A few weeks ago, I stepped out of the car into an ugly Monday afternoon. The sky outside promised rain; the air inside promised death. My feet guided me toward the inevitable: steps to be climbed, a door to be opened, a coffin to be approached. The only path forward is through. Life must be lived. So I climbed the front steps of Berndhart Funeral Home, and my fingers reflexively traced a familiar path: forehead to heart, shoulder to shoulder. I crossed myself as I approached my grandfather’s funeral. That’s the only prayer I can manage when rain lies behind me and death lies before me.
I began experimenting with the sign of the cross in my early twenties. The word “experimenting” makes it sound like hard drugs. But as a child of the Southern Baptist tradition, the sign of the cross smacked of strangeness and superstition. I remember my first times tracing the gentle gesture, and it felt clumsy, foreign, and even a little dangerous. For me, the experiment had to happen because I was desperate to learn how to pray.
Like everyone else on the planet—whether we recognize it or not—I’m hardwired hungry for prayer. Some might say that praying with silent thoughts or quiet whispers is enough. I’m thrilled if that works for them. But as I experimented through my 20s, I realized my life of prayer needed to be a full-contact sport. Prayer can’t just be in my mind or with my words… my body must pray. I daily bend my knees. I frequently open my hands. I often raise my voice in frustration and anger. I’ll gaze at a burning candle or rising incense. And most days—at some point—I’ll make the sign of the cross. Scripture tells us to “pray unceasingly” and I often find my fingers want to join the action.
I’ve discovered that there’s a gateway in this gesture. The sign of the cross is doorway. But it’s not what I imagined growing up.
As a teenager, the world of external rituals seemed strange. Spirituality seemed like an internal, not external, endeavor. I had the vague impression that someone signing the cross looked like trying to pull God into the world for their own purposes. Like a Jedi harnessing the Force. Like Doctor Strange channeling the mystic arts. The ritual seemed like a backwards attempt to somehow manipulate God. “Why do people do that!?—draw those two silly lines? Don’t they realize they can’t make God show up by doing that?”
What I didn’t realize is that the doorway is for us. Rituals like signing the cross don’t help God show up; they help us show up. They’re not opposed to God’s grace; they’re ways of being opened to God’s grace. There’s something helpful about bent knees and open hands, the smell of incense and sign of the cross. They’re tangible. When I cross myself, I’m practicing a physical action to remind myself of deeper realities. I’m inviting God to wake me up, to sharpen my senses, to remind me what’s true.
Sacred rituals are a gateway
by which God helps us arrive
in the real world:
The world where the Crucified reigns
and promises resurrection.
I need to be reminded of this world. Often. Before my grandfather’s funeral. And during my break on a terrible day at work. And after a discouraging conversation. And countless times each week.
Forehead to heart,
shoulder to shoulder:
“The cross of Christ
claims this body—my body—
and I am part of its story.”
I’m reminded again.
Christianity gives the profound insight that bodies matter—from creation (“it’s good”) to incarnation (God with a body) to resurrection (God reclaiming his “good” creation). Our bodies matter, and we do with our bodies matters. So when we learn to pray with our bodies, we’re diving into something breathtakingly Christian. All our bodily practices are spiritual practices.
So I cross myself. Sometimes a prayer with my fingers is the only prayer I can muster. I continue to experiment. And I trust that God graciously meets me in all my fumblings and stumblings, drawing me further up and further in to his ever-deeper world of love. And there I’ll see my grandfather.