in the performative efficacy of authority or creativity. In our example of praise, the immediate state indexed may vary from one of exaltation, absorption, or flow to one of strain, struggle, and spiritual dryness. This is seen when someone who experienced personal trouble or an emotional setback still attempts to praise God. In either instance the canonical truths about the deity’s cosmological status are still articulated. In the creative mode, the utterance can not only be cast in metaphoric language that expands the scope of meaning or in canonical language used in new ways to deepen meaning, but in metaphors that incorporate canonical language. The metaphor of the Kingdom of God is implicit insofar as the prayer of praise contributes to building it (which could be made explicit insofar as it would be acceptable to say something like, “the people of your Kingdom praise you, oh Lord”).

Finally, at the level of discrete elements, performance is characterized by the relation between motive and act. As defined by C. Wright Mills and Kenneth Burke, motives are terms that condense and summarize canonical language and its ethical import. As I observed above, they appear in utterances in both the authoritative and creative modes. The acts by means of which those motives are circulated in ritual language are the instances of utterance or gesture and they always, because they are characterized by a style of performance, have aesthetic import (praise in the form of song or glossolalia). However, the acts not only circulate motives but also produce metaphors. Thus in the diagram I have drawn a link through act between the metaphoric and indexical to draw out the aesthetic predication of metaphors onto the immediate state of participants, a relationship elaborated by James Fernandez in his account of how “inchoate pronouns” are given identity and form by performance.

In the specific case of Charismatic prayer, “praise” itself is a term prominent in the movement’s vocabulary of motives, along with notions of “gift” and “salvation,” and they all have compelling ethical import. From the standpoint of the discrete act, the stylistic and aesthetic elements are evident in praise as expressed either silently or vocally in the vernacular, in glossolalia, or in song, and often in the form of “singing in tongues.” It is also the case that certain individuals can be recognized as having a “gift of praise.” That is, there is an eloquence or degree of inspiration understood to originate not in a natural talent but in a spiritual gift bestowed by God that elevates the level of praise that can be expressed to Him.

Figure 2- The Structure of Practice

Figure 2- The Structure of Practice

In the practical or referential domain (See figure 2), we are concerned with the manner in which prayer contributes to, again in Stromberg’s phrase, the connective tissue of social life. Two equivalent and overlapping referential frames are relevant: self and habitus. As is the case with the illocutionary and predicative frames in the performative domain, the same data of social action can often be understood simultaneously in terms of both frames. Although “habitus” has more of a collective connotation and “self” more of an individual, their mutual grounding in pragmatic, embodied action requires us to consider them as occupying the same level of analysis. In the case of Charismatic prayer, transformation of self and habitus are rhetorical targets of performance, while coherence of self and habitus are the practical or pragmatic outcomes desired. The prayer of praise refers to the Charismatic habitus, a shared set of assumptions about praise, as an expected activity for Christians and in the context of other forms of prayer, as well as the system of other genres of ritual language. It also refers to a sacred self that is endowed with the capacity for praise as an enactment of an experience of wonderment as well as an intimate relationship with the deity.

My understanding of habitus follows Bourdieu insofar as the mode of social interaction characteristic of practice is given by a structured and structuring system of bodily dispositions inculcated in people such that social life has an aura of spontaneous improvisation. Charismatic praise is naturalized in everyday life as much as it is a regular feature of prayer meetings, and the content of praise is invariably improvised, virtually never recited from a set text. Moreover, at the next, more specific level of analysis, the essential messages of interaction are inscribed in practices and have to do with issues of common sense. Thus the practice of greeting could be accompanied by saying “Praise the Lord” or a common response to something good happening (or sardonically to something not so good) might also be an emphatic “Praise the Lord!”

Correspondingly, the characteristic mode of interaction in the frame of self is orientation toward the world, other people, and oneself in which self is constituted by processes of bodily/sensory engagement with features of the social world.4 This is not only necessarily reflexive and therefore constitutive of subjectivity, it also implies a mutual orientation toward other people and is therefore constitutive of intersubjectivity (e.g., “I am aware that she is aware that I am aware . . . “).5

For Charismatics, praise is precisely a mode of orientation in the world and with others, reflexive in the sense that it constantly reminds one of one’s identity in relation to God. Messages in the domain of practice are necessarily imbued with intention and relate to the manner in which the perceptual reality impinges on and is taken up by persons in the immediacy of being-in-the-world. Thus every prayer of praise is an intention to communicate one’s feelings about God both to God as a being-toward-divinity and to others who either share those feelings or who are being evangelized to share those feelings.

Finally, each element of social action in the practical domain can be understood as a behavior as it is characterized by lack of reflexivity or as an act as it is characterized by active communication. In the case of Catholic Charismatics, praising God can become rote and repetitive and therefore unsatisfying either occasionally depending on circumstances or regularly as in a crisis of faith. On the other hand, it can be a purposeful and meaningful act characterized by the impulse or desire to pray.

I have used a very specific example of a specific kind of prayer in a distinct and distinctive religious setting to demonstrate the simultaneity of practice and performance. Contrary to my earlier analysis, focus on the practice and performance of prayer shows that it is not necessary to conceive practice as restricted to everyday life and performance to the domain of ritual. The analysis I present could usefully be extended to different types of Charismatic prayer with motives other than praise, such as supplication, protection, or healing. It could also form the basis for a fine-grained comparison of prayer as ritual language in other religious settings. Finally, since practice and performance are broad forms of social action, the examination of prayer I present could in some way be taken as a model for the understanding of their relationship in other social fields.

Some passages in this text are adapted from Thomas Csordas, Language, Charisma, and Creativity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).


  1. See Dell Hymes, “Breakthrough into Performance,” in Folklore, Communication, and Performance, ed. Kenneth Goldstein and Dan Ben-Amos (The Hague: Mouton, 1975); and William Hugh Jansen, “The Esoteric-Exoteric Factor in Folklore,” in The Study of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1965), 43-51.

  2. See Michael Lambek for another approach to the relation of practice and performance in religion, with specific reference to morality.

  3. See Thomas Csordas, “Ritualization of Life,” in Practicing the Faith, ed. Martin Lindhardt (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011)

  4. See Irving Hallowell, “Culture, Personality, and Experience,” in Culture and Experience (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1955); and Csordas, 1994)

  5. See Maurice Merleau­Ponty’s reworking of the Cartesian cogito

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