Orans – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Today is the Day of Pentecost.  On this day the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of divine power, came to the disciples, and there was no mistaking it.  For it was accompanied by an experience which pounded the senses.  Divine power was invading them: an intense catastrophic experience.  It sounded like the rush of a violent wind.  Tongues, as of fire, rested on each one of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.

What was happening to them?  Quite simply, it was the fulfillment of the promise made in our gospel reading today from John.  Jesus is about to leave his disciples, but he tells them not to be sad: he promises that after he has gone, he will send them the Spirit.  “If I don’t go away the Advocate will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you.”(Jn 16:7)  And it is this wonderful, overwhelming gift that Jesus sends to those disciples on the Day of Pentecost.

That very same gift has been given by Jesus to each one of us.  When we were baptized we were marked on our foreheads with the cross, and these beautiful words were said over us, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”(BCP 308)  At our confirmation, the bishop says this ancient prayer over us, “Defend O Lord your servant with your heavenly grace, that he or she may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit, more and more….”(BCP 309)

So how is that prayer working out in your life now?  Are you daily increasing in the Holy Spirit?  How are you experiencing the gift of the Spirit in your own life?  On a scale of 1 – 10, with one being dormant—”I fell asleep spiritually years ago”—and ten being, “my heart is on fire with love for God,” where are you spiritually between 1 and 10?

If you feel you are rather nearer 1 than 10, what might you do about it?  How might you, in Paul’s words to Timothy “rekindle the gift of God that is within you.”(2 Tim 1:6)  Paul is quite clear that the gift is within us.  “Do you not know,” he says to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?”(1 Cor 6:19)  So if the Spirit is within each of us, given to us by God as a gift, how do we rekindle it, fan it into flames?

I believe, above all, that this can happen through prayer.  And I think that because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit within us, so our bodies, and what we do with our bodies in prayer, can be incredibly helpful in reigniting our spiritual lives.

Last year I was on vacation in Italy.  One day we drove into Rome to visit the catacombs.  We walked down deep into the subterranean tunnels and caverns, and as we adjusted to the light, there all around were Christians who had prayed in this place, sanctified it, and were now buried here.  The power of the Spirit was there.  On the walls were painted such beautiful figures and depictions of the faith.  There was the Good Shepherd gently carrying us on his shoulders.  Here, the Risen Lord, shimmering in glory.  But what most moved me, was the simple figure of a woman praying.  It is one of the most ancient of Christian icons, depicted all over the catacombs.  We don’t know if she is Mary, or the Church, or the soul at prayer.  She is called the Orans – which is a word describing how she is praying.  She is gazing up towards heaven, her open hands raised with the palms upwards.  It is perhaps the most ancient depiction of Christian prayer: prayer as invocation, or epiclesis, waiting upon and calling down, the Holy Spirit.

I think what we do with our hands is a really important indicator of our inner disposition, and of our intention.  We express so much.  Our hands may be closed, our fists clenched, in defiance or in an effort to grasp and to hold fast.  Aggressive or fearful.  At the other extreme our hands can hang listlessly at our sides – neither defiant nor receptive.  Perhaps even given up.

But this third way of using our hands is to lift them up like those of the orans.  No longer clenched but open.  No longer listless but open to God ready to receive the gifts of the Spirit.  I hold my hands in the orans position when I preside at the Eucharist, and until about the ninth century the whole congregation at the Eucharist would hold up their hands, too, celebrating together.  I know some here like to pray like this, especially at the Lord’s Prayer.

Today there is in front of me an icon.  It is an icon of Mary, praying as orans.  Mary is a wonderful model of Christian prayer, for she was completely filled with the Holy Spirit.  As the angel Gabriel said at the annunciation, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you.”  “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus.”And Mary raises her arms in prayer – first as the offering of herself, an oblation, to God.”  “Here am I, the handmaid of the Lord.” (Lk  1:31-38)  Then, secondly, she raises her arms in prayer to open herself completely to receive the Holy Spirit, to be filled with grace.

If you long to experience the Holy Spirit in your life in a more powerful way, why not, in your times of prayer, sit or stand like Mary.  Open your hands and hold them up before the Lord.  When it’s hard to pray, or you can’t think of the right words, this can be a wonderful way of simply coming into God’s presence.  Placing yourself before the Lord, just as you are – with open and empty hands, and simply offering your life to God, and then longing and waiting to be filled, perhaps gently repeating “Come, Holy Spirit … Come, Holy Spirit … Breathe on me breath of God.”

Open hands remind us that God’s Holy Spirit cannot be grasped, contained, comprehended, controlled, manipulated or possessed.  The Spirit grasps us, possesses us.  The Spirit is like the fire and wind at Pentecost.  Like fire, it is alive and free.  We feel the heat of the flames, but we cannot enclose and retain them in our hands.  Like wind, we can hear it in the trees, feel it on our faces as we walk in the hills, but if we try to grasp and hold it in our hands it is lost.

