How should we Hold our Hands at Mass?
… and does it really matter?
Catholics, it would appear
— both Traditional and Post-Vatican-II — no longer have any idea
about what to do with those awkward appendages called their hands during
Mass. Any attempt to arrive at an understanding of the apparent absence
of ritual uniformity in the outward expression of prayer as a manifestation
of inward spirituality has doggedly eluded me. Our knees seem to instinctively
know what to do in the way of kneeling and genuflection, but apart from
blessing ourselves, we seem to have no idea what to do with our hands
during Mass, especially during prayer at Mass. Indeed, how is a Catholic
supposed to hold his hands during prayer? Is there an agreed
upon form? And what is more, does it matter?
This confusion did not exist prior to much of the other confusion
engendered by so many competing "interpretations" of the Second Vatican
Council and that elusive "spirit of the Council" that often egregiously
flies in the face of the overly profuse and often involuted documents
that emerged from it. If anything was absolutely certain it was equally
absolutely tentative. Hence the confusion that still has us scratching
our heads fifty years later, terribly unsure about what authentically
constitutes a Catholic in light of this overwhelming exegesis. Even
the simplest things have become cause of contention, doubt, and uncertainty.
Like a man doubting his own identity who reaches out to others who really
do not know him to confirm it, the Council reached out in the broadest
inclusive terms, to strangers who did not know the Church, and even
detested Her, to reassure Her that she was not necessarily who She long
thought Herself to be, but who she ought to be — on terms of
their own making. "Do you not know yourselves?", they asked incredulously.
"Then surely we will tell you. Us. All-inclusive; a marvelous
dialectic finally sublating all erstwhile and bitterly contested contradictions
into the undifferentiated 'People of God' — and we all are ... despite
differences in doctrine, dogma, and even religion itself!" This was
the clarion, the evangel, that became the "Spirit of Vatican II". No
one left out in cold — no matter what Christ told us!
Our prayers became the prayers of others ("for Thine
is the Kingdom and the power ..."), and we even greeted one another,
and our own priests greeted us, in Yiddish with "Shalom!". We
sang their songs, who did not sing ours ... Martin Luther but not Saint
Gregory. We prayed their vernacular who did not pray in our Latin. We
stripped our churches in an ecumenical impulse to shared sterility.
We de-canonized our saints while adulating their Fanfare for the
Common Man. They gained paradise, one and all, and we lost Hell.
They attained to effortless and egalitarian sanctity while we
relinquished the notion of sin. It is odd. We became like unto
them who disdained to become like to us who had become like to them!
All things uniquely Catholic were deconstructed, de-emphasized, demolished
or abolished. Entire devotions and Solidarities vanished as inimical
to ecumenism. Confessionals disappeared or became therapy rooms (by
appointment). Our priests faced the people like our formerly "separated
brethren", and turned their backs to God. The "People of God" metamorphosed
into God Himself — to whom was lifted the Sacrifice and
Oblation that had anciently been lifted up to God!
Is it really any wonder that we have even forgotten
how to pray as Catholics? It is this, and not all the incalculable devastation
of the "spirit" of the Second Vatican Council that we wish to address
now. Perhaps it is this collective amnesia that has become the last
vestige of a unique and once universal culture that we called
Catholicism. Something simple and utterly Catholic — in how we
pray as Catholics.
How do Catholics pray? It is a modest and simple beginning
to recovering what was lost. Something small and apprehensible, as a
mustard seed. The Teaching Sisters taught us that we held our hands
in the form of a steeple, palms pressed together, fingers pointed up
to God, and the right thumb over the left forming a Cross (We were also
taught, incidentally, to bow our heads at the Sacred Name of Jesus —
always and everywhere, without exception — but this, too, quickly disappeared
after 1962 ... Saint Paul notwithstanding 1 ). Utterly simple
before the ensuing confusion over (3) different “Forms of Greeting”,
(3) different “Forms of the Penitential Act, ”, the (4) different “Eucharistic
Prayers” and the (4) “Forms of Dismal.”
Out of breath, yet?
No one wishes to be conspicuous, or to presume to set themselves apart
from others in a way that would invite their being deemed affectatious
or hypocritically holy. Since the emphasis on minimizing ritual at large
(when was the last time you knelt, let alone bowed as indicated in the
missal upon reciting the words in the Nicene Creed
“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”
since the Novus Ordo of the Second Vatican Council? We have never
once — repeat, not once — observed this in any Novus Ordo Mass
anywhere in the world, even while the missal explicitly directs both
priest and congregation to bow upon enunciating these words.) — since
this repudiation of ritual at large, a dichotomy, a kind of sundering
of sorts, has resulted between posture and intention, a disjunction
between the body and the soul. We refuse to allow our body to conform
to our soul; what our bodies display and signify is not in accord with
what is in our hearts; we are divided within ourselves; our minds, our
hearts, pray, say, fervently believe, one thing — but in our bodies
there is nothing indicative of it, nothing in union with, expressive
of, what is in our minds. As it were, our minds worship, bend before
the will of God ... but our bodies do not. “That is my own affair”,
you say. “What I pray and how fervently I believe is my business alone;
it is between God and me.”
