(Editor's note: Father Barratt is diocesan director of Prayer and Worship and pastor of Holy Trinity parish in Hudson/Germantown. His columns appear unedited. To read the previous columns in the series, go to www.evangelist.org.)

In the third and final part of our brief series on how we pray with our bodies, we are going to explore the various gestures and postures that we use in prayer (especially during the celebration of Mass). We have seen how we are both body and spirit and that we are also ritual beings: so it should not surprise us that physical space, our senses, our gestures and our postures during the Mass are very much part of praying. Indeed, our postures and gestures are never just sitting, kneeling etc. No, they are potent symbols of deeper and spiritual realities.

There are so many gestures and postures that are part and parcel of our celebration of Mass. In fact, they are so familiar to us that we might just do them without thinking. Why do we, for example, stand during some parts of the Mass? Standing indicates that we are ready, attentive and waiting for the Lord. We can think of that passage in Scripture: "stand erect and hold your heads high because your redemption is drawing near" (Luke 21: 28). That is one reason why we stand for the Gospel reading. Practically speaking, standing also helps us in our singing or speaking (when Catholics do sing, that is!), as for example, at the beginning and end of Mass, or when we recite the Creed. It is also a traditional posture for prayer in many cultures. Additionally, for Christians, standing is the traditional posture for Easter: rejoicing in the Lord's resurrection and waiting for His return.

Sitting, in some senses, is a fairly recent addition to our postures during Mass. Until the early Middle Ages, many churches had no general benches or seats (except those for a few particular people, or symbolic seats such as the Bishop's chair or cathedra that is a symbol of his teaching authority). Sitting has become associated with listening. The child Jesus sat and listened in the Temple (Luke 2: 4) and Mary sat at the Lord's feet and listened to him while Martha bustled around (Luke 10: 39). So, at Mass, we sit for the readings or for the homily as a sign of our attentive listening.

As we discussed earlier, kneeling has many levels of meaning. It can be a sign of repentance: penitents, for example, knelt as a sign of their sorrow. It is also a posture of intense prayer and petition. St. Stephen knelt as he prayed before his martyrdom (Acts 7: 60). Kneeling also symbolizes respect, adoration, thanksgiving and humility (that is acknowledging that we are creatures and not God, and that all we have is gift). That is why, wherever possible, we kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer and also from the Lamb of God until we come up to receive the gift: the Eucharist (cf. GIRM 43). As an often quoted saying goes: "the person who kneels before God can stand before anyone."

Bowing and genuflecting are two postures or gestures that have similar meaning and force in many cultures. In Japan, for example, there is a whole etiquette of bowing, with three main types of bow. Generally, these actions are to show respect and devotion either to people (especially the office that they embody) or to sacred objects (and who or what they represent). This is why we genuflect when passing the tabernacle. This is why we bow to the altar or the cross (symbols of Christ), or as we are about to receive Holy Communion (the real presence of our Lord). It is good to make sure that our bow or genuflection is sincere and real. A bow, for example, should be a bow; not just a quick twitch of the head!

Our hands are so expressive and this is certainly true during the celebration of Mass. For example, there is what is called the "orans" (or praying) position that the priest adopts when he prays on behalf of people and representing Christ; for example during the Eucharistic Prayer or other important prayers. Here, we can recall the story of how Israel prevailed in battle, as long as Moses stretched out his hands in prayer (Exodus 17: 9-14). Jesus himself stretched out his hands in prayer as he hung upon the cross. If we receive Holy Communion on the hand, we stretch out our hands, one on top of the other: a sign that we are receiving a wonderful and undeserved gift. We use our hands to make the sign of the cross or to bless ourselves. We shake hands at the sign of peace (a symbol of friendship and goodwill in many cultures). We sign ourselves three times as we greet the Gospel: a symbol that the words of the Lord that we are about to hear will be in our minds (signing the forehead), on our lips and reside in our hearts.

We even move with our bodies to underline what is happening in our prayer. We turn to face the Gospel as it is read; to show that we are listening to the Lord's words to us. In the ancient baptism rites, those who were to be baptized first turned to the west (the domain of evil!) to renounce the devil and then to the east to proclaim Christ (the risen Son of God). Incidentally, in some rites people also spat to the west: but this gesture is now omitted...

This symbolism of facing to the east ("ad orientem"); that is, the place of the rising sun and so a sign of the risen Christ, is powerful. Many churches were built with the main altar oriented to the east. There has been much discussion about which way the priest should face when celebrating the Eucharist. Scholars seem divided on past practices. Our current rite makes allowances for older churches or other circumstances where the priest facing ad orientem may still need to be done; but also recommends "wherever possible" that the altar be free-standing, so that, for example, the priest can face the people (GIRM 299).

Hopefully, our series may help in our understanding of how we pray with our bodies, especially during Mass. Being aware of the underlying symbolism of all the postures and gestures may help us to deepen our "full, conscious and active participation" in that great prayer: that is the Mass.