Making the sign of the cross

Making the sign of the cross July 6, 2010

Mosaic of many crosses
Mosaic of many crosses from a chapel in Alswede, Germany (Wikimedia Commons)
There is a passage in C. S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, that helps explain the physical side of being spiritual.

In his fourth letter, senior demon Screwtape holds forth on the subject of befuddling a new Christian in his prayers. He starts by mentioning a line from the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge about how he prayed without “moving lips and bended knees.” Coleridge thought he nailed it well enough by merely feeling prayerful, a view that Screwtape endorses in the lines that follow. “At the very least, they [Christians] can be persuaded that the bodily position [like kneeling] makes no difference to their prayers,” he says, “for they constantly forget . . . that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”

What we do physically affects us spiritually. The most obvious picture of this is the one Lewis mentions, kneeling in prayer. Whether it’s bowing our heads, hunching over the seat of a chair, leaning into a kneeler at church, or hitting the floor with full-on prostrations, bending to God in prayer has a qualitative effect on our prayers and on ourselves. God made us with bodies and spirits; they are linked. If demons know this about us better than do we, we’re in trouble.

Another example of this is crossing yourself. I grew up in an evangelical church and only saw people cross themselves if they were Catholics. Generally I was taught (or at least assumed) that this was vain superstition at work. Perhaps in some cases it was. All I know now is that making the sign of the cross has a powerful qualitative effect, much like kneeling in prayer.

I make the sign of the cross when I pray, when I’m tempted, when I drive, when I walk, when I’m thankful, when I face something horrible or difficult. Having grown up the way I did, this did not come easy at first. I felt very self-aware and hesitant. But the more I did it, the more I came to cherish—and even need—to cross myself.

For one thing, it’s a form of prayer. It’s also a powerful form of identification. Making the sign of the cross says to yourself (and anyone watching) in a bold and physical way that you belong to Jesus, that you belong to God. When faced with temptation, wrestling with a bad attitude, or even feeling grateful for the mercies of God, is there anything better? Identifying as Christian by using the sign of the cross is a physically demonstrative way to communicate your reliance on God and your identity in Christ, and it affects your spirit in a positive way.

For any believer—whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox—such a confession is the furthest thing from superstition. It’s another step (watch out, Screwtape) toward serious devotion.

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  • Excellent post, Joel, and a great reminder. I did apodcast on The Physical Side of Prayer sometime ago, borrowing the phrase from Fr. Peter Gillquist’s book, The Physical Side of Being Spiritual.

  • I’ve never read Fr. Peter’s book, but I’ve had that phrase stuck in my head ever since hearing it. The first time I read Screwtape I think I nodded in general agreement to the point that our bodies matter to our spirituality but never much practiced it seriously until several years later.

  • Jim Thomason

    Well written Joel (as if I expected anything less!). Upon my conversion to Catholicism I experienced for the first time the connection between the tactile and the spiritual. Whether it be kneeling in church, handling a rosary, or the smell of incense I find that bringing your body into the worship experience makes it more complete and eliminates distractions. Where your body goes your mind will follow. If it is not real and present in the worship experience your mind will eventually be similarly absent. Great post!

  • I’m a lifelong protestant who grew up in a church that struggled to stand to sing hymns, let alone thought kneeling was a great idea. My first physical/spiritual collision was fasting. Since then, I’ve come to love kneeling. I’d love to “experiment” with making the sign of the cross but I don’t know how. What is the proper form? When I do it, I feel like I look like the punch line to that old joke, “What would Catholics do if Jesus had been stoned to death?”

  • Mark, Jim will have slightly different answer to this because Catholics and Orthodox have some differences in the way they cross themselves. But for the Orthodox, it looks like this:

    Using your right hand, hold you thumb, index, and middle finger together (these three fingers represent the trinity), and press your ring and pinky fingers to your palm (these two fingers represent the dual natures of Christ). Then starting at your forehead you trace the sign down to your stomach, then up to your right shoulder and across your chest to your left.

  • SHERRY MCCLELLAN, A Non-Dom Minister

    I love synchonicity! 😉
    I “coincidentally” wandered upon your blog; via Eric Metaxas’ promo of his new book and Bonhoeffer etc.
    Back in my childhood, for reasons unknown to me, I would “Cross Myself”, when in ardent prayer. Maybe a genetic coding, of Germanic roots, or the Huguenot line, who knows…but I have read that Jesus taught to go into a special place to pray, in private, which is where I’d make my physical sign of Christianity; as protection from diabolical forces, maybe…but, mostly, as a sacred bond between me and Christ…an acknowledgement of His sacrifice for me. Thank you for addressing this subject! I also used to instinctively go into a Lutheran Church, when in a new place; so reading abt Bonhoeffer’s bringing this attribute into his jail cell, was particularly pleasing to me. I’ve been wandering around your pgs, for a couple of hrs, now and wonder if I’ll get anything else done, today! 😉 Thank you, again. I’ll be back, for sure…& I signed up for emails.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, Sherry! I hope you find more here that’s good for your soul.