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Praying Hands Sml

Praying Hands

Praying Hands

THE HANDS when not engaged should be held joined palm to palm before, but not resting against, the breast; the fingers extended and close together, pointing slightly upwards; right thumb over left; elbows touching the sides of the body. (Ritual Notes, 9th Edition, 1946)

There was a discussion about hands and crossing thumbs on the social media sites associated with this site. [Thanks to all those in the discussions.] And so I went back to the rule books. Details down to which thumb crosses which are not high on my list of concerns! You won’t find it in my book Celebrating Eucharist. Christian praying hands is holding them extended in orans.

Anglicans and Roman Catholics hold to the same rule. The Roman Catholic rule is

Hands joined means holding the palms sideward and together before the breast, with the right thumb crossed over the left. (Ceremonial of Bishops 1989, 107n80 – quoting Cæremoniale Episcoporum 1886)

Obsession with such rules and minutiae is, tragically, exactly what many people think of when they hear the word “liturgy”.

Interestingly, when I went back through photographs, I found the (recent) popes generally ignore this rule. They generally knit their fingers. I needed to go back to Pope Pius XII (pre 1958) before photos showed more regular holding of hands in this manner. Someone else can do the same with Archbishops of Canterbury.

The discussion leads to the science of “hand clasping”:

People who hold the fingers of the right hand above the left fingers are classified as phenotype R (right), while those who hold the fingers of the left hand above those of the right are phenotype L (left).

Although some people do not exhibit a preference for one type of hand clasping, most do. Once adopted, the method of hand clasping tends to be consistent throughout life. When an individual attempts to clasp the hands in the opposite configuration from the usual one, that person may feel a sense that something is out of the ordinary.

Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, hand clasping is not solely genetic. Claims, in the social media discussion, that right handed people naturally put right thumb over left – are false.

Pope Francis (above) is clearly L.

Was he who started this rule R and extended his own tendency to others? Was he who started this rule L, and did he make this rule so that at liturgy he felt slightly awkward – doing things that are not totally natural-feeling may make one more focused, attentive, mindful? Is there an element (with those who just love allegorising rites) of dextra versus sinistra, the good right covering the sinister left?

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17 thoughts on “Praying Hands”

  1. Dear Bosco, there are other problems with any ritual necessity for the ‘pressed palms’ attitude of praying. ‘Dupuytren Contracture’ (which I am developing) means that one of the fingertips points inward to the palm, which prevents closure of the hands. I don’t know whether Pope Francis gets this, but I’m sure his prayers would still be valid if he did.

    I also have problems, now, with genuflection, so the Good Lord has to be content with a deep bow from me.
    Blessings, Fr.Ron

    1. Thanks, Fr Ron. From your response, it seems you have come across this “rule” previously, and now want to defend why it is difficult for you? My post comes at this from the other direction as, I am indicating, it seems that the popes, at least, for the last six decades, have. If they read this “rule”, they have ignored it since Pius XII. So, I don’t think they would like to but all could not because of Dupuytren Contracture.

      Genuflection could be worth a future post. My suspicion is that it is a (relatively) later development.

      The underlying positive point remains: that we can use our body in our praying, whatever our “condition”.


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  2. I’m guessing that this is about the manner of praying for those leading common prayer.

    Later-day Saints are taught from a very young age to fold their arms for prayer. This teaching usually remains with them through adolescence into adulthood. It is a common site to see LDS church leaders, of all levels of responsibility, fold their arms when leading public prayer. It is a habit that remains with me as well.


  3. Oh my… Are we to cross our legs at the ankle or the knee? :O) BTW, I am primarily a righty, but I evidently clasps hands L. I’m sure my mother would feel that dissonance explains a lot!

    1. Thanks, Stephen. From my reading up on this, tell your mother you are typical – along with Pope Francis and me. Blessings.

  4. Thanks for this fascinating discussion, Bosco! I love your suggestion about how a practice may have originated because doing what felt “awkward” was a support to recollection. And I had given no thought to the nature/nurture question.

    I would hate, however, for any of us to feel somehow disdainful of a gracious old tradition like this. I imagine that at some time in the very distant past the question just came up, “How should we hold our hands, anyway?” And on examination it was found that “Well, this is how we usually do it.” And then it became a rule, subsequently open to allegory.

    I find it very sad and frustrating when the old customs are looked down on by those of us who think we know better. As a worshipper (if not as a teacher!), I try to take C. S. Lewis’s view that we ought to be charitably indifferent to what our neighbours are doing. From “Letters to Malcolm” (ch. 2):

    “What pleased me most about a Greek Orthodox mass I once attended was that there seemed to be no prescribed behaviour for the congregation. Some stood, some knelt, some sat, some walked; one crawled about the floor like a caterpillar. And the beauty of it was that nobody took the slightest notice of what anyone else was doing. I wish we Anglicans would follow their example. One meets people who are perturbed because someone in the next pew does, or does not, cross himself. They oughtn’t even to have seen, let alone censured. ‘Who art thou that judgest Another’s servant?'”

