© 2016 Krisztina Frauhammer

2016 – №1 (11)

The AuthorKey words: prayer, therapeutic function of prayer, religion, pilgrimage, Catholic shrines, guestbooks, Virgin Mary.

AbstractSince the famous monograph by Walter Heim in 1961, the genre of letters written to the powers above and prayers have aroused the interest of many ethnologists. Research in the German-speaking regions and analyses by Hardy Kromer, Herbert Nikitsch, Gabriele Ponisch and Gerhard Schmied have shown that this new form of written devotion enjoys enormous popularity and is spreading rapidly. Guestbooks in which visitors can record their prayers are appearing in many Catholic shrines. Moreover, it is now an accepted practice for people to record their requests to the Virgin Mary on the websites of shrines or in the visitors’ books of virtual churches. Leafing through these books the reader is touched by the special, intimate tone of the entries: requests – often very concrete – to the Virgin Mary, words of gratitude, sincere personal prayers. They reflect human fates and mixed emotions: hope, gratitude, fear, feelings of abandonment and doubt. These sources allow a glimpse into spheres in the souls of pilgrims that are generally hidden from the researcher. An analysis of these texts and interviews with their authors show that these books and the entries made in them can serve many purposes. They can be interpreted on one hand as cultural behaviour aimed at expressing and passing on impressions, that is, they can be used like a museum guestbook (profane function). However, for the most part the motivations are of a religious nature, such as the desire to communicate with the Transcendent, to reinforce or manifest a prayer addressed to it. The therapeutic dimensions of writing down these prayers also have an important place among these functions. The study is devoted to these aspects of this special prayer practice.

In his study on religious experience and tradition Peter Berger writes: “people live most of their lives in a real, everyday world […] but they find that this world can unravel and fracture lines appear along experiences that seem to have no physiological basis.” (Berger 2011: 207). I regard both pilgrimages and the experiences they can give as such fracture lines. Right up to the present time the most fundamental aim of pilgrimages has been to reveal the Transcendent in them, through which believers seek and find a religious experience that helps them through the various events of their everyday lives.

The guestbooks placed in Catholic Marian shrines also provide evidence of this search for transcendental experience. The prayers and personal confessions they contain provide information on the motivations and functions that lead visitors to seek these shrines. As the famous Hungarian ethnologist Sándor Bálint also wrote: “the pilgrimage is also a public confession of faith. […] It rests on the notion that the divine especially likes to manifest itself incertain places, and that veneration and sacrifice shown here are regarded with special favour.” It can also be seen “as the strong attachment to place of special prayer and sacrifice, where the believer seeks to obtain supernatural help or grace. Without prayer it would be simply a journey.” (Bálint-Barna 1994: 16). In this sense, participating in a pilgrimage and joining in its series of events is an act of communication in which interaction comes about between the believers and the objects of their belief. For this it is essential that the pilgrim believes that the shrines are special places of the presence of the transcendent and of his own connection with it. He must also believe that it is capable of intervening in human life and in the natural world around him. This is also why he seeks opportunities to encounter it. (Lovász 2002: 11). One of the most ancient manifestations of this connection and encounter, present in all religions, is prayer. Through it, it is possible to bridge the gap between the everyday material world and the divine spiritual world, even though only fleetingly.

In recent years the increasingly popular, entirely informal prayer practice manifested in written form has attracted the attention of a number of researchers. A growing number of places of pilgrimage now have books in which requests, prayers and expressions of gratitude can be recorded, guestbooks and prayer slips. The pages of these books are filled with individual prayers, often expressed with surprising sincerity. What gives these sources a unique character is that they allow us to witness a special communication situation: the individual’s personal contact with the Transcendent, his most intimate prayers. In this case the prayer is entirely informal, free of all required or expected form sand differing from the written representation of the accustomed oral form. They allow us to enter spheres of private devotion that generally remain hidden. The guestbooks or visitors’ books in Catholic shrines and parish churches offer a forum accessible to everyone for such exceptional occasions. In this study I draw on entries from such guestbooks in an attempt to show the therapeutic, psychological functions that can be detected in this special communication act. All the sources used in the research without exception are linked to Catholic shrines of the Virgin Mary in the Hungarian-speaking territory: Máriakálnok, Egyházasbást-Vecseklő (Nová-Bašte-Večelkov, Slovakia), Máriagyűd, Máriapócs and Mátraverebély-Szentkút.

In general it can be said that these entry books, guestbooks, prayer slips appeared in the shrines examined from the 1970s and their number has been increasing steadily since then. I collected and analysed more than ten thousand entries in the shrines listed above.