This is true. That is to say, it is true of private
prayer — but not of public worship, in which we act as one body and
in which our unity with our neighbor as members of the one Body in Christ
is signified, enacted, through a common ritual that is a collective
statement of otherwise utterly unique parts in that One Body. What we
express with our bodies, our postures, our verbal prayers is a communion
in that One Body that we cannot express, attain to, through our private
prayers. There is a difference between how we pray privately and publicly.
We do not bring our own private idiosyncrasies to Mass. We worship,
pray, not simply as ourselves, but as the Communion of Saints (you will
pardon me if I defer from using the much abused “People of God”), as
a spiritual body larger than our own physical bodies. We pray as a Church,
together, united in one belief, one creed, commonly, and such common
worship can only be coherently united through ritual, through a shared
ritual that expresses the unity of our belief. Through the active participation
in ritual we become visibly one; before God and to each other! Do you
not see it?
Rituals are Enacted by Bodies
At our homes, behind closed doors, we can and should
pray as God inspires us and teaches us. The ways are myriad. But at
the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass we pray not only with our individual
assent and fervor, but as a body of believers greater than the particular
bodies that our individual souls inhabit. What unites this mass of individuals
with different aspirations but the same object of worship? Ritual! What
we do in common; what is a visible, almost sacramental reality, is our
collective affirmation of what we believe though the common form of
shared ritual. Rituals are enacted by bodies, not minds, even
as they are a visible manifestation of the invisible mind. Rituals present
shared, that is to say, commonly (as “in common”) accepted realities
to the mind through the bodies of others, specifically through the visible
acts of the bodies of others.
So, what to do about those awkward hands that appear
so vexsome during Mass? Where do we put them? The Caeremoniale
Episcoporum (1985) in the paragraph De manibus iunctis
is clear about the Catholic posture concerning the folding of the hands
during Mass and prayer:
“When it says with hands folded, it is to
be understood in this way: palms extended and joined
together in front of the breast, with the right
thumb over the left in the form of a cross" (#107,
Another form, long in tradition, and also reverent while
standing (pressed gently against the waist), as well as in kneeling,
is hands clasped in prayer with thumbs forming a Cross
... although we hasten to add that this form is not uniquely
Now, as to whether it really matters or not. Surely
God hears our earnest prayers no matter how we fold our hands in prayer,
or even if we fold them at all. However, we do know that people who
do not know God or love Him do not do this. I personally have never
observed an atheist, skeptic, or agnostic pray at all. I have no evidence
of it. There is nothing in either their posture or their words to convey
to me not just an attitude of prayer, but the actuality of prayer. In
a word, there are gestures and postures, that we assume as Catholics
that others do not. They are signs distinctly, uniquely — and historically
— associated with Catholics. It is what Catholics do. It is part of
our identity of being a Catholic. We have Crucifixes with the Corpus
Figure of Christ on them, rather than plain Crosses. We have Rosaries.
Up to 40 years ago we bowed our heads whenever the sacred Name of Jesus
was uttered. We struck our breasts in reciting the Confiteor, made the
Sign of the Cross before we went into the water or upon any undertaking.
These things do not necessarily identify us as Catholics, but they are
unmistakably signs of Catholics.
What is more, because we are Catholics we do, in fact —or ought to —
behave differently at Mass than we do at home, or in a pub. We do not
(or ought not) cross our legs, lean back over the pew behind us, or
wear gym suits or baseball hats. Reverence precludes this. Or are we
lacking in due reverence to God and Church? Our voices are decidedly
more subdued at the local bank, and our actions much more restrained
than they typically are in Novus Ordo Churches. I urge you to
go to a Tridentine (Latin) Mass to experience the stunning difference.
And yet, oddly enough, the problem of those vexingly awkward hands persists
in both. Why?
