Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Calisthenics at Pewside

One of the great joys for me as a Catholic is the way in which my worship involves more than just my mind. Catholic worship can be a very aerobic—and at first a very intimidating—exercise. It’s participatory and choreographed, and to the newcomer, the cues and the responses can be very confusing, especially because everyone, and every congregation, does things a bit differently. Once learned, however, these physical actions provide a dimension to worship that is rarely found in Protestant churches.

Having come to Rome by way of Lambeth Palace, I already had a pretty good idea of the physical and participatory aspects of liturgical worship, and I carried habits into my Catholic faith that are a little old-fashioned and out of step with most congregations today. I genuflect more, bow more often, and in comparison to the cradle Catholics around me, make the sign of the cross with relative abandon (and, I was once told, in a totally foreign way).

A year and a half ago, I had nose surgery and had to remain completely silent for three weeks—a trial for any woman but a near impossibility for a lawyer. My pastor came to offer me the anointing of the sick, and I was unable to respond verbally as the sacrament asks. But I could still bow both head and body, kneel, and make the sign of the cross. It was then that I realized how rich are those physical acts of worship: how much they draw me into the Mass; how much they are, in their own unique ways, responses even deeper than those I could no longer make with my voice. It made me really think about how I could consciously use them to help me grow in faith, with some surprising results.

My first foray into the realm of physical worship was to move the holy water font that had been a gift from our former rector and his wife from the front door (which we never use) to the garage door (out of which we go several times a day). Keeping it filled is a challenge, especially in winter. I forget about half the time, but half the time, I remember, and making the sign of the cross as I leave the house reminds me in a very concrete way of who I am and at what price I was bought. Remembering that even briefly once a day tends to re-order one’s priorities.

The second was something I resisted mightily in my years as an Episcopalian—to pray the Our Father with hands outstretched. It seemed affected to me then, odd and uncomfortable and it carried a whiff of the evangelical that put me off. I would have no part of it until a catechumen in my RCIA class asked why I didn’t put my hands out so that God could give me something. The next week, after furtively assuring myself that no one was looking, I tentatively stretched my palms out, and I’ve been doing so ever since. I am prepared to believe that the warmth I felt on them as I prayed that first time was a product of my overactive imagination, but perhaps not. Now, each time I do it, not only do I remember that I have to be open to receiving God’s gifts, I remember one particular gift in the person of a gentle Venezuelan woman, and I still feel the warmth.

Most recently, I’ve changed the way I receive the host. Like most American Catholics, I extended my hands to receive, as I always did before, but lately, I’ve been teaching myself another lesson with my body. After a serious bout of “do-it-my-way-itis” in which I was frustrated with myself and God when things in my spiritual sphere (and that of my children) didn’t go the way I wanted, I realized that I needed to remind myself that I do not hold ultimate control. I needed to remember that I must be willing to accept God—and everyone else-- on His terms, not mine. And so, I reverted to that old-fashioned practice of receiving the host on my tongue rather than taking it in my hands, with an almost immediate reminder not only that am I not in control but also that God has a keen sense of humor.

You’d think that the odds of bobbling the host are far greater when taking it in one’s hands than on one’s tongue. Let me be the first to assure you that you would be very, very wrong. Never in all my life have I actually dropped a host from my hands, but the very first time I tried receiving the other way, the host made only a passing visit to my waiting tongue on its determined downward path. I’m sure that my ultimately successful attempt to snag it before it hit ground were worthy of You-Tube. I retreated to my pew with flaming cheeks, wondering what on earth I thought I was doing, that this is what I got for (as we Southerners say) “getting above my raising.” Surely the priest thought me some sort of nitwit.

And then in the recesses of my mind I heard what I am certain was a gentle, Fatherly laugh, and I smiled in spite of myself. It’s important not to take oneself too seriously, and I need frequent reminders. As I exited the church, I remarked to the priest that sometimes, it’s harder to receive God than others. And then we laughed together.

I’ll keep up this habit for now, until I get too complacent in my spiritual life and need to remind myself that I do have a role to play. Then, I’ll change again, making a throne from my cupped hands to receive my Saviour, reminding myself that I have to prepare a place for Him to be, if I really expect Him to stay with me.

In the meantime, I’ll treasure the reminders that come from each fleeting physical act of devotion, and be open to learning more. After all, though I must worship God in spirit and in truth, He gave me a body to manifest that worship and the Church gives me traditions to bring it home to both mind and heart.


  1. I think it is interesting that only in America do we receive the host in our hand. This is an exception thanks to our Bishops. I also do not understanding the raising of hands during the “Our Father”. Although I really don’t get the holding of hands during the “Our Father”. I love making the sign of the cross. The making of the sign of the cross was very offences to my family member. To them it was like I was saying “Hey everybody look over here, I’m Catholic”. CCC 2157 The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior's grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties. Lindsay

  2. I agree with Lindsay ;-)