Folding hands and holding hands
Fr. Kevin Nadolski | Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Saturday’s Day of Fasting and Prayer for Peace in Syria led by Pope Francis galvanized Catholics and non-Catholics to both pray and fast for peace. Concern for our neighbors in Syria has riveted hearts, minds and souls to the urgency of the need for violence to end. Our yearning for peace is so intense, we have felt it in our guts. Certainly, people living in war-torn areas need peace as much as they need food and water. It is a grace for us to be connected to them, spiritually in our prayer and physically in our fasting.
How we pray, in general, may illustrate just how our hearts stretch, in particular, for Syria. While there are many prayer styles and methods, two gestures are especially illustrative here: folding hands and holding hands.
As a little boy growing up in Catholic school in Philadelphia, I was taught to pray with my hands folded. Every Sunday, I remember watching my older brother Tommy returning from receiving communion, kneeling at our pew and bowing his head against folded hands in prayer. Idolizing him as if he were Jesus, I couldn’t wait for my turn to be old enough to leave the pew and walk up the aisle for communion and then “be holy” like him. I never asked him what he was saying to God, but I knew I would eventually learn. Watching how seemingly holy my otherwise macho, rambunctious brother became made me think praying after communion was as important as receiving Jesus in the sacrament. To this day, I prefer to fold my hands when I pray.
While this is comfortable for me, I admit I frequently feel uncomfortable when I do it – especially when others around me are reaching for my hands to hold. Whether at Mass or at a prayer service, folks reach out in gestures of communal prayer and community building to express our unity as we offer our prayer to our God. Unquestionably, this is a good custom and feels appropriate, as when praying the Lord’s Prayer at Mass.
However, I confess I don’t necessarily like it. I do think I am a warm person, enjoy liturgies with a strong sense of community and view the church from a model that places tremendous emphasis on the People of God. Yet, my instincts tell me to fold my hands, close my eyes and talk to God as I stand shoulder to shoulder with my sisters and brothers in community. Additionally, I don’t mind fewer exposures to more germs just moments before placing food – albeit the Eucharist – in my mouth.
Embarrassed by the idiosyncrasy of all of this, I have begun to wonder if something deeper beckons me and shows a truth of the life of the disciple that is pretty obvious: Prayer is a balance between the personal and communal experiences. Very simply, we need to take time to pray by ourselves, whether we fold our hands or not, to develop a personal, intimate relationship with the God who creates and re-creates us through life in the Spirit.
Similarly, we are called to gather with others, exposing ourselves to their needs and desires, doubts and disappoints – even their germs – so we can grow more compassionate, grateful, and Christian. Perhaps we do need to be infected by others’ spiritualities to come to develop our own more fully.
Our intercessory praying is a Christian act of care and charity for our neighbors in need. From those in our classes and dorms to our sisters and brothers unknown to us in Syria and Sudan, people need us. Through prayer, we touch them when we lift them to God. When we touch others’ hands in prayer, we are reminded we are not alone, for more people in prayer have greater strength to lift more people in need.
Indeed, Jesus told his disciples, when instructing them about prayer, to go to the quiet of the inner room, close the door and pray to the Father in secret (Matthew 6:6). Jesus also called his disciples to pray at the Last Supper and to share his Body and Blood and to serve each other, touching and washing feet, asking them – and us – to do this in memory of him.
Yes, prayer is a balance of the personal and communal outreach to God. We see our need to pray hard for our neighbors in Syria. Let us commit to this, each as a disciple of the Jesus Christ. And, let us gather with others, joining our hearts and hands to lift up our struggling sisters and brothers. By both folding our hands and holding others’, we can touch the hearts of those most in need and feel the pulse of our loving God helping them through our loving prayers.
Fr. Kevin Nadolski, OSFS, a priest with the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, works for his community as director of development and
communications. He has served the church as a Catholic high school teacher, campus minister and
principal, as well as vocation and formation director for the Oblates. He lives with his
community in Wilmington, Del., and can be reached at
The views expressed in this
column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.