Monday, February 19, 2018

“The Fingers that Hold God”: The Priestly Benefits of ‘Liturgical Digits’ (Part 1)

As a liturgical theologian, I am keenly interested in the question of how little points of ceremonial have an effect on what we believe is happening at Mass. For it is not simply the text that counts as a lex orandi indicative of a lex credendi, but also, and at times more influentially, the actions—for example, the bowing of the head during the Gloria, the osculations of the altar, or the genuflections at the consecration.

Over a period years attending the usus antiquior, I found myself noticing more and more the custom of the priest holding his thumb and forefinger together from the time of the consecration until the ablutions, a practice some call ‘canonical digits’ or ‘liturgical digits.’ As an observing layman, this custom struck me as entirely fitting, given our faith in the Real Presence, and I began to wonder about the implications of its disappearance in the Novus Ordo.

Recently the idea occurred to me of surveying a number of priests to ask them how they perceive and experience this custom, since they are uniquely situated to know its benefits (or the lack thereof). The survey is all the more valuable with the growing presence of the usus antiquior in the Church and the way it is enriching day by day the celebration of the Novus Ordo, where we find the custom of ‘liturgical digits’ making a return today.

I wrote to 30 priests, and received responses from 19.

The five questions I posed to each priest were as follows:
     1. When you celebrate the usus antiquior, does the act of holding together thumb and forefinger from the consecration until the ablutions make a psychological or spiritual difference for you? If so, how would you describe it?
     2. If you began your priestly life celebrating only the usus recentior and later learned the usus antiquior, did learning to hold the fingers together strike you as more devout, or as a nuisance, or something else?
     3. Has this traditional practice affected the way you view the corresponding lack of rubric in the usus recentior? Have you considered adopting, or do you adopt, the traditional practice in the modern rite? Why or why not?
     4. In your mind, how does this practice fit into the overall “ethos” or spirit of the classical Roman liturgy?
     5. In your pastoral experience, has any layman ever commented on or asked about the holding-together of the fingers? Do you think it is noticed and has any bearing on the piety of the laity?
Over the next three weeks, on Mondays and Thursdays, I shall publish all the responses I received (they are well worth reading!), separating them into five posts according to the questions. In this way, priests are permitted to speak for themselves, in their own words.

QUESTION 1. Does This Custom Make a Difference?
When you celebrate the usus antiquior, does the act of holding together thumb and forefinger from the consecration until the ablutions make a psychological or spiritual difference for you? If so, how would you describe it?

