Monday, June 23, 2008

Gestures

Originally posted at Cahiers Péguy:

Gestures

Gesture of Epiclesis

I want to add a little bit to this discussion by making reference to what I've learned through my work as a catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. What I discovered is that gestures play a particular and powerful role during the liturgy. Beginning at age 3, we discuss with the children what a gesture is -- a movement with meaning. Then we begin to examine the role of gestures in prayer -- they are a way to pray, not just with our speech or silence, but with our whole bodies.

1. Usually the first gesture we present to the children is the Sign of the Cross -- then we reflect on what this gesture could mean. What are we saying with our bodies when we make this prayer? Whose sign is this? When we place it over our bodies, what are we saying, what are we asking for? Usually, after this kind of meditation, the children are able to discern and even articulate: it means that we belong to Jesus, we are his, our whole selves, even our bodies; we are safe.

2. Often the second gesture we demonstrate for the smallest children (ages 3-5) is the gesture of Epiclesis. We even give them this name, which they treasure, as secret knowledge. We slowly demonstrate the moment when the priest brings his hands down over the bread and wine of Eucharist. What could this mean? What is the priest asking for? I will sometimes demonstrate the gesture over the open hands of one of the children and then ask, "if there were something in my hands, what would happen to it? Oh, it would go into your hands? So, what is happening when the priest brings his hands down like this during the Mass? He is asking for a gift? From whom? Who is up high? Who is down low? What sort of gift is he asking for? What sort of power? Sometimes the kids will even say "the Holy Spirit" before we examine the words that go with the gesture! But then when we get to the words of the prayer, it becomes clear -- the priest is asking the Father (and who is the Father?) to send the Holy Spirit (who is that? Many remember his role in the birth of Jesus from reading the account of the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Presentation in the Temple) to do something...to "transform" or change...what? The bread and wine -- so they become...? The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Lord. As a result of experiencing this presentation, and having the opportunity to prayerfully practice the gesture as many times as they like, in freedom, the children will then look for this moment during the Mass. So many times during the Mass one of my daughters would begin frantically tapping me on the shoulder, pointing toward the altar, saying, "He's doing it! He's doing it!" and then, almost unconsciously, they would bring their hands down in the air in concert with the priest. Talk about full and active participation!

3) We present the gesture of Offering in the same manner, as a companion to the gesture of Epiclesis -- what is our response to the gift that God gives us? When someone gives us a gift, what do we want to do? First we enjoy it (the children always point out!), then we want to say thank you, then we want to give something back...and to such a gift that we receive from God (the Holy Spirit who changes the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd), what do we wish to give? The children always say, "Everything!" What is really on the paten? What is really in the chalice? They will shout "Jesus!" and then they will add, "...and us," because they remember about the small drop of water in the chalice...

4) The preparation of the chalice -- one of the most moving Eucharistic prayer gestures for the children, which adults often skip over -- the wine represents Jesus, God, and the water represents us -- and so what happens when the water is added to the wine? One little boy answered, "It means God and me, we're real close." Why so little water and so much wine? "Because we're so small and he's soooo great!" [read the prayer that accompanies this gesture: "Through the mystery of the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity." It merits many, many hours of rich reflection. It sums up our whole hope in coming to the Eucharist.

5) The three powerful gestures of Baptism -- the small cross, made with the thumb, on the person's forehead, the imposition of the priest's hand over the water of Baptism (they get that immediately, if they've had the opportunity to meditate on the Epiclesis already), and the large cross, "in the shape of a shield!" that the priest makes in the air, over the person...

6) The gesture of Peace -- we all get this one -- but what are we praying, with our whole selves, when we make this gesture? Where does this peace come from? Why do we make this gesture just before Communion?

Those are the main gestures for Level 1 (ages 3-6). As the children grow older, we return to them and deepen our meditations, and we add more gestures -- the gesture of Absolution during the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Triple Cross, and then the rest of the gestures during the Mass (kissing the altar, etc.) and the gestures of Confirmation. One of the kids' favorites is when the bishops blow over the chrism during the Chrism Mass...

After all these years as a catechist in this method, when I hear the word "gesture," I immediately think of the word, "prayer" -- and not just any old prayer, but a prayer we make with both body and heart, with our whole selves.

In this way, then, if I may translate, Fred is asking, "What should be our prayer to bring about unity among us?" If I may be so bold, I would say that our prayer should be, "Father, send your Holy Spirit to transform these gifts, so that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ." It is interesting to note (but maybe pushing the connection beyond what it can bear), that when we blog, we must also impose our hands...

In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd we don't (yet) have any presentation for the Sacrament of Ordination, so when I went to my first ordination (which happened to be for Prior Peter, at Daily Bread), I was completely stunned, and reduced to tears, when I saw the bishop anoint Brother Peter's hands with chrism (I hadn't know about it!). I thought of all that a priest's hands must do -- of course, to be able to complete the gesture of Epiclesis or of Absolution, his hands must be sacramentally prepared! Then I thought also of all the loving gestures a priest makes -- to shake hands, to comfort, to bring food. It was so beautiful! But then, as I was crying over that beauty (quietly, discreetly), another prayer gesture followed that reduced me to sobs -- each of brother Peter's fellow monks, beginning with the Prior, kissed the palm of each of his hands. I will never forget that beautiful prayer of love and dedication to Christ and his work, through our hands, among us.

These are the sorts of gestures that will bring our work to fruition.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."