Open Hands

July 17, 2011

We spent the third day of our El Salvador Trip with martyrs and an almost-martyr. First, we journeyed into Chalatanango to visit the home of Jesuit priest John Cortina, who spent his life working for the poor in northern El Salvador in largely FMLN* territory. Fr. Cortina was great, I’d love to tell you his story  later, but in the interest of keeping this focused in some way- let me skip to the afternoon. We drove about an hour and a half south, stopping by the grave of Ida Ford and Maura Clark, two of the four Maryknoll sisters murdered during the civil war, and ending at the church and grave of Fr. Rutilio Grande. Grande had an interesting relationship with Romero, and his murder (he was the first murdered priest during the uprising) seems to have catalyzed Romero’s own outspokenness for which he eventually received martyrdom.

At Grande’s church, our leaders gave us time for reflection and prayer integrating this sacred place with all that we have learned and experienced thus far on the trip. One huge mural dominates the visual experience of the small open air chapel. Over the altar of the church, on the back wall, a mural depicts a large table, the Lord’s table, set before Frs. Romero and Grande, who stand among children at the table. Tortillas, corn, and wine make a meal and Frs. Romero and Grande stand together in the Orans position*, hands extended, just as priests stand during much of the Eucharistic Prayer. Fr. Romero’s portraiture hands are styled in what appears to be a classical orans, perfectly stretched and tilted outward at just the right angle. This image could adorn the page of a manual for presiding: a well thought out posture, executed with perfect precision. But Fr. Grande’s arms are raised un-selfconsciously, held almost vertical,with his hands tilted slightly inward. Honestly, it reminded me of the priest who seems to have a lot on his mind while he celebrates, and assumes the most natural posture of prayer without focusing on his stance. There seems to be a nonchalance without carelessness that sometimes reminds me of someone unselfconsciously conversing with an old friend. I’ve seen several priests stand that way, seeming to place the prayer firmly in the hands of the Lord with wary but complete trust.

The Paschal Supper: Monsignor Romero on Left, Fr. Gante to the Right

Kneeling at Fr. Grande’s grave just that moment, it occurred to me that he lived his life just as he held his hands in this clearly idealized-eschatalogical** image of the mass. There seems to be an unselfconscious giving of self to the message of the Gospel shown forth in Fr. Grande’s life, leading to death by his persecutors, but more importantly, catalyzing the rumblings of grace into the eruption of God’s liberative Word among the people of El Salvador. Grande could never have known the impact his life and words might have on Romero. Neither could he have known (I don’t imagine) that a 27 year old American liturgical Methodist would be studying his prayer- posture more than thirty years after his death. But his faithfulness to God’s call in his life left not only a mark on those he served but quite literally changed the world in its small way.

The moment and its reflection prompted me to begin a process of wondering about the externals of prayer, and I continue nurturing the image planted in me that day. I realize that externals do not determine the “efficacy” of our prayer, in so far as we define efficacy as God’s listening. But externals matter. Bodies matter. Most liturgical texts, used for celebration in antiquity (and some in the present day) continue choreographing bodies into various prayerful postures. How do the postures we assume in our prayer shape our habitual life-posture. If God’s created physical world which surrounds us prays in varied ways, and if you read the scriptures it does, why should we not think more deeply about the physical posture of our own prayers? When I lift my own hands into the orans position each daily mass during the Lord’s prayer, I now find myself humbled (at least when I give it a little thought) to pray in such a posture that so many Christians before me employed. Most days I find myself standing alongside Fr. Rutilio with too many other things on my mind to lend even a fraction of a thought to my hands as the liturgy lifts up to their ‘normal’ place without my notice. Sometimes I remember Fr. Rutilio as I’m walking to my car or fixing supper in the evening, or closing the day’s box of everything said and done as I drift off to sleep, and I hear Christ’s voice echo from the thirteenth chapter of John’s gospel, “do you know what I have done to you?”

Some Notes
*FMLN: the resistance party during El Salvador’s Civil War. The first FMLN president was elected to the government in 2009.

*Orans Position: an ancient posture of praying dating to imagery found on Christian graves in Roman Catacombs. Priests (both Catholic and mainline Protestant) typically employ an orans position with arms outstretched in the celebration of the Eucharist/ Holy Communion.

** Note in the image at least three important elements, including the types of food, the eschatology employed, and the centrality of the tabernacle to the table. The food used are indigenous foods, not the traditional foods typically seen as having “proper matter” for the celebration of the Eucharist. This may imply God’s use of indigenous symbols which would relate closely to the ideology of some liberation theologies. The table is clearly set in the eschatological joy of the resurrection where the beloved priests are united with their people around the table of the Lamb. It evokes the invitation to the table employed in the Roman Catholic Mass, “This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, happy are we who are called to his table.” Finally, we note the tabernacle in the midst of the table, connecting the eucharistic food consecrated, consumed, and reserved in the midst of THIS congregation to the heavenly food that nourishes God’s people in eternity. In short: the concept made my little liturgist-heart go pitter patter.

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