Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Stick 'Em Up: Put Your Hands in the Air like You Just Do Care When Praying to God

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Stick 'Em Up: Put Your Hands in the Air like You Just Do Care When Praying to God

Article excerpt

I'D FINALLY HAD IT WITH GOD. THINGS JUST WEREN'T going right, and I needed to let it out. But how do you read the riot act to the Almighty? I prepared my words, folded my hands as I'd been taught all my life, and got ready to let out the biggest screamer in my moderately developed spiritual life. But something was wrong; my steepled hands just didn't seem appropriate to the prayer I had ready. So I flung them up in the air and let God have it, hands extended and shaking Italian style.

Most of us have said a prayer like that, I guess, sheepishly returning to God the next day (or week or month) to seek a little reconciliation. But there was something about that prayer that was for me so true and honest that I couldn't take it back, and there was something so right about raising my arms in prayer that day that I find it hard now to pray any other way.

I was comforted to find out not long after that Christians have been praying "arms up" practically since the beginning. Though many in the ancient world prayed to their gods fiat on their faces, as if in abject fear, Christians prayed standing, arms outstretched, in a posture we now call "orans."

Bathed in the light of Resurrection, confident of their new relationship with God in Christ, ancient believers found in this posture a bodily sign of their joy. So important was this way of praying that Christians were later actually forbidden by church councils from kneeling at all on Sunday, even during Lent. An ancient mosaic depicting a Christian woman praying this way is simply called "Orans." And the posture survives today in the body of the priest at Mass, who offers prayers in the assembly's name with hands raised.

What about those folded hands taught to every child and modeled in a thousand little hand sculptures? Praying with folded hands, usually while kneeling, comes from the Middle Ages, when vassals swore loyalty to their overlords by offering their folded hands, which a lord would cover with his own. Medieval Christians imagined God to be like their own lords and kings, and so sought favors in that way. Today's rite for ordaining a priest still has the newly ordained promising obedience to the bishop with this gesture. …

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