God OR your neighbor?

A few years ago, the priest in my hometown parish asked that parishioners no longer hold hands during the “Our Father.” He said that it was too distracting, and caused us to think about our neighbors rather than God. In Matthew Lickona’s book, Swimming with Scapulars, he goes on a similar rant about the topic of hand-holding during Mass. I got rid of the book shortly after finishing it, so while I can’t quote it, I remember his distress fairly well. Like the priest in my hometown parish, he felt that hand-holding during the “Our Father” was distracting: what if the person beside you doesn’t want to hold hands? Should you or shouldn’t you hold hands with someone you don’t know? If their hand is clammy or cold or sweaty, or warm and soft, you risk spending your spiritual energy being focused on that sensation and not the words of the prayer.

To which my response is, “Huh?”

I’ve been going to Church alone for most of my young adult life, so I know what the awkward moment before the Our Father is like, when there’s question about whether the strangers on either side of me will take my hand. Usually they don’t (Matthew Lickona should go to my Church!); sometimes they do; and either way, it doesn’t really matter. Because it’s a moment — only a moment — before the prayer begins, and that moment is forgotten as soon as the prayer does begin, whether I’m holding someone’s hand or not.

I understand that not everyone has the same comfort level when it comes to physical contact, and I respect anyone’s need to “keep their hands to themselves” during the Mass, whether it’s for “The Our Father” or the sharing of Peace. What I don’t understand is this idea that there is a hard and fast line between God and neighbor, as if to think of one is to exclude the other. Isn’t this the opposite of what we’re asked to do as Christians? Aren’t we called to think of our neighbor as Jesus, and as such, as God?

When hand-holding began during the Our Father some time ago (I don’t remember when it started and I don’t know why it started, but I do know that it wasn’t commonly practiced when I was a child), I thought it brought a new level of beauty to the Mass. Because while our words unite us, too often we can feel like loners. For me, that moment of clasped hands while we say the same words is the moment when I truly feel part of the Body of Christ. What’s so distracting about that?


20 thoughts on “God OR your neighbor?

  1. You’ve got this right on. It is “Our” Father/Mother/Creator/Birther to whom we are praying. Christ called us to unity, to eat of one bread and share the same cup. This call to community, today, is what makes Catholics still somewhat unique to many of our Christian sisters and brothers who personally go to service for that “Me and Jesus” relationship. It is not about me and God but about Us and God. Holding hands is another symbol of that collective relationship with our God.

  2. In my case I do not like to hold hands, I don’t think it is right to force it on someone like me? You may not find it distracting, but I cannot help but think about it throughout the prayer, and I do not find myself focused on God. I’ve found a church where this is not encouraged, but should I be anywhere else, I will politely refuse.

  3. First of all, the prayer name is “Our Father” – changing Christ’s prayer (the only one he gave us) makes the prayer about our relationship to God instead of God’s relationship to us, which is primary. God loved us first, not the other way around. Saying Father/Mother/Creator/Birther most likely offends God.

    The “Our” in the “Our Father” is not the communal “our”, but the “our” as comprised of Jesus and the individual. Yes, the prayer is recited as a community but it’s prayed as individuals. Just as the community receives Holy Communion at the same time during the Mass, it’s still an individual moment between Christ and the person receiving. We aren’t saved (nor condemned) as a community, we won’t be judged as a community, we don’t progress in faith as a community.

    So holding hands during the Our Father distorts the reality of what’s happening at that moment – you and I are uniting our prayer with Jesus Christ, not with each other. Thus, the priest was only partly correct, IMHO. It takes the focus off of Christ and puts it more on ourselves. That’s not the point of the Mass – we’re there to worship God first and foremost, and through that worship, we are able to love our neighbor by the graces received after reception of Holy Communion. “Loving our neighbor” by holding hands at the Our Father puts the cart before the horse, as it were, because we haven’t received Holy Communion yet! We haven’t received the grace yet to properly love our neighbor.

