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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Attitudes During Liturgical Prayer

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey


Because ceremonies have a tendency to become rigid or formal, or even conventional, this article examines the origin and meaning of gestures during liturgical prayer, including extending, raising, and joining the hands. The Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey reflect on the historical meaning of these gestures in the works of the classical writers of Greece and Rome, the Psalms, St. Paul, Tertullian, and St. Thomas.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


373 - 380

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, January 26, 1926

The Liturgy of the Catholic Church was formed in the East and in the southern countries of Europe. The natives of these countries are, broadly speaking, more lively and demonstrative than the inhabitants of our colder northern latitudes. Now, if even the more stolid Northerner frequently accompanies his speech with gestures of hands and arms and other movements of the body, such dramatic actions are far more commonly witnessed in the South. At times the gestures of an Italian, or an Oriental, are so expressive or descriptive of that which forms the subject of conversation, that a deaf man should not find it impossible to guess at that which is being discussed by watching the gesticulations of the interlocutors. We have but to watch ourselves attentively, and we shall soon find by personal experience that any strong feeling or emotion tends to reveal itself by some outward action or gesture. The Liturgy of the Church neglects none of those things which may be of assistance in our worship of God. For that reason gestures play a very important role in our religious functions; and, because in the course of time all ceremonies have a tendency to become rigid and formal, not to say conventional, we must know their origin and meaning, so that they should never degenerate into a soulless mummery.

Extending, Raising and Joining the Hands

There is one gesture which we find in the oldest religions, as well as among the Jews and early Christians, namely, that of extending the arms and of lifting the hands towards heaven, or towards the divinity to which supplication was made. There are innumerable allusions to this practice in the Classical writers of Greece and Rome. Thus Virgil, to quote only one, relates how the traitorous Sinon lifted his hands towards heaven after they had been freed from the cords with which he had been bound:

Sustulit exutas vinclis ad sidera palmas:
"Vos, Aeterni ignes, et non violabile vestrum
Testor numen . . ."
(Aeneid, II, 153.)

When favors or help were asked, the Greeks and Romans not only extended, or raised their arms and hands, but held up the palm of the hand, as beggars hold out their hand when an alms is given them. Virgil also bears witness to this when he relates how Aeneas beheld the gods of Troy in a dream: at once

Corripio e stratis corpus tendoque supinas
Ad caelum cum voce manus . . .
(Aeneid, III, 176.)

The Jews were wont to pray in the same manner. The first example that occurs to the mind is the incident related in Exodus, when Josue fought against Amalec, while Moses stood on top of the hill with Aaron and Hur: "And when Moses lifted up his hands, Israel overcame: but, if he let them down a little, Amalec overcame. And Moses' hands were heavy: so they took a stone, and put under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands on both sides. And it came to pass that his hands were not weary until sunset" (Exod., xviii. 11-12). In this incident the lifting up of the hands, or rather arms of Moses, is identified with his prayer, and the dropping of the arms from sheer fatigue is taken as a cessation from prayer.

In the Psalms we come across innumerable exhortations to lift our hands to God in prayer. In Ps. cxxxiii, they that stand in the house of the Lord are exhorted to lift their hands towards the holy place: "In the nights lift up your hands to the holy places, and bless ye the Lord." Again, the lifting up of the hands is considered to be in itself a sacrifice: "Let my prayer be directed as incense in thy sight: the lifting up of my hands as evening sacrifice" (Ps. cxl. 2). Isaias declares in the name of God that the Lord is weary of Israel's prayers: "And when you stretch forth your hands, I will turn away My eyes from you: and when you multiply prayers, I will not hear. For your hands are full of blood" (Is., i. 15).

The Apostles and early Christians prayed with outstretched arms and uplifted hands, thus reproducing the attitude of the divine Mediator who, with arms stretched out wide, offered Himself in our behalf upon the tree of the Cross. The attitude of our divine Redeemer upon the Cross is an invitation to all men to come unto Him. During three long hours He prays and pleads with His heavenly Father, with arms extended as a suppliant. He likewise appeals to His own people who remain deaf to His calling: "All the day long have I spread My hands to a people that believeth not and contradicteth Me" (Rom., x. 21). In the hour of His triumphant ascension, Jesus spreads out His hands in a farewell gesture and a last blessing, by which He, as it were, empties His hands so full of heavenly gifts: "And, lifting up His hands, He blessed them" (Luke, xxiv. 50).

The early Christians were wont to pray, not only with hands uplifted, but likewise with arms stretched out in the form of a cross. St. Paul is very explicit: "I will that men pray in every place, lifting up pure hands, without anger and contention" (I Tim., ii. 8). From various passages in the writings of the post-Apostolic age, we gather that this lifting up of hands likewise implied a stretching forth of the arms; thus, Tertullian makes it quite clear that, if Christians pray with outstretched arms, it is that we might reproduce in our very bodies the figure of Christ praying for us on the Cross. After rebuking those who superstitiously wash their hands before prayer, Tertullian (De Orat., xiv) declares that "the hands are clean enough which we have washed once for all, with the whole body, in Christ. Although Israel wash daily, yet is he never clean . . . : sinners by inheritance, through consciousness of their fathers, they dare not so much as lift up their hands unto the Lord, lest some Isaias cry out, lest Christ shudder. But we not only lift them up, but even spread them out, modelling them after the Lord's Passion, and, while we pray, we confess Christ" (nos non attollimus tantum, sed et expandimus, et dominica Passione modulati orantes, confitemur Christo).