So this Day of Pentecost is perhaps a day when we can long for a new and powerful experience of the living God.  A day to lift up our hands, that like the raised sails on a ship we may catch the life, and take off, filled with God’s Spirit and empowered by God’s Life.

Let us pray:

O God you are my God: eagerly I seek you:
My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
As in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place
That I might behold your power and your glory.
For your loving kindness is better than life itself
My lips shall give you praise.
So will I bless you as long as I live
And lift up my hands in your name.

—Psalm 63


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  1. Martin Wheeler on June 5, 2018 at 08:03

    I am simply “blown away” as they say by the power of these words. They are so filled with the power of the Spirit. I am lifted up and encouraged and shall open my hands and heart in prayer.

  2. Edan North on June 17, 2017 at 09:59

    Thank-you for, giving us the poem entitled, ‘Experience.’

  3. Maida Broudo on June 17, 2017 at 08:06

    Ohhhhhhh- how I needed this one today!♥️♥️♥️♥️♥️♥️♥️♥️♥️Thank you Bother Geoffrey!!!! Love to you!

  4. Rhode on May 15, 2016 at 08:24

    Truly the Holy Spirit of Christ within us recognizing the greatness of God would rejoice as we lift up our hands to Him who deserves our praise most. Our hands grasp, make, give, feel and have even killed. To lift them in adoration and supplication first thing in the morning and praise God for a new day and ask for us and our hands to be a blessing is right and a good thing. My mind can imagine the first days of Pentecost as Christ’s disciples, in the Jewish tradtion of prayer, were praying in unity, probably with their hands up, waiting for the Spirit to come as promised. They had no idea what was to happen. But in faith they waited together and prayed and we are blessed because they did.

  5. Ruth West on October 17, 2015 at 16:21

    Br. Geoffrey, I always love your sermons. Thanks for this one. So often God is depicted with limbs, eyes, ears, etc. so we can best mentally picture him. He is often shown with hands in the scriptures. In this 63rd Psalm, vs. 8, it says, “My soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.” We lift our hands in praise; He answers by holding us in His hands. Safe, caring, as the Good Shepherd holds the lamb in his arms, so He holds us. Jesus was sent by the Father to be amongst us, so we can see God as one of us, truly human and truly Divine. Praised be His holy name! May His Spirit ever dwell within us.

  6. camilla on October 17, 2015 at 14:29

    Thank you for this wonderful sermon, Br. Geoffrey! I look every day and night for a way to be closer to the spirit of the Lord. I wonder sometimes if he hears my prayers. I feel closer with my palms open, ready to receive the Lord’s blessing.

    I read your emails every single day. They mean the world to me!

    Thank you.

  7. John David Spangler on October 17, 2015 at 09:14

    Thank you Brother Geoffrey for a clearer understanding of Orans. I have three comments about your sermons and the thoughts that it produced. The first is that in fact, my thanks is for giving me the word to describe praying with palms uplifted and to confess that in doing so I would feel, as Janet said, “conspicuous and ‘pentecostal’ in a church setting”. Consequently, I have not prayed in this way, and betimes even looked askance at those who do, and even though I make the sign of the cross often (A practice that is not common in my parish church and in many churches.). Looking up Orans in the dictionary, I found it defined as “praying” or “pleading”. I think that the latter definition does not apply and saw no sense of “pleading” in your discussion of the word. nor do I do think that God demands “pleading”. “Praising’, perhaps, could well be added to the definitions. My second comment is to answer the questions that you posed in the fourth paragraph of your sermon: The bishop’s prayer is working well for me.; I do not get through a day without experiencing the gift of the Holy Spirit.; and, spiritually, I would place myself about “5” and “pluggin’ away” though knowing that one can never reach “10” on one’s own. My third comment is reply to David Crammer that I believe that the reality is that the Holy Spirit is in all people not just in baptized Christians. To all, Peace! David

  8. Christopher Engle Barnhart on October 17, 2015 at 07:33

    I raise my arms and open my hands upwards during the Doxology and during the Eurcharist when receiving the Bread.

  9. Anders on July 17, 2015 at 06:38

    Thank you. As a visual person, googling the orans images okpened a up depth to my concept of prayer and has been healing for me. The folded hands and bowed head feel very closed and defensive to me. Your statement “I think that because our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit within us, so our bodies, and what we do with our bodies in prayer, can be incredibly helpful in reigniting our spiritual lives” is helpful to me as I learned more the numbing “evil body / joyful spiriit” dualism in my church of origin.