    I’ve taught my sons to hold their hands reverently during this prayer instead of us holding hands as a family. I don’t think it’s necessary to show God that we’re a community – He knows that already. By keeping the focus on God where it belongs makes the worship more pleasing to Him. After all, it’s His Mass – we’re not worshipping Him for His sake, but for ours.

  4. Where do you get that “Our Father” does not refer to the community as a whole? I’m curious because I’ve never heard or read this idea anywhere before, and it actually seems to contradict everything I have heard and read about Catholic worship. Specifically, I would invite you to look at Chapter III, section II of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (you can find the document at http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/current/GIRM.pdf) specifically states that everything we do within the mass should reflect a community worshiping together, not as disparate individuals. “They are to shun any appearance of individualism or division,” which seems to suggest that holding hands ought to be encouraged!

  5. The idea that the “our” in “Our Father” is not a communal expression is not based in any orthodox Roman Catholic or broader Christian theology or basic interpretation from the original Greek of the Gospels, which clearly uses the possessive pronoun of the first person plural.

    For many parishes this has become a fairly common custom and I think it demonstrates the reality that all Christians, even we cannot be united around the Lord’s table, we are united in our reciting of this prayer. Hence the joining of hands with one another can be important. Having said that, I’ll also let the liturgist in me insert that the “common” (koinonia) action of our liturgy is the coming forward together to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. It is interesting people do not experience that moment as one of joining with one another in a very profound way. But given the divisions over communion annd inter-communion, I can see why that is.

    I’ll also point out that the idea of holding hands with others as a spiritual expression in modern times has its origin in the civil rights movement, where the protesters not only held hands, but did so across one anothers’ bodies, so that when the dogs attacked (while they were marching and praying) and when the fire hoses were turned on them, they “could not be moved” as the song goes. it is a profound expression of solidarity in the life experience of one another today, and considering its origins, the notion that someone could argue it is not “spiritual” in its very essence seems off base to me.

  6. There is nothing in the rubrics instructing us to hold hands, to say that this is encouraged by the Bishops is incorrect. We are united by the real presence in the Eucharist, not by handholding, handholding during mass is silly sentimental nonsense, that corrupts true unity and distracts from the real presence we ought be focusing on.

  7. I don’t get what the fuss is about, sorry to be so blunt. We have to ask whether these ruberics, if you will, of days past are still relevant. If not, why are we trying to figure out how to be in line with them? If no one knows its supposed to be about reverence, it won’t be about that for them. Meaning can be los, changed over time. A veil used to be about modesty. Would it be that for us today? its not for me.

    Clearly, gathering for the Eucharistic celebration is about unity. but what’s wrong with another thing showing our unity (ie the handholding)? And in my mind, it praises God when we value each other. Everything we do in prayer is not to show God that we have it all down pat, God knows whether we do or not. Postures, etc. have existed to show ourselves (and each other) what we believe. We kneel in reverence not because it affects God but because it does something to us, for us, to grow in understanding and affirm one’s faith values. IMHO.

  8. Lauren – Be honest, isn’t it inconsiderate to insist on doing something outside the rubrics because you like it, and then imposing yourself and your own rubrics on me and then asking “whats the fuss”.

    The rubrics I mentioned are current, and yes they are without question relevant. We are in union as a church, that union is not limited by with whom we are holding hands.

  9. Sure it would be inconsiderate; I don’t believe in imposing on anyone. I thought we were just chatting here about preferences though. For my opinion to truly be an imposition I’d have to be a bishop.

    I’d argue however that the meaning of NOT handholding isnt clear to most people. I guess that is the issue-meanings are subjective. And for many people handholding is not sentimental nonsense as you suggested Teresa. It’s not a huge thing to me to hold hands but I certainly don’t mind it. And it definitely doesn’t move my focus away from the real presense, but rather can bring it more into focus for me. This is the point I was trying to make-I’m not sure why it would take focus away from the real presence, for you or others, if you were to hold hands, but just because it does doesn’t mean it will for everyone. As I said, it can be quite the opposite for many people. So do we have to do everything the same? If you don’t want to, don’t. If I do, I’ll hold hands with someone that does want to. I’m not a big fan of the idea of uniformity equaling unity though.

