Should we adopt the orans posture during the Our Father?

Authoritative: KIND OF

The orans posture refers to the position of holding ones arms extended to the sides with hands facing up or out during prayer. It is a very ancient position for prayer, well documented in ancient catacomb art, as in the image at left. During the liturgy, the orans is one of several positions adopted by the priest during prayer, but is most associated with the praying of the Our Father. In many places, it is common for the lay faithful to adopt this position during the recitation of the Our Father as well. The question we address here is whether it is proper for the congregation to adopt the orans posture along with the priest at the praying of the Our Father.

Despite the long and impressive pedigree of the orans, there is really no precedent for the Christian faithful adopting this position during the Church's liturgy, at least since the fifth century. It appears to be a practice that died out with the passing of the Roman Empire in the west. To resuscitate a practice so long ago discarded by the Church would be nothing other than an act of blatant archaeologism; but beyond this, why is it liturgically inconsistent to the spirit of the liturgy to encourage the practice today?

To understand why the orans posture is not appropriate for the laity, we need to understand what the orans posture is used for within the liturgy.

When examining the purpose of the orans gesture, it has been noted that there is some ambiguity. With the sole exception of the Our Father, the orans is universally used in places where the priest is praying aloud and alone (for example, during the Opening Prayer, the Prayer over the Gifts, and the Post-Communion Prayer). However, if the priest is praying with the people and aloud, his hands are joined, as during the Gloria and Creed. Therefore, it seems that the orans gesture is linked to the priest praying on behalf of the people. Since the people are silent during these times, there is no occasion for imitation. He prays aloud on behalf of the people whilst the congregation remains silent. If the priest is praying aloud with the people, the hands are folded.

The ambiguity I mentioned regards the Our Father. In the Novus Ordo Our Father alone do we have a situation where the priest prays aloud with the faithful and yet assumes the orans posture (in the Extraordinary Form, the Our Father is recited by the priest alone, with the server intoning the "sed libera nos a malo"; sometimes the faithful intone this as well, though it is not part of the rubrics). This ambiguity actually goes back to before the Novus Ordo, however. In the 1958 liturgical reforms of Pius XII, Pius allowed for the faithful to say the Our Father in its entirety along with the priest, provided they were able to say it in Latin. Since the priest had always adopted the orans posture during the Pater Noster (since it was a prayer said on behalf of the people), it was natural that once the people were allowed to join in 1958, they adopted the posture as well by way of imitation.

This created a very interesting anomaly. Instead of the orans posture being associated with the manner in which the prayer was offered (on behalf of the people), it became associated with the prayer itself, so that the orans posture and the Our Father are now seen to go together. This association had already begun to creep in prior to the Novus Ordo and has become even more widespread since 1969.

Strictly speaking, the priest in the new Mass is no longer praying on behalf of the people, who are silent. He prays the Our Father with the congregation, who all pray it aloud. Thus, the traditional reason for adopting the orans posture is no longer present. If we want liturgical consistency, there are really only two options within the context of the Novus Ordo: (1) return to the practice of the priest saying the Our Father alone with the congregation praying silently or intoning only the "sed libera nos a malo" line, or (2) change the rubrics so that the priest prays the Our Father with his hands folded, as he does at the Gloria and the Creed, since these are all prayers prayed aloud with the congregation.

Do I think this "orans problem" is a huge issue? No. If the only thing I can focus on during the Our Father is how the priest or people shouldn't be in the orans posture, then I think my liturgical experience is a little disordered. There are clearly more important things, and we don't want to be legalists to such a degree that minor inconsistencies detract from our ability to worship God. But it is true that what we have with the orans question is a real discrepancy in liturgical norms, one that should probably be rectified. Is it technically "wrong" or against a certain rule for the faithful to adopt the orans posture? No. There is no "rule" they are breaking, and this can't be termed an abuse in the strict sense. Does it contradict traditional liturgical norms? Yes, it is contrary to very well established liturgical principles, but the fault cannot really be laid at the door of the congregation (who merely imitate the priest), but with the rubrics themselves that in 1958 allowed the congregation to pray aloud with the priest while retaining the orans posture for the celebrant. This is the real problem, and this is why I say that the answer to this question is authoritative "kind of".

Someone praying in the spirit of the liturgy will not adopt the orans posture during the Our Father, but it can hardly be called a sin or liturgical abuse if they do. Of course, one could just simply attend the Extraordinary Form, where this is not an issue at all. Just saying.

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