Friday, January 9, 2009


So Rob asked about the orans position at prayer which I thought would be a quick and relatively uncomplicated thing to report on this week, but such is not the case. It has been a minor matter of controversy in our diocese as of late as it at least appeared to a great number of us (this was later refuted by the person who it appeared was promoting it) that the laity was expected to assume this position while saying the Our Father at the Mass (which we will visit again in a moment.) At least it broke us from the habit of holding hands which was a controversy in and of itself among those who hated it, those who simply found it ritually improper, and those who thought that it was the gesture that would save the Church.

The orans position is an ancient posture of prayer. One stands with arms outstretched and having the palms of one’s hands facing toward the heavens. It is found in Exodus (17;11,12) as well as other places in Scripture. It is also found in art in the catacombs as a position of prayer. One’s body is open to God, offering one’s self as Christ did on the Cross, giving God glory and praise. But the depiction is not necessarily that of person buried there evidenced from the figure adopting this position sometimes being a female though the person buried is male. It is a symbol of the soul of the person praying for us in heaven. The Catholic Encyclopedia sites as “one of the most convincing proofs that the Orans was regarded as a symbol of the soul is an ancient lead medal in the Vatican Museum showing the martyr, St. Lawrence, under torture, while his soul, in the form of a female Orans, is just leaving the body.”

Liturgically it is the role of the priest when he is praying to God on behalf of the gathered Body of Christ. For example at the Collect when, after invoking the people to call to mind that which they want remembered at the Mass by saying, “Let us pray,” he then “collects” the prayers into one by stretching out his hands to God and offering all of the gathered prayers to the Father. Seen in this light we can understand how the gesture has become the gesture of the celebrant. It is interesting to note that the symbolic meaning of the position is such that the deacon may not assume this position during the Mass.

THAT BEING SAID, the gesture has become popularized in recent ages largely through the charismatic movement. As we have seen it is a legitimate position for private prayer. But does it fit at the liturgy? It is a more controversial and complicated symbolic question than one might think. Colin Donivan, STL puts it this way:

“The intention for lay people using the Orans position at this time is, I suppose, that we pray Our Father, and the unity of people and priest together is expressed by this common gesture of prayer. Although this gesture is not called for in the rubrics, it does at least seem, on the surface, to not be in conflict with the sacramental sign system at the point when we pray Our Father. I say on the surface, however, since while lay people are doing this the deacon, whose postures are governed by the rubrics, may not do it. So, we have the awkward disunity created by the priest making an appropriate liturgical gesture in accordance with the rubrics, the deacon not making the same gesture in accordance with the rubrics, some laity making the same gesture as the priest not in accordance with the rubrics, and other laity not making the gesture (for various reasons, including knowing it is not part of their liturgical role). In the end, the desire of the Church for liturgical unity is defeated.”

Oh, leave it to Rob to come with such a question . . .


Adoro said...

It's always made me very uncomfortable, so once I learned that I didn't HAVE to do it...I didn't anymore.

A few years ago I was very much struck by Fr.'s position during the Our Father. He was standing directly under and slightly in front of our very large crucifix, and suddenly the full weight of the symbolism and meaning of this gesture came home to me.

Maybe even more so now that I've attended an EF Mass where God was the sole focus, and I could see so clearly how the priest is praying FOR US! Yes, we are praying, too, but we aren't speaking for ourselves. HE IS! And in that is both his humility at being chosen as a speaker to God on our behalf, and us, in our need to rely on the one God has chosen to speak for us.

(Hope that long sentence made sense...)

The more I learn, the more the use of the orans at Mass makes me cringe. Elsewhere...fine. At Mass...there should be a clear declaration made in the rubrics as to the position of the laity.

This came up when I was on the Liturgy commission and we did see from all the documentation we found that the orans is discouraged, or, if not outright so, it is not prescribed. Using logic and intellect, one can clearly see that it is a position that in that context belongs to the priest alone.

I also noticed at a recent Mass that had 2 concelebrants that they also stood with folded hands as did the deacon.

Amazing people don't seem to take a hint from what's going on in front of them.

Unknown said...

Ok, I have a question...

Women and veils at mass.... yes? no? Why not?

Anonymous said...

Kat ~ The law has never really been abrogated, but there is a citation that it's based on custom. Jimmy Akin and Fr. Z. have written on this, I think St. Louis Catholic has. Basically, it can be encouraged, but not enforced. It's considered to be a personal devotion.

I wear one, and have been criticized by some of the laity for it, but have been given direct permission by my Pastor to wear it (when the question came up.)

As far as the why of why we don't wear it anymore..well, ask the reporter at Vatican II who, as usual in being a reporter, ran his or her mouth off and called it "fact". I think the veils got burned with all the bras and the GIRM on a bed of hashish.

(Did I say that out loud?)

Keith said...

As a product of RCIA I was never told to use the orans (hold my hands up or not to) when saying Our Father. I just followed what everyone else was doing. My wife, a cradle Catholic does not hold her hands up, I asked one day why and she simply said that see never did it growing up and felt uncomfortable doing it.

So, if I’ve read this right, I’m not to hold my hands up while saying the Our Father. You think that an organization as large as the Catholic Church, they could make a easy to read book on the do and don’ts. Just when I think I understand it, guess what, it’s wrong.

So, do you think God really cares if I’m holding up my hands or not holding up my hand while saying the Our Father? The God, I know is glad that I came to His house to offer Him Praise and Worship.

Adoro said...

Keith ~ Every part of the Mass is important. For example...there is a reason there are 3 steps to the altar: they stand for the 3 theological virtues.

