Monday, May 9, 2011

I (don't) want to hold your hand

Father Z answers a question today about hand-holding during the Our Father at Mass, and Ed Peters shares a piece he wrote a while back about the "orans" position generally.

So, is hand-holding during the Our Father at Mass prohibited? Well, not really, according to Fr. Z--if it's a spontaneous gesture by the laity and not mandated from the altar in any way. It's not in the rubrics, and thus can't be imposed upon the people.

As liturgical aberrations go, I must admit that this isn't one over which I lose any significant sleep. There are far worse problems out there, even if you are just considering liturgical matters.

Having said that, though, I have to place myself in the anti-hand-holding camp. The soprano section of our parish choir dropped the practice following a winter during which the whole choir seemed to be passing a cold around weekly, and none of us care to re-institute it (either the cold or the hand-holding), which suits me just fine. My problems with it are twofold: first, it is an inherently rude thing to do, and second, it reduces the Sign of Peace to a trivial and redundant moment.

To take the first objection first, I want to say at the outset that just because the hand-holding is inherently rude does not, not, not mean that I think people who do this are in any way being deliberately rude or have any interior disposition toward rudeness. In fact, I think that people who grab hands during the Our Father at Mass are intending to be displaying a jolly attitude of warm Christian fellowship; the thought that anyone could ever find such an innocuous and friendly gesture rude would probably seem unthinkable to those who are deeply attached to this practice. Yet the inherent rudeness is there nonetheless.

Why? Because it is an essential part of politeness that one is capable of taking "no" for an answer. The hostess who insists that her diabetic guest take a piece of dessert and "at least taste it" doesn't get this; and neither does the person who grabs the hand of the stranger beside him without ascertaining in any way if that person wishes to hold hands, or might have very good reasons for wishing not to do so.

Some good reasons for not wishing to hold hands during Mass might be:
  • illness one does not wish to transmit, but which isn't serious enough to keep one at home
  • injury (such as carpal tunnel or a muscle strain) which makes having one's hand grabbed and then elevated and/or squeezed an agony
  • physical or mental handicap (and with the latter one may not realize that the person beside one is, perhaps, impaired in such a way that makes having a stranger grab hold of them extremely frightening)
  • cultural matters--some cultures find hand-holding far too intimate to be done in a crowd of strangers
  • liturgical sensitivity--a person might be very reluctant to participate in non-required liturgical gestures
  • germaphobia or some similar fear of contact
  • extreme introversion that automatically withdraws from such a noisy, extroverted gesture as communal hand-holding is likely to be
and there are probably more, but you get the idea.

Unfortunately, the way that the Our Father hand-holding gets done it is almost impossible to refuse to participate without being instantly judged by the person grabbing at your hand as being rude yourself. Even if you have an extremely good reason for not wanting to hold someone's hand, you will likely be glared at and dismissed as "holier-than-thou" if you keep your hands folded and ignore the grabber. But it is not rude to refuse to participate in something that is supposed to be voluntary and spontaneous, not mandated or required, any more than it is rude for a diabetic to say, "No, thank you," when she is offered dessert. For myself, I learned that if I happened to be recovering from a cold or flu, the best way to handle the matter was to be completely unsubtle about it, and to whisper loudly to the person grabbing at me that I didn't wish to share the germs in question. I've never been glared at for that--in fact, I've had people thank me for being so considerate.

The only way a spontaneous Our Father hand-holding outbreak can avoid being rude is if people hold hands only with those in their own families or Mass-attending groups. But I've never actually seen that work; in fact, people would probably criticize such a practice as standoffish or exclusionary, so I don't think it would solve the problem.

Besides the rudeness factor, there is the little problem that a spontaneous outbreak of Our Father hand-holding at Mass makes the Sign of Peace, which is in the rubrics, seem rather redundant and unnecessary. The scriptural basis for the Sign of Peace would seem to be this: "Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24). But surely, having previously grasped your brother's hand in a spontaneous gesture of loving and warm Christian fellowship, your brother has shown by his acceptance of this gesture that he no longer has anything against you, nor you him--so why spend time a few moments later shaking his hand as if to confirm the fact?

No, the Sign of Peace (which I find problematic for other reasons, and which would require its own post) becomes liturgically incoherent if we've already shown by that spontaneous hand-grabbing that we have nothing whatsoever standing between ourselves and our brothers and sisters. In fact, the Our Father hand-holding steals the Sign of Peace's thunder, if it is meant to have any; it becomes an odd little redundancy instead of a liturgical action fraught with meaning in its own right.

So there are plenty of good, solid reasons to abandon the supposedly spontaneous act of grabbing hold of everybody's hand to say the Our Father; I know there are others, too, having to do with what kind of prayer the Our Father actually is and to Whom it is addressed (hint: it's not the community).