Fr. A.P.
I will preface my response by saying that the usus antiquior as a whole constantly helps turn my attention to the adoration of Christ and His offering on Calvary and to the flow of the various prayers and intentions throughout the Mass—from the many suppliant cries of prayers such as the Confiteor and Kyrie, to the praise of the Gloria, to the supplications of the Canon, etc. Hence, as such, the many prescribed gestures of the usus antiquior are usually not at the forefront of my mind. Rather they come and go as aides to what is more essential acts of the soul.
       The holding together of thumb and forefinger has not been for me one of the more impactful gestures of the usus antiquior. Nonetheless, it is a real help. It serves as a reminder and sign that my other movements, and the movements of my heart, should be particularly reverent from the consecration until the ablutions.
Fr. B.H.
Holding the thumb and forefinger together (which I also do in celebrating the Novus Ordo, since there’s nothing forbidding it) helps in a little way to remind me and reinforce the fact that I am now holding the Lord’s Body with those fingers, and no longer just bread. But I wouldn’t call it a spiritual or psychological ‘big deal’ for me.
Fr. B.J.
God has blessed me with a strong faith in the Real Presence, and even before I had studied the usus antiquior I had a sense of awareness and concern about the particles of the Most Blessed Sacrament that result from the ordinary carrying-out of the Holy Sacrifice.
       At the Mass in which I was ordained a deacon (alone, no other ordinands), the Eucharist was “served” from a glass dish of sorts (from which hosts or particles thereof easily could have fallen, and I purified it with great care after Holy Communion; it required a rather noticeable period of time to do so, which was obviously more than local clergy and people were used to. After that Mass both the vocation director and the ordaining bishop “corrected” me on this matter, with the bishop reminding me that the purification was only a “ritual purification” and that such care was not needed in carrying it out, since a sacristan would wash everything after. (A totally incoherent position.)
       This was my introduction – and a rather painful one, at that – to the practical lack of faith on the part of the clergy in the Real Presence, which I have witnessed and experienced many times in the 11 years since then. I say “practical” because few would deny the Real Presence and most would even defend it quite eloquently. But the way they actually handle the Eucharist betrays their lack of understanding and/or belief. (This is particularly the case with how they handle the Precious Blood, the purificator, etc.—but this is the topic of another discourse.)
       Therefore, when I began to study the usus antiquior and learned about the detailed and systematic process of purification, which really leaves little room for error, and of the practicalities such as holding the consecrating digits together until purification, my faith was confirmed. And, although knowledge of the Church’s historic practice served, perhaps, to heighten my awareness of just how bad things generally can be now, and thus heightened my sense of pain, yet at the same time, it was a consolation to know that I was on the right track.
       In short, yes, the custody of the digits does make an important and positive psychological and spiritual difference for me.
Fr. D.C.
I find that it certainly makes a difference both psychologically and spiritually. Psychologically it has the effect of reminding me what I am doing and Who I am touching and holding. Spiritually, it helps deepen my faith in the Holy Eucharist. Again, it is a reminder of Who am I holding, and what I am doing. It keeps me grounded in reality, and focused on the presence of Jesus.
Fr. D.F.
For me, I would describe it primarily as a difference of logic. There is also some element of psychological and spiritual difference, as well as devotional. Primarily, however, the practice seems like the logical conclusion of the Church’s belief. Although holding together these fingers may not be an absolute necessity, it seems like a natural outgrowth of her liturgical and doctrinal development—the logical and fitting thing to do.
       Spiritually, I find that the practice has given new meaning to the ablutions (or ablution cup) for me. Even when there are no discernible particles that seem to require purification, the act of holding my fingers closed until their ablution conveys the larger spiritual truth (to both priest and people) that something out of the ordinary—something outside the natural order—has transpired in the consecration. The ablution then takes on the role not only of a practicality, but reveals itself to be also a symbolic act whereby things are set back in right order. 
Fr. D.N.
Holding together the thumb and forefinger in “liturgical digits” after the first of two consecrations costs so little mentally and has such great rewards psychologically. What I mean by the first is that after offering Mass several times, liturgical digits become pretty natural. What I mean by the second is that the knowledge that no crumbs of Our Lord’s Sacred Body will fall to the ground becomes a great reward psychologically or spiritually.
Fr. E.W.
Holding thumb and forefinger together is one of one of the differences between the two uses that most contributes to giving the older use a different “feel.” In general, the older use has a highly stylized and formalized feel. Whereas, the newer use has a more informal feel. This is also felt, for example, in the narrow limits set to the orante posture in the older use—in the newer use the rubrics are vague, but the style is a more expansive orante. The more formalized approach of the older use emphasizes the importance of what is being done, and the self-effacement necessary. In particular, the holding of thumb and finger together emphasizes the awesome, and as it were “dangerous” reality of the real presence.
Fr. E.P.
There is certainly a greater awareness, through the observance of this practice, of the reality of the divine Presence in the sacred species. It is in this way not unlike the discipline of folding one’s hands properly with fingers closed and closely joined to those of the other hand. It helps focus the mind while it binds his hands.
