How many times have you heard this instruction to wash your hands? Since we have entered this time of pandemic, hand washing has taken on a new urgency for everyone. Scrubbing our hands with soap and water has been a key defense against the coronavirus, and many of us have developed the ritual of conscious and thorough hand washing accompanied by a song, poem or prayer of appropriate length that keeps us washing for the right amount of time. Mine is a slow ‘Hail Mary’ – I have never prayed the ‘Hail Mary’ as much as I have the last three months! This efficacious and individual ritual is not just an issue of personal health but connects us to a corporate ethical dimension of social responsibility. But in our days of continuing liturgical isolation (or shifting modes of re-gathering as church), might the washing of hands also be a conscious memento linking us to a broader anamnesis of long Christian tradition?
Our ecclesial history has several strands of handwashing linked to preparation for prayer through purification (spiritual as well as physical). “Wash your hands with water and pray” says the complex Apostolic Tradition (here chapter 41 for night prayer), a pattern picked up in other Christian writings and rubrics. Washing hands among early Christians also seemed to be a practical ritual before meals, especially in the context of formal banquets (symposia and agape).
Washing as a prerequisite to prayer was also an architectural pattern, with early church fountains placed in the forecourt of churches large and small, such as the Emperor Constantine’s famous Fontana della Pigna in the forecourt of St. Peter’s in Rome. This arrangement marked a station in the pilgrimage of preparation and movement through the space toward prayer, individual and corporate. Like many architectural, ritual, and liturgical elements, what was once general for most Christians was sustained in monastic circles, here the 12th century fountain for ablutions at Poblet Monastery (Catalonia) comes to mind. These spatial and ritual dimensions of washing as preparation for prayer became entwined in the broad net of water-related rituals and theologies, centred on baptism and extending through the making of holy water and its various uses. Perhaps one trajectory from washing hands as an individual ritual of preparation for prayer exists in the development of the Asperges in the Western churches, the sprinkling with holy water before the eucharistic liturgy. Between the 7th and 11th centuries, there are increasing descriptions suggesting the sprinkling rite first for Easter and Pentecost, shifting gradually to a blessing of water every Sunday followed by a sprinkling of all present before the principal Sunday Mass. Eventually this action was accompanied by select verses from Psalm 51 (50) outside of the Easter season: “Thou shalt purge me, * O Lord, with hyssop, and I shall be clean: thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Ps. Have mercy upon me, O God: after thy great goodness. V. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son; and to the Holy Ghost; R. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen. Thou shalt purge me…”
The Christian practice of individuals washing hands as preparatory and purifying continued in many Eastern Christian traditions, particularly in the Ethiopian practices of washing hands prior to any number of activities, including prayer seven times a day. The first prayer of the day is accompanied by these simple instructions: “Upon rising from bed in the morning & before eating & commencing any task. Wash your hands & pray standing. ‘We glorify God for bringing us from darkness (night) to light (day).’ Adam was created.” But more common in both Eastern and Western Christian traditions was the maintenance of hand washing as a clerical activity in preparation for leading the church’s corporate worship of God. Quite separate from the more common lavabo of the priest before the eucharistic rite proper, the prayers and rituals in the sacristy or elsewhere were clearly preparatory and purificatory. Here is part of the ‘proper’ older devotional prayer which reflects this preparatory emphasis:
“I will wash my hands in innocency; so will I compass Thine altar, O Lord, That I may make the voice of thanksgiving to be heard, and tell of all Thy wondrous works. LORD, I love the habitation of Thy house, and the place where Thy glory dwelleth…But as for me, I will walk in mine integrity; redeem me, and be gracious unto me. My foot standeth in an even place; in the congregations will I bless the Lord.”
This brief overview of Christian practices of washing hands as preparation for prayer is meant to suggest some roots and links to a practice of physical necessity today. In our times of isolation and limited liturgical engagements, might expanding the physicality of sacramentals within our domestic prayer lives enrich our daily prayer, both individual and corporate? What other practices might counter the solely virtual and verbal engagements by which so many of us find ourselves circumscribed these days? And unlike footwashing, which is corporate by its very nature through Dominical command (“wash one another’s feet…”), hand washing may be a solitary embodied action linked to our communal memory through the centuries. I have consciously added another hand washing to my daily routine these days – continuing the necessary handwashing (still with a Hail Mary), and, in addition, a preparation for prayer, this week accompanied by the Anima Christi.* In what other ways shall we pray as the body of Christ?
*Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within Your wounds, hide me.
Separated from you, let me never be.
From the evil one, protect me.
At the hour of my death, call me.
and close to you, bid me.
That with your saints, I may be.
Praising you forever and ever. Amen.