Origin of Folding Hands in Prayer

folded handsOne of the fun things about studying worship and liturgy is finding out the origin of things we do, either consciously or unconsciously.  One of my pet peeves is all the well-intentioned Sunday school teachers who exhort their students to “close your eyes and fold your hands” in prayer.  Where does the Bible command this?  Where do we see this bodily position used in Biblical prayer?  We don’t, as far as I know.  Imagine my delight when I came across a passage, from Miri Rubin’s Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, which explains the origin of this wide-spread custom.  In the late medieval period, it was commonly thought that great blessings and spiritual merit came from seeing, and viewing, the bread of the Eucharist.  The most powerful and effective viewing time was when the priest lifted up (elevated) the Eucharist.  We have records of people running from church to church to see as many elevated Eucharists as they could.  Since this was a holy moment, the people were encouraged to respond appropriately:

medieval eucharist“Proper humility was recommended at this moment, when people were to kneel and gaze at the body and the blood.  This is the attitude most commonly shown in visual representations of the elevation, a group of men and women with clasped hands, and sometimes holding their hands to their mouths in a gesture of awe, kneeling behind the servers and priest.  They are most frequently shown to be clasping their hands in a gesture which becomes increasingly common in thirteenth-century representations, one which we nowadays think of as natural for private prayer” (Corpus Christi, 155-56).

child_prayingI don’t mean to be too hard on the Sunday School teachers, but it is simply interesting how we inherit all sorts of traditions from the past, and are blissfully ignorant of the origins of most things.  This should make us both more humble in our own worship practices, as well as thankful for all the rich history and traditions that have been handed down to us.  Thankfully, God sees the heart, which is really the point of prayer.  May we all have hearts full of child-like faith, no matter how we express that with our bodies!

I blogged about prayer postures some time ago:

Worship as the “Pulsating of a Common Life”

Ralph Martin writes:  “The worship of the church means the pulsating of a ‘common life’ (koinonia) that flows through the body of Christ and in which the individuals participate through their baptism by one Spirit into one body (see 1 Cor. 12:13).  To conceptualize the church at worship as made up of isolated units, however personal, each worshiping in a self-contained compartment, however closely associated, is really to mistake what the New Testament means by the church.  As E. Schweizer well illustrates, the ideal set forth in the pages of the apostolic church is that of fellowship-in-worship.  He deals critically with the latter-day notion of the Christian community as split between one speaker and a silent body of listeners; and equally his study rebukes the excessive individualism of what passes for worship in many modern churches.  Recovery of the wholeness of the church’s life as ‘life together’ in Christ, in Bonhoeffer’s phrase, would go a long way to set our worship as a corporate exercise on a stable basis, and deliver modern congregations from ‘ministerial monopoly’ with one person conducting a virtuoso performance on the one side, and overemphasis on the narrowly individualistic–such as a disfigured Corinthian assembly where koinonia had tragically broken down–on the other” (The Worship of God:  Some Theological, Pastoral, and Practical Reflections,12-13).

In the coming weeks, and months, I’ll be writing more about this topic, because it really goes to the heart of a shift I’ve experienced in my life and my theology.  I’ll be posting more about the intersections of liturgy and practical ministry.  God has given me many opportunities to get into the nitty-gritty, painful, work of walking alongside people in really messed-up situations.  In a sense, I’ve been forced out of my “ivory-tower” of academic scholarship.  In another sense, I’ve been encouraged that I’m in good company with many other faithful scholars who have gone before me.  So, no new revelations will be forth-coming, but I will be sharing some of the wisdom that I’ve found, wisdom that’s been neglected.

New Resource – Worship and Doxology

Doxology and Theology is an effort to raise the theological standards of contemporary worship.  In their own words:   “We exist to promote gospel-centered worship by connecting and equipping worship leaders. This is a community promoted by worship leaders/pastors for worship leaders/pastors.”  Though I might be more old-school than these guys, I appreciate what they’re doing.  We can learn from each other.

More on Liturgical Didacticism

The Reformers were reacting to the scandalous ignorance of the average Christian.  For various reasons, the Roman Catholic clergy had failed in their responsibility to teach and instruct the Church.  This is why people flocked to Protestant churches to hear a deluge of high-powered sermons, rich in humanistic scholarship and pastoral insight.  However, the pendulum always swings too far the other way.  In their eagerness to teach these starving sheep, the Reformers tended to turn liturgy into yet another didactic device, rather than a doxological path for worship.  Gordon S. Wakefield comments on Martin Bucer’s liturgy:

“As one might expect, Strasbourg liturgy is verbose in the extreme.  This was a danger of many Reformed rites, which is why Cranmer’s virtues shine so bright in contrast.  It is due to the desire to make worship intelligible, to exlain everything so that it may be understood.  This is a worthy motive, but it may be an affliction, evident today among those who cannot leave explanation to rubrics, or in some instances sermons, and who fail to realize that worship is not simply a mental activity and that liturgy has a symphonic, or poetic quality.  It should itself carry the worshippers along into the heavenly places.  The reaction against the mystery and secret of the Mass has gone too far.” (An Outline of Christian Worship, 75).

Today, I think the biggest area of temptation for churches is in the “pastoral prayer,” or in any other prayer.  Sometimes we can tend to preach in our prayers.  We forget who we’re talking to.  This is why I find it helpful to pray the Psalms, read Puritan prayers, or Anglican, and even some Orthodox prayers.  Prayer isn’t easy for me.  I need help, so I’m not ashamed to learn from saints who have gone before me, and who excelled in prayer.