Disdain for Ritual
It is likely that the ritual and custom has been forgotten
altogether in the passing of two generations alone. We see the proper
posture of prayer illustrated in all our religious statues (those that
still remain) and sacred art. But somehow we are obtuse to the inspiration
that such statuary and art is intended to invoke. We have somehow come
to believe that such postures of prayer are, in fact, factitious, strained,
unreal — that the people — of whom the statues are likenesses only —
prayed differently than portrayed by the artist or sculptor. Perhaps
only Saints prayed that way. But are we not all called to emulate the
saints? Why are we so afraid of the odor of sanctity? Is there anything
more beautiful than a Catholic conformed to Christ, to the Saints who
were conformed to Christ? We fear being seen as Pharisees, hypocrites.
Are there some? Yes, some. Are there Catholics possessed of sanctity
conferred upon them by God? Yes, some. Perhaps many. But we are so afraid
of the judgment of the world (which should mean nothing to us)! Even
of the judgment of our own brothers and sisters in Christ. Rather than
being pleasing in the sight of God and Holy Church, we would please
men?! Saint Paul is absolutely clear about this:
“For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek
to please men? If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of
What, then, should be our posture of prayer at Mass
— and is it really important?
While standing we see hands hanging limply, stuffed into pockets, clasped
behind backs, leaning, palms down, upon the back of the next pew. While
sitting they are stretched out on the pew behind them in a grand and
expansive gesture of detached (and irreverent) relaxation, or caressing
and massaging the backs or necks of their spouses, girlfriends or boyfriends,
folded across their chests as if in deliberation or impatience, or as
objects of sudden and peculiar interest to them as they almost clinically
examine their cuticles and fingernails. While kneeling, the uncertainty
of what to do with their hands is particularly acute and most obvious.
They are either limply hung over the backrest of the pew in front of
them, unjoined, crossed at the wrists as if relaxed, or loosely clasped
in a manner reminiscent of piety, but diligently casual enough not to
openly express it.
Going to Holy Communion they are at one’s sides, behind one’s back,
swinging in a natural gait, and, of course, casually folded, usually
to the maximum extent allowed by the length of one’s arms. Are we embarrassed
to hold our hands properly in prayer? Are we afraid to be thought sanctimonious,
putting our devotion on display? We all kneel the same way: on our knees.
Why cannot we hold our hands the same way — expressing unity
in all things in worship, instead of the strident cry for diversity
in all things? Look at our children at their First Holy Communion. See
how their hands are folded as an example to us! Is that our way,
then? Teach our children one thing, and do another? Do only statues,
following our First Holy Communion, give us this example? And what is
the value of a statue if it does not inspire us and call us to emulate
Mary and the Saints? Do you not know that you are called to be a saint,
Diversity engenders division
Do not be your "own individual” at Mass. The Mass is
not about “you” — it is about Christ — and
also about unity through Him, with Him, and in Him!
“Ut unum sint” … Christ prayed,
“That they may be one”. 3 Have we not had enough of
“diversity” at Mass, and for far too long? Diversity engenders division!
The very etymology of the word derives from the Latin diversitatem,
or contrariety, contradiction, disagreement". "Diversity" has been the
unrelenting mantra of the "spirit" of the Second Vatican Council ...
as it has been implemented — and to what grievous an aftermath! The
“unity” so sought after became “diversity” and diversity became division
in every parish. No?
There IS Beauty in Uniformity
Contrary to the prevailing mind-set, there is beauty
in oneness in purpose and expression. Can you imagine a stadium filled
with people, each singing their own version of the National Anthem
— and each a different tune? What is Dvorak’s New World Symphony if
every symphony orchestra played it, not according to the composer’s
notation, but to their own improvised notation? Whatever cacophony
it becomes, it does not remain, and will not be recognized, as the New
World Symphony composed by Dvorak. There is beauty, clarity, and united
purpose in harmony, in union, in oneness — when everyone is on the same
page and not on a page of their own choosing. Do you not see this?
The Japanese use an aphorism that is particularly apropos
of this discussion: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
What is incongruous and not in harmony is discouraged. The trumpet player
who plays too loudly when his part is to be subdued, is corrected. The
cellist who spontaneously enters into a rhapsodic frenzy independent
of the composition and notation — ignoring the conductor — is scolded.
The desire to “stick out”, to “be observed”, to call attention to oneself
by not comporting oneself in harmony with all those around, is nothing
less than vanity and self-aggrandizement.
The absence of folded hands in prayer (and especially going to Holy
Communion — which, of course, the entire congregation does since none
are sinners any longer, or at least after Vatican II) is the absence
of reverence before the holy. Would you so insolently stride up to Christ
Himself (which you do) with hands carelessly hanging like limp appendages
at your sides, or stuffed into your pockets? This speaks much about
your faith — or lack of it. We would not so casually greet a president
or prime minister. Why? It would be presumptuous and insolent —and you
know it! But our Blessed Lord ...?
