Friday, July 14, 2006

Hermeneutics of Fittingness: Hand-Holding during the Our Father

In the combox to the post, "Parish vs. Church?" (July 10, 2006), I let slip the remark "hand-holding during the Our Father, and such giddy nonsense", to which a notoriously liberal Irish priest responded with the predictable comment: "many find this practice deeply expressive of our togetherness before God as his children in Christ." I said then that I was thinking of a future post on this issue, because I think what he wrote expresses what is wrong with a lot of popular sentiment and sentimentalism in Catholic parishes today.

Checking back at that combox today, I noticed that many of our readers have already jumped the gun, beginning a thread on this very topic in that combox. As the interest seems to be there, let me open the topic up for more general comment with this post. Once again, the over-arching question (in this series on the "hermeneutics of fittingness") concerns the fittingness of hand-holding during the Our Father within the context of the Sacrifice of the Mass.

Karl Keating has commented on what he sees as the inappropriateness of hand-holding (more 'intimate' than a hand-shake) before the point in the Mass where the sign of peace comes (usually a nod of the head and/or shake of the hand with a "May the Peace of Christ be with you"). Keating asks, "What would you do if you were standing in line to buy a ticket at a movie theater and some stranger came up and wanted to hold your hand?" Coming from a background in Japan where I grew up, I know that any touching between strangers is exceedingly uncomfortable and avoided where possible. It was difficult, twenty or thirty years ago, for Japanese businessmen to begin learning how to shake hands rather than bow when greeting a foreign visitor from the West. In Japanese Catholic churches, the sign of peace is expressed with a bow toward one's neighbor, not a handshake. A fortiori, the prospect of reaching out one's hands to hold hands with complete strangers on either side of you in church during the Our Father is something any traditional Japanese person would find wrenchingly inappropriate and invasive. Likewise an Englishman. Likewise a Scandinavian. The practice -- which did not originate in the hispanic milieu, or Africa, where it might at least be intelligible -- becomes understandable in the West, if at all, perhaps only as a product of the cultural milieu of the 'Age of Aquarius' and paisley-clad, psychedelic-tripping, bell bottom-sporting, tie-dye-wearing, "Blowing-in-the-Wind"-singing background from which all these sorts of post-Vatican II developments, including the Charismatic Renewal, emerged.

I wouldn't for a moment deny that one could find this practice "expressive of our togetherness before God as his children in Christ." I've heard people, not all of them heterodox liberals, express such sentiments before. As far as I'm concerned, however, the question isn't whether such a gesture is expressive of such a sentiment (it can be), or whether such as sentiment is a good sentiment (it obviously is), or even whether it's good to cultivate it (it surely is). The question is whether this particular gesture, this act, this sentiment, and whatever else it involves (clammy palm-consciousness? thoughts about the person standing next to me? why are my hands being squeezed in this way?) belong in and are appropriate to the collective act which is the work of the people (Gk. leitourgia -- i.e., the 'liturgy') in the Mass. There are countless other things -- good in themselves -- that one could easily think of that would not be appropriate during Mass -- reading a novel, text messaging a friend, dancing a Tango, eating an ice cream sundae ... So what about hand-holding?

Here are what some readers have already been saying in the earlier combox, to prime the pump:
  • I would like to know a) where and how this gesture originated in the context of the Mass, b) what it signifies in other communal-spiritual contexts, and c) whether its signification is truly fitting within the meaning of the Catholic liturgy. [Dave]

  • Perhaps the Catholic Charismatic movement is the origin of the hand-holding? [Spirit of Vatican II]

  • Perhaps the gesture of holding hands during the Lord's prayer COULD be a fitting expression of our collective self-sacrifice, assuming that we have a shared understanding of the essence of the liturgy as sacrifice in the first place. Yet what if that shared understanding is lacking? Worse, what if the "tradition" of hand-holding was introduced precisely to UNDERCUT that shared understanding? What if it was introduced to reinforce the errant theological opinion that our "togetherness in Christ" is the essential meaning of the Mass? [Dave]

  • Adoremus has already spoken on the issue of various shenanigans during the Our Father. Upshot is that, after the usual fumbling, stumbling, and misstating, nothing has been said officially, which to luminaries like Fr Joe means that anything goes. Here's a quote from their article, which you can get by typing adoremus orans posture into your browser:

    "At their November 2001 [USCCB] meeting, the bishops discussed "adaptations" to the new Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (or GIRM) of the new Missal (reported in AB February 2002). The proposal to introduce the orans posture for the people was not included even as an option in the US' "adaptations" to the GIRM.

    Furthermore, the bishops did not forbid hand-holding, either, even though the BCL originally suggested this in 1995. The reason? A bishop said that hand-holding was a common practice in African-American groups and to forbid it would be considered insensitive.

    Thus, in the end, all reference to any posture of the hands during the Our Father was omitted in the US-adapted GIRM. The orans posture is not only not required by the new GIRM, it is not even mentioned."

    The orans posture is the bit of priest-aping whereby members of the congregation raise their hands palms up, imitating the priest, or Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments". Sometimes they sway gently, like palm trees in an ocean breeze, an affectation of ecstasy, an imitation of Alfred E Newman saying "what, me worry?", you be the judge. [ralph roiter-doister]

  • On hand-holding during the Lord's Prayer at Mass, my former Archbishop confirmed your surmise that this comes from the charismatic movement. I found the practice particularly problematic as a catechist. We taught that the liturgical changes stripped away accretions and revived ancient practices, like the Sign of Peace. But pointing out that the new accretion of hand-holding overshadowed the revived Sign of Peace was to no avail. Hand-holding was claimed to be more in accord with .... the Spirit of Vatican II. [Terrence Berres]

  • Terrence,
    Exactly how does the sign of peace conflict with holding hands? Why assume that the fig leaf, "revived ancient practices", grants a special cachet, especially since no one knows exactly what those practices consisted of? Maybe the disciples held hands too.

    In truth, both are distractions from the substance of the "Our Father". [ralph roiter-doister]

  • I'm reporting the description of the conciliar liturgical reform from the course materials provided at my parish. We can all have opinions, but that doesn't create instructional materials to replace what we currently have to work with.

    By overshadowing I mean that shaking hands with someone doesn't seem as significant after you've just been holding hands with them.

    As to distraction, the hand-holding is during the Lord's Prayer, while the Sign of Peace is not. [Terrence Berres]

  • What one is doing at the time of both the recitation of the "Our Father" and the sign of peace is prayerfully meditating on the sacrifice of the Son of God for our redemption. This will culminate in our reception of the body and blood, in which that sacrifice is embodied.

    Holding hands and waving to each other distracts us from that meditation.

    You could say it detracts from the idea of the mystical body, transforming it into a social gathering, with the "mystical" portion is eclipsed by the "social". [ralph roiter-doister]

  • What, then, would be fitting gestures at the recitation of the Lord's prayer and the sign of peace? I would opt for hands folded reverently during the Lord's prayer.

    What if at the sign of peace we turned to our neighbor and blessed them with the sign of the cross? [Dave]

  • Sorry Dave, but I don't think the neighbor should be in it at all at that point. It is between God and each member of the mystical body, not among individual members themselves.
    The time for individual members to recognize one another, I think, would be at the beginning of the Mass, around the time at which we meditate on our sins and pray for mercy. That, after all, is our common plight. [ralph roiter-doister]
Alright, go to it!


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