Fr. J.F.
I think it gives me a greater awareness of the Real Presence. The reality that every particle, visible to my eyes, is the whole Christ. Not that I did not believe this before. I have always had a deep Eucharistic spirituality. But this practice deepens it.
Fr. J.K.
The God of heaven is beyond our ability to comprehend. The universe cannot contain Him. This allows us to grasp, however imperfectly, the depth of the love that He had for us; to become so small as to enter the womb of the Virgin Mary as a child. The knowledge that the God of heaven became so tiny as to be only available to sight under a microscope, leads me to accept without question what some liberals have called crumb theology. Yes, that tiny crumb on the paten is the God of majesty who became fully what we are without ceasing to be fully His divine self.
       Our faith has everything to do with the body. All we need do is look at our religious language to see that Truth: Body of Christ, Precious Blood, Sacred Heart, and Immaculate Conception. Awareness of my own body and its participation in this mystery makes me realize that the crevices of my fingerprint might contain trace elements of the Host I have just raised in my hands.
       So yes, holding thumb and forefinger together does make a spiritual difference. Reverence for the Most Precious Body of the Lord means that I should preserve these trace elements until the ablutions are available.
Fr. J.S.
I’ve never celebrated a mass without holding thumb and forefinger together. So, while it was a conscious choice at the beginning of my priesthood due to the clearly apparent fittingness of the expression (though I might not make an “argument from fittingness” with the same strong weight that such a term carries in Thomist language, simply on account of the gesture lacking in other ancient revered rites) it is hard to say how much of a psychological and spiritual difference it makes in the daily celebration—for me as the celebrant. For it is and has been for a long time completely automated. I do not consciously dwell on the act of holding my fingers a certain way. It is second nature. The conscious attention is focused on the liturgical action as such (the prayers). The only point it is more in focus is at the time of purification, but even then the mind is fixed more on the real presence and less on the actual act of holding or releasing the fingers. I would reckon that the greatest psychological and spiritual difference can probably found in what seeing that gesture (and knowing what it means) does to the faithful.
Fr. J.M.
There is no difference, as I do the canonical digits at Novus Ordo anyway. True, it was learning the EF that led me to do this practice, which I was already familiar with by watching other young priests do it. Regardless of the form of the Mass, canonical digits is a reminder of what it is that one has touched and consequently how much reverence is due to even the smallest fragment.
Fr. J.B.
I see/experience it as a reminder of and a gesture expressing attentiveness to the presence of Christ on the altar under the sacred species, and of reverence and care for the Sacrament of the Eucharist. While it may have origins in the desire to keep particles from falling, I do not consider it on its own—in particular, apart from the act of rubbing any fragments left on the fingers after picking up the host into the chalice—a very reliable means to keep fragments from falling; so I see its character as an act of reverence deriving from its significance as a reminder of the reverence due to the eucharistic Presence in even the smallest fragment.
Fr. M.K.
Yes, it most certainly does foster an interior awareness of the immensity of the Mystery that lies before me on the corporal. It focuses and centres me in the real presence of the Christus Passus.
Fr. M.C.
It is hard to say. I’m used to hold the fingers together in both forms, after the consecration until the ablution. Thus I cannot say how I would “feel” if I did not so. For me it is such a fixed custom that it would be hard not to hold the fingers together when I touch the consecrated species. For example, if I join a celebration just for helping to distribute holy communion if there are too many faithful for one priest—some weeks ago I was in a seminary and I had to help in such a way. In this case only my right hand comes into contact with the species of bread (since the left hand holds the ciborium). In this case it takes special “effort” not to hold also the fingers of the left hand together, just intuitively! I think this is a great thing, since it highly facilitates the reverent treatment of the Blessed Sacrament.
Fr. M.B.
I do not celebrate the usus antiquior, though I have had some training in it. Thus, I cannot answer this question.
Fr. P.M.
After celebrating the Mass of blessed Paul VI for 17 years, my first experiences of holding my thumb and forefinger together seemed a bit exaggerated. It did not take long, however, before I had the real sense that I could not have that which had touched and handled the Consecrated Host touch anything else prior to their proper cleaning. Similarly, at the Qui Pridie, though I just moments earlier had the Lavabo, I consciously wipe my fingers and thumbs on the corporal, one final preparation before handling that which is to become the Sacred Species, an action that I now use in celebrating any Mass.
Fr. T.K.
I understand the reason for the practice, just as I understand the rubric that directs me to keep my hands within the bounds of the corporal while at the altar from the consecration until the ablutions. The purpose is to prevent the loss of particles of the Host that may have stuck to my thumb or forefinger; if they should fall from my thumb or forefinger, they would fall onto the corporal.
Fr. W.S.
The practice raised my alertness to a far higher level of the fact of the Real Presence and of my solitary and sublime responsibility as a priest.

Part 2 will appear on Thursdsay. Subsequent parts will be published alternately on Mondays and Thursdays.

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