  10. Anders on June 8, 2015 at 06:02

    The combination of your words and pictures of orans are quite moving. For years Ive rejected my evangelical prayer tradition (Jesus by I just want to…) as self-centered and closed and have favored a more contemplative meditation practice. What a wonderful message that I can bring in breath and light and still call it prayer. Perhaps secularized hands at the sides are more open to spirit than the closed evangelical fists of !my youth.

  11. Mary Ann Ryan on June 2, 2015 at 10:19

    Thank you for this sermon Br. Geoffrey. I have been grappling with how to bring the Holy Spirit more fully into my life. Prayer, contemplative prayer, with open hands and heart seems to be the formula. Thank you for this gift.

  12. Marta e. on June 2, 2015 at 06:47

    Thank you for reminding us of these added aids in helping us to seek being closer to God. I am leaving now to go up to my little rural church to spend some time in this way before the day gets started. I keep seeking, asking, trying to listen, reading, praying, etc.

    I also remember the 1980’s during the charismatic revival when I attended a “life in the Spirit” course (Good Sam. In Paoli) which was a life/spirit-saver for me while I was going through a divorce and child custody issues. It all turned out (mostly) o.k. But took a long time and took its toll on myself and the children. The course, and the Spirit, though, I will never forget.

  13. Ruth West on June 2, 2015 at 00:52

    I loved your sermon. I pray that the Holy Spirit can and will inhabit my being daily. I want to be more open to His presence. Thanks for the prayer suggestion re: lifting open hands. I sometimes do, and, at those times feel closer to my Lord. Thank you for this good sermon.

  14. David Cranmer on June 1, 2015 at 21:03

    Thank you for the reminder of praying with raised open hands to heaven. When I worshiped at a charismatic Episcopal church in the 1980s, we regularly prayed in this fashion. But as with one person who commented above, now I feel conspicuous in the church where I currently worship. I also thank you for reminding me that even when I don’t “feel” the presence of the Spirit in me, the reality is that the Spirit is in me as a baptized Christian.

  15. Rodney W. on June 1, 2015 at 10:47

    My happiness is directly proportional to the degree of maintenance of my spiritual condition. It took me years to realize this. Longer to quit fighting it and call uncle. I blame the self-torturing device known as the ego for this.

  16. Graham on July 5, 2014 at 11:13

    How is it that we have the authority to bless God (as in Psalm 63)?

    • Mryka on May 16, 2016 at 10:37

      i right away went to my Bible, and I don’t find the word “bless” there. SO I expect the problem might be one of translation, and what you think “bless” means in detail. Since I’m not a linguist I can’t answer just what the various possible meanings might be.
      But on a deeper level, we can bless God because Jesus told us to, as in the Lord’s prayer. After all, in the liturgy we preface the Lord’s Prayer with “we are bold to say”, and we call God Abba. That’s all the authority we need to approach God, whether to bless or for any other reason.

  17. Julie Myers on July 5, 2014 at 09:00

    I am sooo enjoying the translation of the Brother’s comments into French (and other languages as well, of course) as it makes me delve a little deeper into my memory of that language and enhances my understanding of the scripture. I would hope that you will continue this practice beyond the stated period…Please??!!

  18. Christina on July 5, 2014 at 08:50

    Look up, ‘St. Oran’s Chapel, on the Isle of Iona in the Western Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. Small, plain, spiritual.
    Some comments prefer the chapel to the Abbey: I loved everything about the gift of my week on the island. Christina

  19. Pam on July 5, 2014 at 06:44

    Perhaps you meant holding it out with open hands for others to share with you. That is lovely thing to do I think, Brother.

  20. Pam on July 5, 2014 at 06:34

    One day we too will be spirit won’t we ? Free, uncontained, nothing holding us down – being free and giving freedom to all in every possible way. What a happy, happy thought……. I want to do this and be this now …… Maybe brother you have provided another step , another stone to step onto, because I really don’t know how. Like the orans, receiving and giving, never keeping….. Letting freedom and warmth take over. Was wondering what is more frightening , succeeding or failing. I mean what do you do with a gift, a longed for gift? I think you give it away so that others may share it… I think. William Blake said and I think he is right ” he who bends to himself a joy doth the winged life destroy; but he who kisses a joy as it flies lives in Eternity’s sunrise” and a gift is a joy, is it not.

  21. Diane on June 11, 2012 at 17:18

    The words of the psalm made such a pleasant connection to the points brought out in the sermon. Thank you for that.

  22. Elizabeth Miel on June 3, 2012 at 17:35

    Wonderful Pentecost Sermon. When I am troubled by the usual contentiousness of the Anglican Blogs it’s so good to remember that I can link to SSJE and find some real spiritual nourishment from the brothers’ sermons. Thank you.

  23. Janet Bean on May 30, 2012 at 10:58

    I have tried this, with incredible results. I feel so much more open and welcoming to the prayer conversation than I do in any other prayer position. I am comfortable doing this at home, but I feel conspicuous and “pentecostal” in a church setting.

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