It all began a few weeks ago at an RCIA meeting. The early church was the theme. Who were the early Christians? What were their lives like? How did they pray? Little did I know that within that discussion, an issue would arise which later led to a very passionate and heated debate in which the word ‘heretical’ was thrown around an awful lot. “When the priest holds up his hands, he’s adopting the orans posture”, our RCIA director said, “It’s a way of praying that the early Christians used and it’s making a bit of a comeback. You don’t have to do it but it’s now sort of encouraged”. For Church newbies, there’s a lot to remember and we all want to fit in. Genuflecting, the Sign of the Cross, the Sign of Peace…I mean, it’s easy to feel under pressure. And so, wanting to “get it right”, I dutifully held out my hands when we got to the Lord’s Prayer at the next Mass I attended. I noticed several other people had done the same and assumed that was that. It was simply a stance one took during the Lord’s Prayer.
Fast forward a week and I’m back at Mass. We come to the Lord’s Prayer.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been shot a look during a church service that made you feel as if a little demon had popped up on your shoulder but that expression of total shock, anger and horror was fired down the length of the pew so fast that it could have knocked me of my feet. The two ladies sitting next to me were not at all impressed with my upturned hands during the Lord’s Prayer (I promise you, they were clean) and actually shuffled down a little to put some distance between us. Embarrassed? Me? More like mortified. I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong – if anything at all – and so as soon as I got home, I dashed to Father Google to try to work out exactly why they had been so offended. I punched in ‘orans posture’, assuming that was the cause of their distress, and suddenly it all became clear. Orans isn’t just a way of standing – it’s an issue which gets people very hot under the collar.
I’m going to skip over the history of the orans posture, other than to say that our RCIA director is quite right. It was a stance adopted by the early Christians and many people adopt it today during the Lord’s Prayer. But is it encouraged?
The Church itself hasn’t taken a formal stance on the matter outside of the way a priest is called to say Mass. In other words, there’s no rule that says the laity must not adopt the orans posture but there’s no guidance that we should adopt it either. It’s left up to the individual to decide and naturally, you’re going to get opinions on both approaches. For those who support the laity “taking a stance” during the Lord’s Prayer (or even holding hands with the people next to them), it’s an outward sign of community and a link to the early Church they want to foster and promote. For those who oppose it, it’s a disrespectful imitation of the priest and taking from the sanctuary into the church what should remain something of the sanctuary. So who’s right? For those who want to become Catholics, what should we do and which example should we follow?
When man poses a question, God gives an answer. And this weekend’s Gospel provides the perfect response to the orans issue (in my humble opinion). In the 23rd Gospel of St Matthew, we hear Jesus preach on the hypocrisy of the scribes and the Pharisees.
You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say; but do not be guided by what they do: since they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they! Everything they do is done to attract attention, like wearing broader phylacteries and longer tassels, like wanting to take the place of honour at banquets and the front seats in the synagogues, being greeted obsequiously in the market squares and having people call them Rabbi.
St Matthew, 23: 3 -7
In other words, these were people making gestures or saying prayers without a thought for God. They just did it because they felt it would make them look holier than everybody else – and they encouraged others to do the same. But in reality, they were guilty of false piety. They were so keen to be seen as teachers, as Godly men, that they actually led people away from the true meaning of God’s commandments. In the same way, if someone is telling us to adopt a stance because it makes us outwardly appear more holy or understanding of God’s word, they’re just as guilty of hypocrisy as the scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus spoke of. I’m not accusing everyone who adopts the orans stance as seeking attention – I don’t have that right. Neither am I saying they shouldn’t. But later in the same chapter, Jesus says, “Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted”. If adopting the orans stance is something a person does during the Lord’s Prayer to humble himself before the Lord? That’s one thing. But to do so because it’s just what everyone else does these days? Well that’s quite another. If I make the Sign of the Cross but don’t give a thought to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit then why am I doing it? To show piety? To prove my faith is stronger than that of others even when it clearly isn’t?
In the course of the debate online, one contributor knowing my fondness for Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “His Holiness endorsed [orans]! He wrote a book about liturgy and he told us it was fine!” – so naturally I purchased ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’. What the Pope Emeritus says is actually far more complex. Yes he does talk of the orans and yes, he absolutely does confirm that early Christians prayed that way. That was never up for debate. We know they did. But this is what His Holiness actually says:
Standing prayer is an anticipation of the future, of the glory that is to come; it is meant to orient us towards it. Insofar as liturgical prayer is an anticipation of what has been promised, standing is its proper posture. However, insofar as liturgical prayer belongs to that “between time” in which we live, then kneeling remains indispensable to it as an expression of the “now” of our life”.
The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, 2000
When we stand at Mass, we’re like our Christian ancestors who were waiting for the glory of salvation through Jesus Christ. When we kneel, we’re reminded that we aren’t there yet. We’re humbling ourselves before the Lord as well as looking forward to His return. And yes, His Holiness does say that the orans is a perfectly acceptable stance to take in prayer (St Dominic assured us of the same)…but knowing the Pope Emeritus to be a man of great detail and clarity in his writings, I can’t help but feel that he would never have simply implied that the laity should adopt the orans posture during the Lord’s Prayer – he would have said so outright. Indeed, at no point in the book does His Holiness connect the orans to the Lord’s Prayer. The general message of ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ is that we have to consider the meaning of the Mass at all times during the liturgy because that’s what brings us closer to the glory of God. But we can’t just decide ourselves what God wants of us or how we should show our love for Him.
In doing so, we could attribute motives to God that actually belong to us and our own intentions. In the Letter of James in the New Testament, we’re given a clear command; “Humble yourself before the Lord, and He will lift you up”. If our devotion and all the expressions of that devotion come from a place of humility and of true love for God, then we’re fulfilling that requirement. But if, like the scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus spoke of, we’re just doing something out of false piety or misplaced guidance to prove our fervour, then we’re not only hypocrites but we’re also not humble before the Lord. Perhaps what we have to accept is that there is a compromise to be made here. The orans is a stance we take in the privacy of our prayer lives outside of the liturgy but we have to accept that it has no formal place in the public liturgy….that is, the Mass. When we’re at Mass, we come together as a community before the Lord but we remain individuals, each guided by our own conscience and answerable for our own decisions. At certain times within the liturgy we petition God together as brothers and sisters for the benefit of others and wee do so because the Church has constructed the liturgy to allow for both individual and collective acts of devotion – but nobody can seem to decide if orans is individual or collective. And therein lies the problem.
Personally speaking, I feel that if orans is this divisive in the setting of the Mass, then it has no place within the Mass. It already detracts from the Lord’s Prayer itself. I mean….we’re all focused on hands here guys. The Lord’s Prayer was given to us by Christ Himself. And what does he tell us? That we must respect God. Forgive our neighbours. Seek mercy. Accept God’s will. Put our trust in God to deliver us from evil. If anything distracts us from living out those truths then surely it can’t be beneficial? Personally speaking, the orans during the Lord’s Prayer isn’t something I’ll be continuing with for that very reason. I don’t feel it humbles, I feel it separates. I don’t see that it connects me to the priest or to my brothers and sisters – neither should it. I’m called to love my neighbour but at Mass, I’m being called to something greater. To lift up my heart to the Lord. And that’s what I want to focus on, not the lifting of hands.
N.B – The Spirit of the Liturgy by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is published by Ignatius Press and is available for purchase by clicking here.