    This is the problem with some ruberics because the meaning isnt universal all of the time. What is disrespectful to one person is nothing of the sort for another. But unless we can suspend human judgement, the perceived disrespect of another would certainly be a distraction to that person.

    For instance, I cannot kneel because of a knee injury. So, I sort of do a half kneel, half lean on the bench thing. I mean no disrespect by it, and consider it actually being more faithful to be a good steward of my body, but it might be distracting to someone else and they may see it as disrespectful. Then there are situations of old that maybe the younger generation doesnt know about and certainly doesnt mean harm by doing or not doing it. Of course I’m lacking an example right now, but I’m thinking of something like how one folds their hands, etc. Other generations were taught that it was VERY important, but maybe someone missed it in our generation. So ignorance of custom doesnt equal disrespect, and some customs have gone by the wayside but are still very ingrained in some people.

  10. Anyone sitting next to me can, and in some cases has tried to impose handholding on me during mass. How do you know if the person next to you wants to hold your hand? You conceded that it may be a distraction for some so why don’t you err on the side of caution and keep your hands to yourself?

    Your point attempts to put those of us that wish to follow the rubrics as having to defend the church norms, as though they need to be defended. The “fuss” is that we have the right to a mass that follows the rubrics. The mass is handed on to us, and it is to be followed, it is not something to be modified by us to reflect our own whims.

  11. Teresa, can you say more about what you mean regarding having to defend church norms? I always figure to each their own so I dont see how what I said puts people in that position as you said. And sure, I can imagine that some people are pushy about handholding. How do I know when someone wants to hold hands or not? I see if they put their hand out, I don’t know. Really, it doesn’t happen very often that someone wants to hold hands so I’m not in the position of having to discern this frequently. And I would err on the side of caution. I don’t want to feel stupid afterall! That’s what’s so funny about this topic for me because it doesn’t seem to be that big of an issue or occur that often to warrant such emotional reactions to it. Not here, I’m just saying in general I guess. I know that my bias is that we have bigger fish to fry.

    If you are so caught up in whether the norms are being followed at mass, how are you going to concentrate on the real presence? I don’t mean this to be disrespectful or rhetorical. I’ve just experienced life to be complicated and I have to roll with the punches as life is not always something I can control. If I’m waiting for the perfect equation of norms that will make concentrating on the real presence easy, I’ll never get it. And like I said before, I think what works for one person will not work for the next. Subjectivity is a bitch, isnt it folks? Can sure make things complicated.

  12. As the original poster, I apologize for not participating in the fascinating discussion that has unfolded; I’ve very much enjoyed listening but have been too busy this past week to find a peaceful time to sit down and really reflect. And I have to say, I was incredibly surprised by the strong reactions this post inspired; certainly in some of my previous posts, I was prepared for the fact that my opinion was certainly not popular in some circles. But this, something I reflect on a bit from time to time, seemed fairly benign. Thank you, to everyone who has contributed to this discussion.

    There seems to be a bit of an idea that I want to impose obligatory hand-holding during Mass, and I just want to be clear that I want nothing of the sort. I don’t think anyone should EVER have to be touched by another human being without consent. To those of you who have felt pressured into hand-holding when you didn’t feel comfortable, I’m sorry that you’ve had that experience. It’s an experience that is alien to me, since even in my very touchy-feely parish, and even though I say the Our Father with my hands uplifted at my sides, a stranger has hardly ever held my hand, although they’ll hold the hands of the people they know. As I mentioned in my post, it’s not a huge deal to me; it certainly doesn’t make or break the Mass.