In examining the therapeutic dimensions of making an entry in a book or writing on a prayer slip, mention must first be made of the importance of the fact of writing. The determining role writing has played in communication is well known. Through writing the limits of space and time can be exceeded, and the communication itself can be preserved (Goody 1986: 26). Jan Assmann calls it one form of placing a remembrance (Assmann 1999: 23). The writing is thus also important because in this way the text becomes capable of overcoming the ephemerality of orality and so can be preserved. Because it can be seen for a long while, can be looked up at any time, read again, used again, it is like a reminder slip (Goody 1999: 20). A reminder written to the Virgin Mary, to God: “I really wanted to write an entry too. I think everyone comes to a place of pilgrimage like this to ask for something […] that’s why most people come here, and that’s why we came, we are asking for help in a concrete matterand I thought it would be good to leave a trace, for it to remain here in writing.” (informant)

This shows that even the writing in itself is an effective means: in the act of formulating the text the problem loses some of its force and can be understood. For many people this brings relief. As one interviewee put it: “I have never written before, either to God or to the Virgin Mary.I don’t know, it just came spontaneously now, after a while I’m sure it will become clearer whether it means more this way, I don’t think it does, but it was a good feeling to write it down. In my opinion if I pray and ask that way, it’s just the same.” Two pilgrims to Máriagyűd explained it this way: “Well, I didn’t write it down because it has a different effect that way. I don’t know, I swear I can’t explain why I wrote it down. I don’t know […] Just it was so good to come out with it” or“[…]you give out a little of your difficulties” – said my informants.

When examining the therapeutic functions of the guestbooks and the special prayers they contain, the focus must be on the particular act of praying. In this case the text of the prayers is less important the emphasis is on interaction with the Transcendent. Following the Hungarian folklorist Irén Lovász this interaction can be called sacral communication (Lovász 2002). We find in it a strong manifestation of the phenomenon Jurij Lotman has called autocommunication (Lotman 1994: 16-43). In the course of this I initiating the interaction in contact with the Transcendent undergoes a significant qualitative change. This change can result in the writing down of individual prayers also having a therapeutic function. The thoughts of Karl Rahner on prayer can be relevant here: “The biggest problem with prayer talk is that what we believe on the basis of our religious conviction to be the words of God addressed to us, is only the conversation of the mood of our soul, our own thoughts with ourselves (this cannot be denied, nor can it be regarded out of mere naïveté as insignificant) […] This has become particularly acute today, because one has the impression that one is really speaking with oneself, immersed in one’s own soul when one prays, even if one is speaking about God with oneself or feels that one is in the presence of God.” (Rahner 1991: 148). Irén Lovász points even further in her analysis of prayers. In her opinion, attention must be turned to other dimensions of prayer beyond communication with God “coming from the heart” […] “for it to be powerful, effective and true, the act of prayer consists not only of pronouncing words, but of the active connection of certain elements of historical, cultural and personal factors. It may include a certain posture, and direction, a designated architectural structure or physical environment, a specified time of day or a certain period of the year, ritual actions and objects, special moods, attitudes or intentions. […] These non-verbal forms can be interpreted as sincere and spontaneous human acts directed towards the spiritual world, or as religious formulas the performance of which strengthens the emotions, maintains faith, gives people strength.” (Lovász 2002: 32-33). The performative functions of the communication process in prayer are thus at least as strong, if not stronger than the communication itself, the denotative function. Investigations by psychologists have shown the extent to which the power of the ritual language of prayer and the performative dimensions inherent in it are capable of transforming the narrative of an illness, for example. If a Christian believer accepts as truth the teaching in the Gospel of Mark: “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be.” (Mk. 11. 24), then that faith has a therapeutic action. It can suspend disbelief/lack of hope in the recovery/solution of the problem to such an extent that the person becomes capable of forming the thought that his health/problem is resolved (Andreescu 2011: 28-30).

The pilgrims I interviewed reported above all that the act of writing down the problems brings them relief and peace. This is reflected in the following extract from an interview:

“- Do you think this book is a good thing? Have you seen any like it elsewhere?

– Yes, on an excursion I’ve seen one in a church, I don’t remember whether it was in Eger or in Tokaj. And we were in Lillafüred too in a stone church, we wrote a slip there because we could not go in, and we left it there.

– Where did that idea come from?

– It was mine. It just occurred to me. I think it is a good custom, because it brings you peace, I have just read in a book that people who attend church live longer. Somehow. I don’t know but there must be some truth in it, because when I go to church, afterwards I feel at peace. I knew it was a holiday today, it’s Sunday, I went to church and prayed for my family and for everything and that brings me peace and makes me happy in my own way.”

