I will lift up my hands
and call upon your name [Psalm 62.4]
I speak with my hands. I use my voice too, but my hands do a great deal of talking. One day my wife was present when I was leading a day on ways of prayer. The person sitting next to her asked if I was ‘signing’. I have no knowledge of British Sign Language or any equivalent system; it’s just that my hands will not be still – their movements are an integral part of my self-expression. I am not alone in this. Recently I sat outside Kings Cross station, getting some air whilst I waited for my train. Though I was out of earshot of the people passing by on the way towards the platforms I could sense something of their conversation through the gestures of their hands: a ‘hurry up’ issued through the urgent beckoning of fingers; a ‘good to be with you’ impressed by one hand joining with another, the telling and receiving of an adventure made alive through the busy work of hands moving up, down and around.
In the normal course of conversation we hardly notice how much is said with our hands. We hear the voice, and later in the day, it is words we can recall. And yet in the moment the movement our hands express what we hold within and desire to share. If you are not sure this is so, I suggest you watch television with the sound turned off; it will still be full of ‘speech’. Sometimes the movements of the body reveal what remains hidden by the spoken word: the speaker’s ease or lack of it; their frustration, or joy, or fear.
Without knowing it to be so I wonder whether signing preceded vocal communication in human history. Even now when faced with a language barrier we turn to our hands to attempt to express what words cannot convey. Signing with the hands remains an established part of our social exchanges. We shake hands as a way of greeting, clap hands to express our appreciation, stretch out our open hands to communicate our welcome. A policeman puts out his hand, palm outwards, to stop the traffic. As a child I was told to put my hands together, finger to finger, as the appropriate starting place for prayer.
Beyond this socially agreed language, our inmost feelings find voice in the shaping of our hands. When we are tense or angry we may curl our fingers into tight balls or fold our hands across our body. When making a point I notice how my downwards moving hand meets my upwards facing palm at right angles: the two connect. In excitement or wonder hands wander upwards and outwards.
I also have a sense that the reshaping of hands can alter what is happening at the level of our attitudes or feelings. Just as the mind finds expression in the body, the body can help the mind into a new place. There I am sitting in the place of prayer. My hands stretch out, upwards facing, the fingers curled to receive what I need, or to offer what I have. What is expressed in the body begins to find a way into my spirit.
So when you next find pause to listen to the longings of your heart, let your hands lead you into prayer. No words are needed. Your hands will know what it is your deepest self seeks.