EVERY movement, every gesture, every part of the Mass has a meaning that doesn't necessarily meet the eye. As Father V. explained, the orans is also symbolic, and therefore, in the context of the Mass, it's not proper to pray in the orans position.

Obedience honors God more so than the idea oft-purported by relativists that say, "Well, as long as my intention is to do X it's OK". Would you argue the converse, if, by cheating on your wife, you didn't really INTEND to harm her, only do what you felt was right at that given moment?

(Yes, that was an extreme example but it follows the same kind of logic often used.)

Obedience is a virtue, and unity is called for in the Mass. If some people are doing something improper, even if they don't intend to, it affects the whole. We ALL have to be obedient to the directives, and yes, I do agree that it would be nice to have a list of DO'S and DONT'S. And we do have it; it's call the General Instruction on the Roman Missal.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of Catholics don't know about it and wouldn't bother to read it if it were given to them and they were to be tested on it.

And also unfortunately, this topic isn't in it; I'm not sure it was an issue at the time of publication.

uncle jim said...

i adopted the orans for personal prayer many [30 or so] years ago.

i may use it with arms outstretched and hand raised high at a charismatic prayer meeting - i call this orans major. at other times it is with elbows still at my side, forearms extended to the front with palms up - i call this orans minor ... my own descriptives for convenience in understanding what i'm describing.

i consider the Lord's Prayer within the context of the Mass [liturgy] to be a personal, not communal, prayer. i do not hold hands [except in rare cases for reasons of charity when someone grabs mine], but i do use orans minor, my normal posture in personal prayer.

so now, you've got me wondering whether or not i need to stop doing this because i may be ignoring some unwritten rubric.

what say you?

knuckledragger said...

Adoro said: It's always made me very uncomfortable, so once I learned that I didn't HAVE to do it...I didn't anymore.

LOL...I concur. Two years ago, I returned to the Church after a 30+ year hiatus and found my fellow parishioners engaged in this curious practice. I opted for the traditional hands folded position, even though I didn't know the Church's current ruling on that. (At the time)

BTW, due to proximity of their neighbors, most congregants don't assume a proper, priestly orans position; they look as if they are engaged in some pagan ritual, perhaps awaiting the light beam from a UFO. ;^)

Adoro said...

Knuckledragger ~ There's a few people in my parish signaling "TOUCHDOWN!"

Anonymous said...

So Fr V, Help, should we or should we not use the orans position for the Our Father?

Anonymous said...


Or mere opinion?

Anonymous said...

Father V. I am in the Cleveland Diocese when we stopped holding hands several years ago we were told to hold our arms in the "surrender position." That is holding your arms up like when someone pokes you in the back and says "stick 'em up." That we are surrendering to God or something of that effect.

In our parish people do both orans and surrender positions. The majority do the surrender position.


uncle jim said...

so if we cannot do orans, what is it were supposed to do .... grab hold of the top of the pew in front of us and hold on? or put my hands in my pocket? or just let my arm and hands hang down at my side? or, as a commenter above mentions, just 'fold my hands'? why would folding hands be any different? is that prescribed somewhere as the proper posture? if we being told what not to do, are we told somewhere what we are to do?

Fr. V said...


Since you asked - as you can see it is not exactly regulated. In private prayer if it is helpful to your spirituality do it. At Mass you can see it is not expressly forbidden - but then again neither is crossing your eyes. Conversely neither is it called for.

That a deacon is NOT to do it but a priest is gives us a clue that perhaps it was not envisioned. So if you ask my personal opinion it would be not to do it. At a minimum we certainly cannot tell people that they MUST do it. So the answer lays somewhere in the middle. For the time being, if you get something out of it - do it as long as it is not disruptive.

This is my opinion.

(Mary B - I too have been in congregations where it looked like the they were being held up at gun point.)

Fr. V said...

Uncle Jim - Well - who knows? There is a circle of gestures from which we may choose - and others that are not appropriate for one reason or another. Just remember we have just reunited with our Heavenly Father through the lifting up of Christ and the first words out of our mouth is, "Our Father." So just pray - how need you stand to do this?

Anonymous said...

Dear Father, I decided not to continue the Orans posture at Mass when I read somewhere that to use it was to usurp the role of the priest. (Use of the posture outside of Mass was OK.)Catholics used to pray the rosary during Mass. Now we don't. Some forms of prayer are not appropriate during Mass. Most people who use the Orans posture during Mass probably don't know enough about the rubrics of the Mass to make an informed decision one way or the other.

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

Once I learned, I stopped. I only did that because everyone else did it. Now that I've studied the Liturgical documents, I know better now, so I don't plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

Once again I am moved to ask how the first Mass was celebrated, and for that matter, how were/are secretly-held Masses celebrated, i.e., at Fr. Kolbe's cot-side. Our most important unity is in being together; we aren't a choreography group. Indeed, tho, it is frustrating for me to stand beside my husband with my hands folded while he lifts his arms as if he is a carnival barker--"Come one, come all!" --and about takes me out. (If everyone did that, we'd have a great production of The 600 Stooges.) He has also started to pray at 180 decibels, also because he thinks it is expected. I've all I can do not to throw a half-nelson on him 'til he settles down.

Lisa said...

In our parish, we were instructed to hold our hands in the orans position as a gesture of surrender. So the imagery of the "hold-up" is pretty strong.
Further, we were told that the person of authority within the diocese said that the proper orans position was not with hands to heaven, but in surrender. Our liturgist said to do otherwise (such as extending hands heavenward) was, according to this diocesan authority, doing it wrong. So there you go.