The Franciscan Brother Didák who lives as a hermit at Mátraverebély-Szentkút drew a parallel between his own writing a diary and writing the slips: “I really dislike writing a diary, but when I went to Mátraverebély-Szentkút my superiors set me the task of writing the diary. I had to make an entry every day. At first it was very difficult, then I realised that it has a very important psychological function. You have to order your thoughts, face yourself, you have to write it down, etc. I think this is probably one of the reasons why people are so fond of leaving behind such slips, often with their personal problems.” Swiss ethnologist Walter Heim who analyses similar prayers also gives writing a diary as an example. In his opinion they often serve the purpose of bringing spiritual ease and peace to the writer through the act of expressing the thought or feeling in writing and the related projection (Heim 1961: 86). He too stresses the significance of writing down prayers. This makes it more certain that what is written down will really reach its destination. It gives an additional guarantee that brings relief to many people. Especially when we take into consideration the fact that many people share the idea that the Virgin and the Lord really do read these requests. It is therefore reassuring to know that the request has been made visible and that it will literally be read.

A leading Austrian researcher of church visitors’ books, Gabriele Ponisch also stresses consolation among the psychological functions that can be achieved as a visitor leafs through the book, reads entries and realises how small his own difficulties are (Ponisch 2001: 173). Anna Somoskői, an elderly woman from Egyházasbást and Katalin Mede also from the same village made the following remark: “People who write in it feel that it’s better to write it down in the book and leave it there beneath Mary. Let other people read it too and feel the same thing as the person who wrote it, the same prayer. Because there are people who don’t know how to pray. […] I read what’s written in the book. I’m a believer and I like to read such things, because some people can write such beautiful verses, whether it comes from their hearts or their brains I don’t know. It brings me peace and I pray with it.”

Some researches have found numerous examples of individuals who regularly write longentries in these books, using them as a kind of diary (Ponisch 2001, Kromer 1996). In the case of the five shrines I studied I did not find anyone who used the book in that way or anyone who seemed to be using it as a substitute for a conversational partner, setting out his thoughts regularly or recounting the history of his problems in a series of entries. Use of that kind may be a form of self-fulfilment, self-revelation and so serve a therapeutic purpose. This naturally does not apply to pilgrims who come regularly once or twice a year for the church feasts and write entries, but to people who come as often as every week or every month and write detailed entries on their current difficulties, joys or sins. Gabriele Ponisch draws a parallel between such use of the books and confession, where a person can make a confession of faith, of his deeds after a thorough self-examination (Ponisch 2001: 203). It is probably because an opportunity for confession was provided in the shrines I studied that texts of this kind were not found in the books I examined. The Franciscans at Mátraverebély-Szentkút and the ministers at Máriapócs stressed that very many people go to confession during the feasts (80-90% of participants in the feasts at Mátraverebély-Szentkút) and in many cases they also request a personal spiritual conversation.

Taking all this into account it seems to me that pilgrims with a need to reveal or thematise themselves in such a way are much more likely to turn to the spiritual carers in the shrine for confession or a spiritual conversation than to write in the pages of such a book. The book offers a forum mainly for requests to the Virgin Mother or God, for expressions of gratitude, for sharing individual problems or joys. Setting these down in writing is the first step towards solution of the problem and herein lies their main therapeutic significance. This is in line with the thoughts of Balázs Frida on the psychological function of religion: “the possibility of divine help exists even if all other explanatory systems have failed […] the fact that individuals prefer to share with the gods the responsibility for handling matters rather than with themselves represents an enormous relief. One of the main sociopsychological functions of religion is the feeling that man is not alone, in a certain respect he can receive a kind of supernatural help” (Frida 2005: 198). Entries in the books often report on experiencing this feeling:

“My dear, good Virgin Mother,

I am very grateful that I can be here in your presence. I have experienced such a beautiful thing here, it has made my whole soul as light as a feather. I am at peace now and I came here again with very great pleasure. …


14.03.2005.” (Máriapócs Guestbook 2005/1. 72/1)

“I thank you God, that I could be here.I longed so much to tell you my sorrow and thank you for your goodness. …

Name” (Máriapócs Guestbook 20005/1. 103/1) 

This feeling is experienced not only when using the guestbooks in shrines, but during all the devotional practice performed at the shrine. Simply being present at the shrine can lead to spiritual ease; this is one of the main motivations leading people to visit them. My interviewees spoke about this in the following terms:

“Yes, I find relief then. You feel better.”

“It gives you new spiritual energy. For believers, that is an extra.”

“We come with reassuring joy, we believe in our religion and we come with joy. With very great joy. There is no greater happiness. I am so happy after it, that I have been able to be present in these places […] I feel relief, it brings relief in sickness and in everything.”

“It is very pleasant when you walk the whole way and you can say what you feel and what you think, and the Lord, the Saint, everyone listens to you. […] I feel as though I am communicating with them when I pray silently. And I look at the statue or the image. And I feel that it gives me strength.”

Examining the therapeutic role of the guestbooks it can be said, just like other aspects of pilgrimage, they can contribute to a feeling of spiritual relief, dispelling hopelessness and casting off anxieties. This is achieved mainly by expressing and writing down requests regarding problems, and joys.


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