Elsewhere also the fiery African repeats this assimilation of the Christian in prayer to Christ nailed to the Cross: "We Christians, looking up with hands spread open, because without guilt . . . are ever praying. . . ." And this attitude, he says (Apolog., xxx, in "Library of the Fathers," X, 70), is a manifestation of the Christian's constant readiness to suffer with and for Him of whom the very act of prayer ever puts him in mind: "Whilst then we are thus spread forth before God, let your claws of iron pierce us, your crosses hang us up, your fires play about us, your swords cut off our necks, your beasts trample on us: the very gesture of the praying Christian is prepared for every punishment" (paratus est ad omne supplicium habitus orantis christiani).

Thus, to pray after the likeness of Christ crucified is held to add efficaciousness to our supplications: "Then is our prayer more speedily answered," says Maximus of Turin, "when even the body reproduces Christ whose name the heart utters." But it would appear that even here abuses crept in, some Christians raising their hands or extending their arms in an affected or exaggerated manner. Hence, Tertullian (De Orat., xvii) finds it necessary to warn the faithful to pray with becoming modesty and reserve: "In praying with modesty and humility, we shall the rather commend our prayers to God, not even our hands being lifted up too high, but being lifted up with moderation and seemliness, not even our face being raised upwards with boldness."

We are fortunate enough to possess numerous pictorial proofs of the habits of the early Christians when engaged in their devotions. On the walls of the Catacombs of Rome, which so long sheltered the infant Church, one of the figures that appears most often — together with that of the Good Shepherd — is the figure of a woman, obviously engaged in prayer and having her arms stretched out crosswise. These figures have been called Orantes. They bear the most irrefragable testimony to the practice of our forefathers in the faith. They are also the oldest examples of Christian art; we may indeed affirm that they are as old as the introduction of Christianity into that city which was predestined to become the very citadel of the religion of Jesus Christ. There are pictures of Susanna and of Daniel in the lions' den — both praying with outstretched arms — which antiquarians think may be dated as far back as the first century. As a general rule, the pictures of the Orantes are those of personages mentioned in the Bible, such as Susanna and Daniel, which were favorite subjects for the Christian artist of those days, or they are symbolical representations of the souls of the persons buried in the Catacomb, who, though enjoying the bliss of heaven, are yet not unmindful of the living, but intercede for them with God. Such is the opinion of the well-known archeologist, Msgr. Wilpert. This hypothesis has the advantage of offering an easy explanation of the fact that the orans is generally a female figure, which would seem the natural embodiment of the soul (anima). Moreover, if the early Christians prayed extensis manibus, they also offered praise and thanksgiving in the same attitude. We see this in the Acts of St. Agnes: every year holy Church reminds us at the Second Vespers of the feast of the sublime prayer uttered by the child martyr in the midst of the fire from which she escaped unhurt: "Stans beata Agnes in medio flammAe, expansis minibus, orabat ad Dominum: Omnipotens, adorande, colende, tremende, benedico te, et glorifico nomen tuum in Aeternum" (Antiph. ad Magnificat). The attitude is indeed that of a suppliant, but it is not a supplication or prayer for mercy or deliverance that escapes from the lips of the Saint, but the purest and most thrilling accents of adoration, praise and thanksgiving to Him who was about to set the twofold crown of virginity and martyrdom upon her brow. Of St. Euplius we read that "lifting up his hands to heaven, he said I give Thee thanks, O Lord Jesus Christ, for that Thy power has comforted me and Thou has not permitted my soul to perish together with the ungodly" (Ruinart, "Acta Mm.").

From the instances given above it is easy to gather that the early Christians prayed with arms extended or hands uplifted, not only in the privacy of their own homes, but likewise in the public assemblies in church. To extend the arms, or to lift up the hands, was simply conceived as a necessary adjunct to all prayer. It must have been an impressive spectacle to behold a whole congregation standing erect, with eyes and hands lifted towards heaven, or with their arms stretched out at full length, so that the worshipper was a most vivid image of Him who prayed for us in a like attitude, when His arms were stretched out and fastened to the cruel arms of the Cross. The custom of praying in this manner, at least in public, is now all but completely extinct. It only survives in certain local Rites and in religious Orders. Thus, the Dominicans and Carmelites still extend their arms to almost full length at certain parts of the Mass. In some countries one may still see people praying after the fashion of the first Christians, notably at Lourdes. One of the things that impress the pilgrim most deeply is precisely the spectacle of numbers of people on their knees, praying aloud or silently, or repeating the invocations called out by a priest, with their arms extended crosswise. It is perhaps to be regretted that the practice should have disappeared from our devotional life so that a good deal of surprise is created when anyone is seen praying in the traditional manner of Christian piety. No doubt the practice was meant to be penitential, and as such it has survived in religious Orders. Of St. Pachomius it is already related that he was wont to pray with outstretched arms, and, obviously for the purpose of penance and mortification. However, the historian adds the almost incredible detail that the Saint was able to keep his hands in that position for the space of several hours: "Consueverat stans in oratione manus expandere, quas per aliquot horarum spatia minime colligebat." When we read the Acts of the Martyrs, we frequently observe that no sooner were their hands or arms freed from chains than they spread them out or raised them up to heaven. So Prudentius, for instance, relates that, St. Fructuosus and his companions having been cast into the fire, the flame consumed only the ropes with which their arms were secured:

Non ausa est cohibere pana palmas
In morem crucis ad Patrem levandas,
Solvit brachia, quae Deum precentur.

The reason why the practice of praying in this manner has not survived, is probably one of convenience and good order. It is easy to see that, if an entire congregation were to pray with outstretched arms, many disorders might easily arise, were it only by reason of the inconvenience the worshippers would cause to one another. As the number of the faithful grew, it must have become correspondingly difficult to carry out a ceremony which demands more space than was available in the oratories and churches of the fourth and fifth century.

II. The Extending of the Arms

Although the people no longer pray in church as they did of old, the priest still prays with arms spread out, though not so widely as in earlier centuries. In the Middle Ages the arms were stretched further than they are today — the very shape of the chasuble necessitated this. We extend our arms at the Collects and during the whole of the Canon but only the breadth of the chest: extendit manus ante pectus, in such wise that the palms of the hands face each other. The fingers are joined together, and their tips must not reach higher than the shoulders nor exceed their breadth, and this must be observed whenever the hands are to be spread ante pectus. In taking up this attitude the priest shows forth in his person our Lord upon the Cross: "Sacerdos per totum canonem in expansione manuum non tam mentis devotionem, quam Christi extensionem in cruce designat," thus the Micrologus, written in the eleventh century. St. Thomas gives the same interpretation of the lifting of the hands and the extending of the arms. Answering the objections of those who pretended that the various gestures which accompany the Holy Sacrifice were ridiculous and futile, the holy Doctor says that "the actions performed by the priest in Mass are not ridiculous gestures, since they are done so as to represent something else. The priest in extending his arms signifies the outstretching of Christ's arms upon the Cross. He also lifts up his hands as he prays, to point out that his prayer is directed to God for the people, according to Lament., iii. 41: 'Let us lift up our hearts with our hands to the Lord in the heavens"' (III, Q. 83, a. 5).

St. Thomas gives a different interpretation of the lifting up of the hands and of the extension of the arms, now reduced to an extension ante pectus. According to him, the one reminds the spectator of the Cross of Calvary, while the other warns him to lift his heart on high to Him from whom is every best and every perfect gift. The spreading of the hands is also a gesture of greeting, as at the Dominus vobiscum; and, when they are opened, raised and folded again, as at the first words of the Gloria or Credo, or at the words Te igitur with which the Canon begins, or at the words Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro of the Preface, they are the accompaniment of the sentiments of faith, gratitude, or ardent longing which animate the soul. Desire and love seem to be the sentiments most naturally expressed by these gestures, as we may learn even from pagan writers. Thus Virgil describes the souls of the dead on the bank of the Styx, eagerly longing to be taken across, that they might enjoy the bliss of the Elysian fields:

Stabant orantes primi transmittere cursum,
Tendebantque manus ripaeā€œ, ulterioris amore.
(Aeneid, VI, 313, 314.)

III. The Joining of the Hands

It is impossible to determine at what period the habit of praying with hands joined together became general. No doubt the practice became part of the devotional life of the faithful when they ceased to pray with outstretched arms; it certainly was so already in the ninth century, because Nicholas V defends the practice against the objections of the Greeks, who pretended that it was unlawful to pray in any other way except with the hands crossed over the breast (cancellatis minibus). The Pope explains that this joining of the hands is an expression of humble submission to the will of God and of our readiness to accept at His hands whatever chastisement it may please Him to lay upon us. The joining of the hands is a beautiful and most eloquent gesture of supplication. The Rubrics are very definite and clear when they describe the manner in which it has to be done: "Junctis manibus ante pectus, extensis et junctis pariter digitis, et pollice dextro super sinistrum posito in modum crucis" (Ritus cel., III.).

We have in this gesture all the essentials of the old-time prayer with outstretched arms, or uplifted hands, the crossing of the thumbs in particular being a reminder of the blessed Passion of our Saviour. The priest should be most careful lest long familiarity with the sacred rites should lead him into slovenly habits. It is a most impressive and edifying spectacle to see a priest, or a number of priests, standing at the altar, or serving in the sanctuary, with hands folded in prayer as prescribed and described in the above Rubric. We should exhort our people to fold their hands in like manner at Mass and particularly when walking up to, or away from, the communion rail. The mere fact of thus folding one's hands is in itself a help and incentive to earnest prayer, for by common consent folded hands are the symbol of a mind united to God.

© 1926 Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.

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