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The Posture of Prayer

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The posture of prayer presented by the Spanish to the indigenous; hands joined, eyes uplifted and glistening with tears, likely on her knees as painted by Baltasar de Echave Orio around 1615. Still indigenous dancing, as a form of prayer, remains popular.

Having grown up in area so largely Catholic, one identified where you live by parish not physical address (everyone knew where folks from Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament lived!), I never thought about the posture of prayer as a child.

Then I entered a heathen (read non-Catholic) college and learned how the knell, sit, stand choreography of a mass, with accompanying hand motions greatly confused my classmates.  They didn’t realize that group body language was an intrinsic part of the rite. Each body or hand position says something different.

I re-encountered this confusion here in San Miguel realizing most foreigners are clueless about the posture of prayer.

The traditional postures for prayer are:

  1. Standing with hands uplifted and open, head up, and eyes open – The oldest posture for prayer where the worshiper acknowledges God as external and transcendent. This posture is for thanksgiving, praises, and blessings by the priest extended to those in attendance.

  2. Kneeling, either with the head up, eyes open, hands open, or with head down, eyes closed, and hands clasped – The traditional posture for requesting favors from a king, and so it became the traditional posture.  Kneeling shows devotion to God. Many also kneel beside their beds to pray at night or when they receive blessings from a spiritual leader. 

Oddly enough the Council of Nicea in AD 325 forbade kneeling on Sundays, because penitential prayer is not appropriate during a celebration of the Resurrection. In Mexico, kneeling meant humility and submission, and so kneeling became the normal posture for most prayers.

Sidebar:  The secret to kneeling is not to bend at the waist. Thrust your hips forward, so that your abdomen and thighs form a straight, vertical line, and you’ll be able to kneel for long periods of time without fatigue or sitting on your heels.

  • Lying on one’s belly, hands up, either with the head up and eyes open or with the head down and the eyes averted or closed – The traditional posture for begging favors from a king when the favors are great and the petitioner is either desperate or has, literally, no standing before the king. Only used in Mexico when one takes their final vows to be clergy symbolizing total submission to the calling and their inherent unworthiness.

  • Sitting, head down, eyes averted or closed, and hands clasped – The Church invented pews during the Middle Ages, right before the Reformation enabling prayer while sitting (some homilies were really long!).   While standing demonstrates confidence in God’s love, sitting is more passive, but it can be used to signify attentiveness or contemplation.

For hands, when the palms are together and the fingers are straight, it suggests purity and evokes an act of homage. Fingers intertwined suggest a more introspective posture and fervent frame of mind

For me, hands together with fingers intertwined towards my palms was my first prayer as a toddler reciting “See the church, here is the steeple (thumbs up), look inside (flip palms up and wiggle fingers) to see all the people!”

Shaking hands during a mass reinforces the idea of a church community and fellowship.  A physical take on the notion no one gets to Heaven alone.

In a single mass, you may be required to sit, stand, kneel, and genuflect (bow), in addition to walking up to receive communion if you are a practicing Catholic. This has led to the long-standing joke among Mexicans that you really ought to stretch and warm up before heading to mass.

byJoseph Toone

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