While we are at it, and as an aside, but not without
relevance, when you bless yourself, realize in Whose Name you bless
yourself: The Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
In the name of God Himself! Why do you make the Sign of the Cross so
hastily and often so sloppily? Think of what you are doing! Of Whom
you are invoking! Priests are often as guilty of this as laymen. The
SIGN OF THE CROSS (before which the devil flees and under which
Constantine conquered) you do as if it had no meaning, no significance.
The Sign of the Cross should be made slowly, reverently, purposefully,
thoughtfully — in recognition of Him Who in that act anoints you! Why
the speed-blessing? Is the Name of God, the Sign of the Cross through
which you have been purchased and redeemed at so incalculable a cost
… so trite? One observer of Saint Bernadette was deeply struck by the
way she made the Sign of the Cross while praying before Mary at Lourdes.
It was slow, each name uttered with love, and totally, unsurpassingly
reverent! Should our signing ourselves with the Cross be less reverent?
Not just what you pray, but how you pray, will be a witness to
the reality of God to others, not because you wish it to be, but simply
because it is so. In this sense you yourself, unknowingly, become something
of a sacramental.
OTHER FORMS OF HOLDING ONES HANDS
Given what we have just said, it is nevertheless the
case that some people (since Vatican II) choose to hold their
hands in prayer in an idiosyncratic expression of their own personal
and peculiar iteration. Let us look at two physical attitudes of prayer
that we are likely to encounter at the Novus Ordo Mass:
The Orans (literally, "praying" in Latin)
posture. Here the supplicant holds one hands extended upward
in imitation of the priest at the Altar who does this
according to the rubrics in his sacramental and priestly faculty
in representing the congregation. This has largely,
and illegitimately, come into practice through so-called
"Charismatic Catholics", or the "Charismatic Renewal" (yet another
faction and another "renewal" in the Church, and which provides
"workshops" for learning glossolalia, or "speaking in tongues" —
the not-so-spontaneous (because it is taught, studied,
learned, and practiced in these "workshops") uttering of
verbal nonsense — indecipherable even to other "Charistmatics",
but presumably understandable by God Whom they hold to spontaneously
inspire ... what has in fact been taught, studied, learned,
It is noteworthy that concelebrants of the Mass (other
priests) and deacons refrain — in compliance with
the the rubrics of the Mass — from using the orans posture;
only the main celebrant is instructed to do so who, once again,
in himself represents all those present at the Mass. This
quasi-priestly orans gesture is yet another instance of the
increasing permeability between the Sanctuary and the pews: we commonly
see this when the priest illicitly leaves the Sanctuary
to be democratically immersed in the pews as just "one of the guys"
rather than an alter Christus set apart, and the laity (mostly
women) swarm the Sanctuary in every "Ministry" (hence having "Ministers")
fabricated since Vatican II. Prior to Vatican II Catholics had
Priests and Protestant had Ministers. We now have
both, and many more "Ministers" than Priests.
Is the orans posture uniquely Catholic? No! Until the "Charismatic
Renewal" that renewed nothing, it was confined to emotionally-imbued
Protestant revivalist meetings, American Pentecostalists, and Evangelicals.
Yes, there are some ancient Catholic murals depicting people praying
in the orans posture — just as it is found in pre-Christian
pagan illustrations and engravings in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In
a word there is nothing at all distinctively Catholic in this posture
of prayer. Is it bad? No. No form of genuine prayer is bad. Is it
liturgically correct? No. It is the the proverbial
“Deru kugi wa utareru',
the nail sticking up calling for attention (St. Matthew 6.5), when
our attention should be directed to God Alone in the Most Holy Sacrifice
of the Mass.
Hands Cupped. We are uncertain of the origin
of this posture of prayer which most likely derives from the Muslim
tradition of the 19th Rakat of the Salat in
private prayer: "Say personal prayers with hands cupped
and palms up at chest level." 4 There is no precedent
in Catholicism —or Christianity — for holding ones hands in this
manner during prayer. Presumably it is an attitude of receptiveness
to God's blessings as a cup receives water. This is a charitable
interpretation. According to AllExperts, in Buddhism,
"hands are a little cupped rather than strictly palm-to-palm, because
they are supposed to represent a lotus bud - that pure, beautiful
flower that grows up out of the mud!" 5 Once again,
there is not only nothing distinctly Catholic in this attitude of
prayer, apart from the idiosyncrasy of the one praying, but no apparent
association with Christianity at all. Once again it is
“Deru kugi wa utareru'.
Ut unum sint! "That they
may be one." Such a beautiful — and since Vatican II — elusive
1 Philippians 2:10
2 Gal. 1.10
3 St. John 17:21
Boston Catholic Journal
Printable PDF Version