Monday, November 12, 2018 - Updated: 11:31 am
Years ago on retreat we were asked in a prayer service of thanksgiving to place one or several articles which were special to us in front of the altar, as symbols of our giving thanks to God. I placed my Bible and a pen — the Bible to signify the gift of my ability to read, the pen of my ability to write, and both to express my gratitude for those who taught me to read and write. Both items involved words, which are so dear to me.
Our liturgies are full of words. The word of God. Our words of repentance, petition, thanksgiving and praise. Sung words and spoken words.
But we pray with more than words. Let me offer some thoughts on how we pray with our whole body, especially at Mass.
Before Mass we pray with our stomachs, as we fast from food and drink for one hour before receiving holy Communion. We walk from the parking lot into church with our feet. We stand on our feet at several foundational moments: at the beginning to sing, to honor the proclamation of the Gospel, to offer petitions and to receive the final blessing. The deacon’s dismissal sends us forth to “walk with the Lord.”
We pray with our knees when we kneel in adoration during the Eucharistic prayer and genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. We pray with our trunks when we sit and listen attentively to the readings and homily, or bow during the creed at the words that commemorate Christ’s incarnation: “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”
Hands allow us to make the sign of the cross, to shake hands or hug our neighbors at the sign of peace and to receive Christ in Communion. Hands mark our minds (foreheads), lips and heart at the beginning of the Gospel reading. The priest lifts his hands several times during the Mass in the “orans” or praying position. Many faithful imitate this posture — elbows at the side, palms open — when we say or sing the Our Father.
An Orthodox Christian taught me to place my first three fingers together when I make the sign of the cross, to signify the Trinity. The other two fingers signify the divinity and humanity of Christ. We can fold our fingers to pray when we walk in procession to receive the Eucharist.
Some use their tongues to reverently receive the sacred host. Most use their mouths to sing. We strike our breast at the words “through my own fault” when we pray the Confiteor. Ears allow us to hear the readings from the Scriptures.
At special festive liturgies and funeral Masses, our noses help us to smell the incense, “rising like prayer to heaven.” Our eyes allow us to see the altar, crucifix, statues, stained glass, artwork for the Stations of the Cross, and our sisters and brothers next to us. Closing my eyes helps me to focus myself, to gain insight from the Holy Spirit into what God wants to say to me in prayer.
Once a year the priests and deacons lie face down on the floor of the church to pray silently. This is the odd beginning to the Good Friday celebration of the Lord’s Passion. This humbling gesture involves the whole body, and symbolically imitates Jesus’ complete gift of his body for crucifixion. For me it also recalls my ordination day, when I laid on the cold marble floor of St. Paul Cathedral in Pittsburgh with my 11 classmates, as the choir and congregation sang the litany of the saints, prior to our receiving the sacrament of holy orders at the hands of the bishop.
As I age I have become more aware of people with disabilities. Some of the faithful come to Mass in wheelchairs, and cannot kneel or genuflect or stand. One or two may be blind and listen to the words with greater attention. Deaf folks “listen” with the help of a sign language translator. These people pray with all their hearts, even though one or several parts of their bodies fail them.
In addition to serving as vehicles for the prayer of human beings composed of body and spirit, the postures and gestures we use at Mass have another function. When we do these bodily movements in common, we symbolize the unity of the church. We are one body, formed by Christ our head. We have unique diverse bodies, but in our standing, kneeling, sitting, bowing, singing and signing, we give visible witness that we are the body of Christ, united in heart, mind and spirit.
Father Almade is administrator of the parish grouping that includes St. Jude in Wilmerding, St. Colman in Turtle Creek and St. John Fisher in Churchill.