    Alas, I’m afraid that Pope Francis is among those who think they know better, and who are further given to mocking those who keep to the old traditions. In the following video, he makes fun of a child server for holding his hands in the classical way:


    For my part, I still try to expose my students to the traditional rule that when the hands aren’t “doing something’ (e.g. held in the orans position) it is fitting to hold them folded or joined. I also find it very comely to follow the traditional discipline of holding one hand flat on the breast when the other hand is engaged in doing something (e.g. turning a page). Ideally, there should never be a time when the arms dangle by the sides.

    1. Thanks, Jesse.

      Firstly, I don’t interpret the video of the Pope’s encounter with the young lad in the way you do. I simply see the Pope joking with the boy – humour and reverence are not antithetical. Others might remark on the Pope kissing each boy – as with the suggestion that the Pope is here “mocking those who keep to the old traditions”, I would suggest it is pressing a moment too far.

      Possibly a key into your point is Matthew 23:23

      Jesus said: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.

      Some understand the word “liturgy” to primarily deal with things such as obsessing which thumb goes over which one. In fact, on social media, when I put out this post, some stated that they refused to read the post as they saw that my interest in liturgy meant such minutiae are my primary preoccupation.

      I think Jesus’ words apply: get the big picture – and we will see where the details fit in.

      When I interviewed some of the authors of the New Zealand Prayer Book texts, I asked, “what did you expect the presider to be doing at this point? What did you think they should be doing with their hands, for example?” Some authors produced lovely verbal texts without thought of actions or gestures. I have, as you know, stressed liturgy as action accompanied, often, by interpreting words.

      When a priest (“minister”) does not, for example, use orans during the Eucharistic Prayer, I may ask them what they do with their hands. The normal reply is, “nothing”. Actually, we cannot “do nothing” with our hands – they are always somewhere, doing something. I see priests praying in orans during the Eucharistic Prayer, and then leaving one hand skywards, whilst the other turns the page in a book – the whole thing looking like some fencing practice.

      We, who lead liturgy (and that includes servers) do need to think through how we do things, how we use and hold our hands – until they become, like so much, habits we don’t think about. And we need to think through how we do things together.

      And we do this, with the bigger picture in mind, and not as our primary focus. Wood and trees. Means and end. Your final paragraph, Jesse, describes this well.


      1. Thanks, Bosco. As usual, you and I are in complete agreement about the “big picture.”

        On the specifics, I sincerely wish I could share your positive interpretation of the video. But seen against a background of repeated insults directed towards traditionalist Roman Catholics in Pope Francis’s public statements, it’s hard for me not to see his interaction with this child as meaning “The way you’re holding your hands is stupid. Don’t do that any more. Only Pharisees do that.”

        Of course, as a convinced Protestant I don’t really have a dog in this fight! But among my good friends are several Roman Catholics who strive to follow the traditional teachings of their Church. They are passionately committed Christians, filled with love. But because they have large families and love the Latin Mass, the present pope would dismiss them as “rigid” and imply that they have psychological problems.

        For example, in a 2016 interview, Pope Francis expressed his opinion about young Catholics raised after Vatican II who had discovered a preference for the traditional Latin liturgy: “I ask myself: Why so much rigidity? Dig, dig, this rigidity always hides something, insecurity or even something else. Rigidity is defensive. True love is not rigid.”

        Much of the invective in the very amusing “Pope Francis’ Little Book of Insults” is clearly aimed at traditionalists. (http://popefrancisbookofinsults.blogspot.com/)

        Of course, there are plenty of traditionalists who are indeed unhealthily “rigid”! But in my experience, there are progressives and revisionists who are even *more* inclined to be so…

        Thanks as always, Bosco, for being such a generous and insightful discussion partner. Your point of view often helpfully challenges my own, and always enriches it.

        1. My experience with Roman Catholic Traditionalists, is that they view the popes since St Pope Paul VI as antipopes and that Vatican 2 led the Roman Church into apostasy. And Frances is the antipopest of the line.

          I don’t fault him for speaking against the rigidity of Traditionalists, even if you and others view it as insulting. I have seen so much worse written in comments by these folks. They wish him dead.

          As to his time with the youngster, like Bosco, I see this as playful teasing, not harmful or insulting in the least.

  5. I am not a Mormon, but I also like to cross my arms in prayer, if I do not have to hold a book, or if I do not lift my hands up.

    These are very, very minor things, that really do not matter at all. IMO, the biggest concerns in liturgy is to have valid matter for the sacraments, and traditional anaphoras. Issues of hands are exactly like those of personal clothes. Less than adiaphora.

  6. For some reason I always question this when praying it entered my heart and caught my eye that I was doing this and I was just wondering what it meant. So thank you ..

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