Still, if I happen to be next to you at Mass and you happen to reach for my hand at the Our Father, chances are I won't put up a fuss and try to stop you, or anything. Unless, of course, I'm getting over a wicked cold, in which case common charity compels me to warn you to cease and desist for your own good.


The Sicilian said...

At the risk of irony, I could hug you right now.

I don't like handholding, which is a big deal out here in CA, nor the handshake. Neither the handshake or hand holding is wrong, IMO, but neither is something with which I am comfortable. (Lest you think I am a carmudgeon, I am known to be a warm and affectionate person once I get to know someone.)

It was a surprise to me when I moved here from NY to see how common hand holding was during the Our Father, no matter the parish. One time I tried to avoid it and the person behind me kept tapping me on the back so I would hold his hand.

I went to my first TLM a couple of months ago. No touchy feeling stuff = winning!

kkollwitz said...

Both hand-holding and the sign of peace disrupt the flow & focus of the Mass.

Anonymous said...

"this isn't one over which I lose any significant sleep"

I die a little inside. If there's an army of EMsHC later, I die a little more.

JMB said...

I don't hold hands with strangers, even if they are sitting next to me in a pew. Although where I live, it seems to be strictly a familial thing to do, it doesn't extend to strangers/neighbors. I don't even like holding hands in church with my own family - maybe it's the Irish in me.

Anonymous said...

Feeling a bit impish, I'd point out that the main defense of communion in the hand is that "that's the way they did it in the early Church". Well, they are leaving out an important detail: They never touched the Host with their fingers. Only used their right hand and never touched anything or anyone with their right hand before receiving. Well, I think even the most stalwart communion-on-the-tongue advocate could get behind that: You would get more reverent reception and eliminate hand-holding and shaking in one fell swoop.

So there's yer new campaign: Communion on the Hand Now! (The way they really did it in the days of yore!)

Tony said...

Hand holding is not prohibited for the Our Father, but neither is jumping up and down and flapping your arms like a chicken.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Or turning cartwheels. Fr. Once commented on prayer posture at Mass, that, for all the Girm said, you could turn cartwheels down the aisle on the way back to your seat after communion.

He was trying to make a point about reverence. Unfortunately, what my daughter got out of it was "Father said it's oK to turn cartwheels at Mass!"

Fortunately, we are skilled parents who RECOGNIZE that gleam when it comes into her eye, and headed THAT little adventure off before it... got off the ground.

On hand holding. I was at a Parish in Chicago where I chose not to hold hands, and then the woman next to me refused to shake hands with me at the sign of peace in retaliation.

I worked very hard to refrain from guffawing.

Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) said...


Same thing happened to my husband at a church in Seattle on our honeymoon! We were all about happiness and lovey doveyness. It was our honeymoon!!! This man was African-American and I'm pretty sure he labeled us as racist just because we folded our hands during the Our Father.

Anonymous said...

After returning to attending Mass after a hiatus, it was surprising to notice all the hand-holding and indeed a little strange at first. But, now I hold hands if the person next to me looks like they need their hand held. I don't choose to hold hands during the Our Father, and it's perfectly fine with me if I have to tell the other person I cannot hold their hand, even during the Sign of Peace due to a cold, pain, arthritis, or feeling introverted.


priest's wife said...

I'm with you, Red Cardigan!

Siarlys Jenkins said...

On the few occasions I have been to mass, including St. Mary Maytag in SF, as well as smaller churches of more traditional architecture, I don't recall any handholding, spontaneous or directed. Beyond that, I cannot speak of the mass, since I am not Roman Catholic.

There was no handholding to speak of in the Presbyterian church in which I was raised. There is handholding during prayer, including what we quaintly call "The Lord's Prayer" at the Methodist church I currently belong to -- a matter of local consensus, not denominational doctrine. I appreciate it. I've never heard anyone object.

However, Erin's point that it is rude to insist on someone taking or partaking of something they do not wish to or should not partake of, is one that speaks to me. There are churches, social groups, well-meaning social engineers of various types, who want us to "just try" their preferred ritual du jour. I am quite firm about declining.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Nobody knows how they did communion in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, or for a century or two thereafter. Any old document anyone can provide only shows how some groups of Christians did it. We don't know for a fact that Paul or Peter ever made a regular practice of it.

As to holding hands, I joined a church some years ago where the pastor regularly began the main prayer (shortly before the sermon) by calling on everyone to "take your neighbor's hand." I appreciated it. It give me a sense of belonging and connection.

I once had to let go of my neighbor's hand, because my other neighbor's young child had fallen asleep in my lap and was about to fall over onto the floor. While I caught the child, the neighbor I disconnected from put her hand on my shoulder. So the connection was not broken.

I agree in principle though that religious ritual should not put peer pressure on people to engage in practices they are not comfortable with. I can think of a few I have refrained from.