Living without the use of my arms is… well, odd. Because of my genetic muscle-wasting disease, there are things that I just can’t do anymore. So many doors closed. This post is not about the difficult, critical inabilities, like washing or feeding myself. It’s about my powerlessness to do one simple and seemingly unnecessary act and how it awakened a deeper power and consciousness within me (the closing of one door and the opening of a holy other).
I’m referring to the classic Catholic custom of crossing oneself.
I used to be able to make the sign of the cross — right hand fingers touching forehead, then mid-torso, then the left shoulder, then over to the right shoulder — but became too physically weak to do so by my 20s. Having been taught to cross myself at the beginning and close of every Mass, I did feel the growing lack over the years and it bothered me. It bothered me at the time because I couldn’t do what everyone else was doing and I didn’t want to be even more conspicuous than I already was. Going to Mass rarely, however, because I wasn’t a true believer at the time, meant that I didn’t have to worry about it much.
Not until later — after the bout with atheism and the recovery period exploring the religions of the world that brought me, finally, to choose and desire Christ — did crossing myself begin to mean something really important to me, as a prayerful ritual. So, I would try to make the motions at Mass in faraway miniature with my thumb, as my hand rested upon the control stick of my power wheelchair. In a crippled way, this took care of the outward sign. But it did nothing for the inward reality.
It was in praying the Rosary that the difference was made. Lying on my bed on the couch, I could move my fingers where they rested next to my body, with similar distant, small motions. But, being alone, I felt less self-conscious and more desirous to enter into deep contemplation, so I began to really pray the Sign of the Cross. What happened was, instead of the puny physical gesture, I began imagining the forming of a cross over my body while praying the words in my heart: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” And, through my imagination, I was able to connect to the essential meaning of the act: a recollection of the first Sacrament that I received, when I was baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us of the act’s significance:
“The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior’s grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties.” [CCC #2157.]
Sometimes, however, when people cross themselves, it can look like superstition. Even the Catholic custom of blessing ourselves with holy water in the sign of the cross when entering a church can look like (and can often be) perfunctory habit. We Catholics might cross ourselves when passing by a church or a cemetery, or at the sight of an accident or other crisis, or whenever someone is speaking of something terrible. It can be an instinctive reaction and may look to others like we are trying to ward off evil, like tossing spilt salt over the shoulder. Yet, the instinct to cross oneself is a good one — as long as the outward gestures are connected to our inner reality as baptized persons, as persons given new birth, dedicated “to the glory of God”, calling upon the grace of Christ Our Savior to help us heed the Holy Spirit in every moment of our lives and truly live as children of Our Heavenly Father.
But… how often do we think of that when our hands are busy performing the conditioned gestures?
I didn’t think of it. Not until the physical ability ceased. It’s like that old saying: you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Opening up my imagination, I was better able to appreciate what the making of the Sign of the Cross really is. Because of this, I think that I do it more often than I would if I made the obvious outward gestures. I will “cross myself” at the usual times, but I also find myself doing it throughout the day, without a formal “prayer”.
I cross myself whenever I seek to remember that I am in God’s eternal presence and that everything that I think, say, and do is known to God.
In the name of the Holy Trinity, I envision a cross over my body and I am centered… my thoughts better focused. Whenever I am given a small opportunity to make an act of will and choose not to just go along with whatever, but to be the person that God created me to be… I pray the Sign of the Cross. I try to do it before I make a decision, any decision — and before starting a conversation with someone that I think will be a kind of burden or trial, because I know that the momentary encounter is also an opportunity for grace. Also, I try to cross myself before I begin writing, because I want to be the writer that God created me to be, and this helps me to endeavor in His Name, for His Glory, by His Will, and for my eternal fulfillment.
For me, now, the Sign of the Cross is a reminder that everything that I do is in the name of God. It’s like a summons… (or a slap upside the head)… or like a gateway. In an imaginative and, also, a mystical way, the Sign of the Cross comes over me and I am transported to… connected to… the Divine — through, in, and with Christ… Christ on the Cross, where his Sacred Heart is opened for me and for all who want to enter into holiness, into true life.
It’s like stepping through an open portal to live in the infinite grace and love of God… ultimate reality.
© 2016 Christina Chase
reposting from the original
© 2014 Christina Chase
I don't call myself a poet — but the beating of my heart is poetry. I don't call myself a theologian — but the light of my mind seeks the Divine. Who I am is a Child of God, a Divine Creation, a person devoted to being fully human, fully alive.