Sacred Signs and Symbols: How to Pray

Sacred signs and practices have long been a part of the history of religion and religious ritual.  Especially in our Judeo-Christian tradition, such ritual action plays a major role in connecting the divine and human realms.

Numerous examples from the Bible, the deuterocanon, and from apocrypha and pseudepigrapha point to certain ways to pray. In 1 Kgs 8, for example, we find Solomon praying at the dedication of his impressive First Temple. He kneels, stands, lifts his hands, and prostrates himself, and the whole assembly of Israel (kwl qhl ysr’l) joins him in these liturgical practices. In the Apocalypses of Enoch and Abraham as well as in the Testament of Levi (and other patriarchs), we see similar stances and postures taken up before the actual throne of God’s glory (ks’ kbd or ks’ mrkbh). In a similar vein, we see examples of the angels performing very similar liturgical practice.  In Post-Exilic texts like Ezekiel (see chs. 1 and 10) as well as Second Temple texts like the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, a Dead Sea Scrolls liturgical text, there are abundant instances of angelic hosts (like cherubim, and chayyim) standing or bowing before God. Prostration, bowing, or raised hands, we see, were integral in offering the most perfect worship to God in the history of Judaism.

In the New Testament as well, we find many examples of people worshipping in a set manner. Christ himself often stands to pray, or describes others as doing so (see Mark 11:25). In one of Paul’s letters, too, we find the specific mention of lifted hands:  “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands [ἐπαίροντας ὁσίους χεῖρας] without anger or quarreling…” (1 Tim 2:8). These accounts are matched by early christian writings about prayer and, similarly, depictions of people praying in like manner. For example, in the Catacombs of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, a third century AD burial site near Rome, we find frescoes of Christians praying with their arms uplifted and their hands spread out in a specific manner of prayer called the orans or orante (see the image above). For reference, this is the same stance the priest takes up numerous times during the Mass!

None of this is to say that we should take up prostrating ourselves during Mass, but it does point to the fact that our tradition of prayer stances is deeply rooted in a history of connecting the divine and human worlds through symbolic act and action. Thus, at Mass, when we genuflect before the tabernacle, kneel during the consecration, or hold hands to pray the Lord’s Prayer (as many student Masses on college campuses are want to do), we are engaging in oftentimes ancient liturgical practice designed as means for entreating the deity and creating a communion between this world and the supernatural.

In particular, I would like to take note of the ancient custom of striking the breast at Mass. This practice was known to the earliest Christians and is even explained by some of the early Fathers of the Church.  St. Augustine, for instance, teaches his congregation that “No sooner have you heard the word ‘Confiteor,’ than you strike your breast. What does this mean except that you wish to bring to light what is concealed in the breast, and by this act to cleanse your hidden sins?” (Sermo de verbis Domini, 13). Indeed, striking the breast is a beautiful sign of our contrition. Fr. Romano Guardini, in his book Sacred Signs, urges us to remember that this ritual act is of real significance and has real ramifications: “To brush one’s clothes with the tips of one’s fingers is not to strike the breast. We should beat upon our breasts with our closed fists. … It is an honest blow, not an elegant gesture. To strike the breast is to beat against the gates of our inner world in order to shatter them. This is its significance. … ‘Repent, do penance.’ It is the voice of God. Striking the breast is the visible sign that we hear that summons. … Let it wake us up, and make us see, and turn to God.” This ritual act, we see then, have practical significance for realizing the invisible reality of offering our contrition to God. Making use of this and similar liturgical practices (like kneeling, bowing during the Creed, standing during the Gospel), then, allow us to be reminded of what we are doing at Mass or in prayer and, often, to enter into the invisible realities of the divine presence in our community!

All of this is to suggest that we be mindful of the beautiful tradition we have of using sacred, holy, and ancient signs and symbols to make visible the invisible realities that surround us in our every day, especially in our ritual lives. Maybe knowing that our forefathers in faith striked their breasts in humility or raised their hands in rejoicing will help us remember that when we do these things we really are entreating the Lord to come into our lives in a tangible, visible way. And, as we all know, if we knock, the door will be opened, and what we pray in our private rooms, the Father hears, so none of these acts and signs will go unseen!

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