Thoughts on sacred gestures

Monk praying

Sacred gestures resemble those gestures that we experience day by day: they describe not only our inner life, but also the way we interact with our peers. We learn this language of faith in a multitude of ways, sometimes unconscious, by imitating the gestures that those around us do. This is the first step in our Christian education, learning as small children, by mechanical repetition. The Christian is called to maturity in Christ and sometimes we might be tempted to think that the (sweet and innocent) ignorance of childhood is the same thing as being “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Maturity means achieving the full stature in Christ (Ephesians 4:13), growing in all our spiritual abilities and becoming, through grace, a child of God. This means that all we have learned and acquired from our parents, grandparents, etc. must be integrated, assumed, interiorized and deepened as we grow in the spiritual life and develop a more profound understanding of what we are and what we must do as children of God.

This being said we are invited to reflect more, to overpass a certain automatism of prayer and to dive deeply in the Mystery of Faith, in meditating and contemplating our calling in order to live an active and conscious life of grace.

The moment we “reset” our distracted mind and focus the whole attention of our soul on what surrounds us (the Church, the architecture, icons, the people, etc.) and what is happening around us (the prayer, the gestures, the movements, the singing, etc.) we learn to gaze “beyond the veil”, we exercise our “spiritual sight” in grasping the movement of the Spirit.

Let us stop for a moment and meditate on some of the most basic elements of our Christian life: sacred gesture.

What are those gestures that give color and define our religious experience (prayer)? To name just a few: the sign of the Holy Cross, kneeling, kissing the Holy Icons, prostrations, bowing the head, lighting candles, burning incense etc.

What do they mean? What do we experience when we practice them? What do they reveal about our inner being? What do they communicate and transmit in our living relationship with God? How do we interact (as the assembly of the People of God) when we pray together, especially in prayer of the Liturgy? Are we living the gestures and saying the words with our whole being, from the heart and with a burning faith? Do we perceive their effect on our souls? How often do we practice these gestures in our personal prayer (when we are alone)? Are we ashamed to express our faith publicly through these simple, but profound gestures? Do we feel a need, a longing for a prayer that is more concrete, more “incarnated”, in which not only the mind and heart participates, but also the body, the physical?

What if we would prepare for prayer by detaching ourselves of “all worldly cares” (as we pray in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy at the Cherubic Hymn) and would focus all our attention on the one thing necessary (unum necessarium) and we would practice these gestures being aware that God is with us, here and now, and that He sees us, He listens to us and touches us with His grace? Wouldn’t we attain, in time and with a lot love and patience, the inner watchfulness[1] of which the Fathers speak of?

In another “issue” we will meditate together on these sacred gestures as they are illustrated in the testimony of Holy Scripture. Until then, we invite you (we even challenge you!) to discover the power of these humble gestures day by day, as they change your life and bring you closer to God!

[1] Inner watchfulness (Greek: nēpsis), or sobriety has for the Holy Fathers a wide range of sense: vigilance, attentiveness, a state of inner purity in which the heart is always praying, docile in the hands of God and freely communicating with His grace. The Jesus Prayer has as its goal this transformation of the heart. See Hesychius, On watchfulness and Holiness