“Heads bowed, hands together, eyes closed.” This was how we prayed, our seven-year old little bodies being trained in the ways of holiness. Also, at the end we said “Amen.” I wasn’t sure why we did any of those things, but I did know these were the words and posture of prayer. Prayer, if it was done right, had a formula.
I later learned that Amen wasn’t the “over and out” equivalent of heavenly communication. The Hebrew word loosely translated “so be it” was one of assent and agreement: a statement of faith as we committed our petitions into the hands of one we believed had Heard and would Answer. Or, if someone else was praying, it was the word of our collective togetherness in prayer: We, your children, ask this Father. Even if Mary over there happened to be the spokesperson. Amen.
At times, the physical formulae of prayer made sense, too. If my eyes were closed, I was less prone to distraction. If my head was bowed, I was visibly “not available” if someone wanted to get my attention. But the hands-together posture—the clasped hands that have become lapel pins and emoji-shorthand for prayer—that one never quite made sense.
A few years ago, I sat hunched at a table, ready to pray with ministry staff. As we discussed the various items that needed prayer, my coworker packed away the notes that had been in front of him and laid his hands out on the table, palms up. Now he was ready to pray. Later, once our eyes-closed-heads-bowed prayer time was finished, I asked him about his open palms.
“Why?” I wanted to know. His were obviously praying hands, but not in the clasped way I’d known before.
This was one way his body was teaching him to pray, he said. His hands were laid open to show surrender: instead of grasping at control over his life—palms off!—praying with his palms up indicated his willingness to give the reigns over to God, to loosen his grip, to yield to God’s direction. It also indicated his willingness to receive whatever God had for him. Clenched hands do not give, and they don’t receive either.
I’ve been praying palms up since that day: open-handed in pursuit of learning to live open-hearted. It is telling of my closed heart that sometimes my hands seem to insist on staying closed. There have been times in worship services when, churning over some strained relationship or deep wound, I look down and see my hands clenched in a white-knuckled grip on the chair in front of me.
But as the music begins, and the Spirit bids me breathe in and breathe out and breathe in and breathe out again, so I turn my palms up.
Here I am, open-handed. I’ve been holding on so tight, but here it is for you to see.
Take it, Father; and fill your daughter’s hand with what she needs.
You care for the sparrows, and you care for me.
So here I am, palms up.
I trust you.