    What I’m interested in is not so much the “rules,” but the reasonings. Some of you have argued different reasons that hand-holding seems unacceptable, and I respect those reasons. What I still have trouble with is this idea that God and neighbor are so disconnected that you must choose one or the other; if you want to focus on God, you must keep yourself separate from your neighbor; if you’re reaching out to your neighbor, you’re not paying attention to God. *That’s* the part I struggle with, this dualistic idea, this “us” and “Him” mentality that doesn’t acknowledge that to love God is to love your neighbor, and, I would argue, to love your neighbor is to understand God. I’m a person for whom physical contact does make me feel more connected to “my neighbors,” and someone for whom, in all honesty, Mass can feel incredibly peaceful, but also a bit lonely. My post was about seeking the connection between God and community rather than seeking to define the line. A discussion of handholding is merely a catalyst for this larger exploration, not the thing I believe can make or break a community’s worship.

  13. Lacey – The fact that this is not an approved option ought to matter, we do not have the authority to change these parts of the mass. Mass is a solemn occasion in which we focus on God, handholding is a way in which we focus on the person whos hand we are holding. If we are in a state of grace we are in union with each other at mass whether we are at the same mass or not, and whether we are part of the church militant or the church triumphant. Handholding suggestes a special union with those holding hands, which can be a false suggestion.

  14. Teresa, but what if handholding DOESN’T make us focus on the person who’s hand we are holding? We can’t know the mind of each person, so for me, I don’t think anyone can say what another is thinking or not thinking about at that moment.

    Handholding may suggest to YOU a special union with those you are holding hands with. Its just not so cut and dry.

  15. Hey Teresa, no, I’m not suggesting there is no meaning in the handholding. My point was about subjectivity in the meaning of norms for people, the handholding example wasn’t realistic, just a for instance.

  16. We all ought to know what the norms are and why they are there, it can be a very insightfull and an educational read into why we do what we do.
    With the Internet these things are available to all online.

  17. Certainly, that is true that it can be very illuminating to read about norms and postures, etc. and can bring great meaning to someone. But just because some guys at the Vatican found it meaningful in a certain way doesnt mean that everyone will. My bias is that although I think they are inspired by God in their work, I don’t think they get it right 100% of the time for 100% of the people for all of time. I don’t even think we have a majority consensus. And my opinion is that the mass is a gift from God for the people, and the mass should conform to what works for the people, not the other way around.

  18. Lauren – It is not “some guys at the Vatican” as you put it, these things change over time usually organically up from the people. However since Vatican II we have had in many cases a small group of people in a parish force upon others their views, in many cases their intentions are probably as you said to conform to what works for the people, however they usually don’t have a very good grasp of a number of things and problems are created. It is useful to remind ourselves that prior to the changes in the mass that took place during the 1960’s 75% of US Catholics attended mass weekly, that number is now 25%.

    We ought to conform our hearts and minds to Jesus through his church, I believe that the appearence that the liturgy is something to be modified contributes to the notion that teachings as well can be adjusted to our will.

  19. Hi Teresa, I’m looking at the lastest post about Catholicism in Argentina and thinking about why don’t people go to mass. With all of the changes that have been made, people still feel it is out of touch with real life. Amazing, isnt it? I don’t know what the solution is. And its a strange dichotamy that changes emerge organically from the people many times (I wish more often, because I’m cynical and see things as being more top-down changes) AND that the Church is not to be at the whim or will of its people (the Spirit within the people, certainly though). Again, what the answer is, I dont know. I know that its been a problem forever, so at least we’re not dim witted on this, we’re just asking age old questions.

    I was talking with my mom once about some change that has occured in our theology of something, and she asked, ‘if that can change, I wonder what else can change. And so, why should I follow anything?’. Whoa! She was right on I thought. For me, I’m comfortable with things being fluid, but others like more assurity or at least to know that the hard work or suffering they’ve done to follow some guideline wont all be for not later on.

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