Why Do Catholics...?
by Paul Stenhouse, M.S.C., Ph.D.
In the earliest years of the church it was customary to pray standing, with hands extended and raised towards heaven. That this was the most common attitude is confirmed by frescoes, monuments of many kinds, tombs, glass vessels decorated with praying figures, and mosaics, especially those in the Roman catacombs. While in some instances the figures depicted on the monuments and frescoes may have represented the Church, it is clear that in many cases they actually represented dead persons. Our Lady is also represented in the Catacombs in this typical position of prayer.
Tertullian (160-220 AD) says that unlike the pagans who prayed with the palms of both hands raised to heaven, Christians modestly extended their hands! Tertullian further comments that Christians pray "looking heaven-wards, with hands extended because they are free of guilt, and with head bare ----".
The custom of Christian men praying with head uncovered was a sign that they were servants of Christ (who uncovered their heads in his presence) while Jews and pagans prayed with heads covered as a sign that they were freemen before their god.
The Apostolic admonition to women to pray with heads covered (1 Cor 11,5) instead of being an affront to a woman’s status and dignity, was a testimony to their relaxed and familiar attitude towards God. A sign of their liberation by Christ!
The raising of the hands towards heaven in prayer was a common practice among the pagan Romans, and throughout the Eastern Empire, especially in Egypt.
Tertullian claims further that one reason for the Christians not raising their hands, but simply extending them, was that they were copying Jesus who in his crucifixion died with hands outstretched. (De Orat. XI). Pagans prayed with the hands held vertically, with the elbow forming a right angle, while Christians prayed with their arms held horizontally. Minucius Felix, a second century AD Christian scholar from Egypt noted: "The sign of the cross can be recognized in the filled sails of a vessel, in the oars which move a skiff across the waters. The cross is represented also by the man of pure heart who prays to God with hands outstretched." (Octavius, 29).
The practice of praying with hands extended continued from earliest times into the Middle Ages. In Ireland it was particularly well known, with a special word in Old Irish "Crossfigell" to describe prayer of this kind. A beautiful legend of St Kevin of Glendalough (Book of Lismore, p.344) tells us that he remained for seven years leaning against a plank in the crossfigell position, out of reverence for the crucified Jesus.
Apart from the poetic beauty of legends like this, such stories demonstrate in their own way how the old Christian custom remained popular in the Mediaeval Celtic World.
In the Roman Missal before the Reformation there used to be a rubric obliging the priest to say the prayer Unde et Memores (which follows immediately after the consecration in the Roman Canon, now called the First Canon in the New liturgy) with arms outstretched.
Two postures very common in the Middle Ages, but no longer used in prayer by modern Catholics, are: holding the hands open in front of the breast; and praying with the arms crossed on the breast, with one wrist resting on the other. The most familiar position of the hands in prayer for Catholics from the eighth century onwards to the present day (mothers still teach little children to pray this way) is to join them. This practice, unknown in the early church, seems to have arisen in France and Germany, where it was customary for the vassal or bonds-man or knight, kneeling before his Lord, to place his hands, joined, within his Lord’s. The suitability of such a posture to accompany a Christian’s prayer was quickly appreciated, and the humility, modesty and reverence towards God that joined hands symbolized made this a popular (and less ascetic) way of praying.
A manuscript dating from 801 AD describes a monk taking his vows with hands joined before the Abbot of Farfa in Sabina, not far from Rome.
In this matter of a proper posture in prayer we conclude with the wise remarks of Pope Saint Nicholas I (Bishop of Rome from 858-867 AD) to whom the Bulgarians (only recently become Catholics) had sent a series of questions on Theology, Church Law and the Mass. With reference to the position of the hands in prayer (they had been told they must hold them against their breasts) Nicholas I says simply: "That is not so, for there is nothing definitely ordered in this matter. Customs vary; all that is necessary is to adopt some position that expresses humility." No better advice could be given today.
Condensed from "Why Do Catholics...?" by Paul Stenhouse, M.S.C., Ph.D. © 1994 Chevalier Press, Kensington, N.S.W. 2033. Reprinted in the May 1998 edition of the San Francisco Charismatics (ISSN 1098-4046), a nonprofit, educational newsletter published monthly by the Archdiocese of San Francisco Office of the Charismatic Renewal and posted at sfSpirit.com.