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The Spiritual Practice of Gesturing

Sometimes it’s hard to put words around the things we want to say to God.

In a recent article for the Globe and Mail (“Do our Hands have a Mind of their Own?” June 17, 2023) Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow writes about the importance of gesturing in the development of language.

“Most children gesture before they speak, and those gestures are a harbinger of things to come. Imagine that a toddler, who can produce only one word at a time, says “Daddy” and points at a plant that her father just put in the ground. She is not calling her father a plant, but instead is conveying a sentence-like idea: Daddy planted that. She is ready to produce sentences and in fact will soon start doing so in speech.”

Reading these words, I began to wonder about the gestures I make to God when I don’t have words—placing my hands on my forehead when I am at my wits end, raising them in a questioning way when I don’t understand, clenching them in frustration. Gestures, it seems, are important communication tools for children of all ages.

What if we paid more attention to our gestures? Could they tell us what we’re feeling? Point us to what we want to say to God?

When I was a child, I was taught to bring my hands together and intertwine my fingers in prayer. While this kept me from fidgeting, it also communicated to me that prayer was about pleading. Now, when I pray, I hold my palms face up before God in a gesture of receptiveness, knowing that God gives freely. And sometimes I’ll even raise my hands in prayer (a gesture for God and sporting events). And yes, there have been times when I’ve raised a fist to God in prayer as well.

What gestures do you make when you pray? What are they saying alongside the thoughts or words you’re expressing? Are they saying something that words cannot? Nudging you to voice a deeper thing?

Could paying attention to your gestures deepen your communication with God? Could it make the connection more whole bodied and enable you to better love God with all your heart, soul, and strength?

One way to be more gesture-aware might be to change how you pray. Imagine changing your stance—where you hold your hands or how you position your body. What if you breathed differently, lifted your face, or lowered it? What if you started to pray in new places—while walking or preparing a meal? Perhaps these changes could make you more gesture aware.

Of course, God can help you in this too (like any loving parent would).

Dr. Goldin-Meadow goes on to write,

“But parents can move the process along if they translate their children’s gestures into words – saying “yes, Daddy planted that” in response to the child’s gesture and word. This response is timely, delivered at just the moment the child is trying to communicate her thoughts about Daddy and the plant. Parents can help their children learn language by paying attention to their gestures and turning them into words.”

Even as parents do this, so too does God.

“Are you feeling frustrated right now?”

“I can see how excited you are!”

“Okay, are you angry with me?”

And while God may or may not speak direct words, perhaps his gestures in response will become more discernable as we become more gesture aware.

God gesturing by sending us a listening friend, arranging an encouraging life event, or whispering his love through a gentle summer breeze.

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