Western Rite Critic

A Balance to Contagious Enthusiasm

How We Cross Ourselves

Three fingers joined, for the Holy Trinity. Two aside, for the two natures of Christ.“We cross with our right hands from right to left… We hold our hands in a prescribed way: thumb and first two fingertips pressed together, last two fingers pressed down to the palm. Here as elsewhere, the Orthodox impulse is to make everything we do reinforce the Faith.” [antiochian.org]

This is presented as a reminder. Some Orthodox seem to have taken to crossing themselves in another fashion (we’re not wishing to embarrass them by pointing them out). Three fingers joined, for the Holy Trinity. Two aside, for the two natures of Christ. This is the proper way.

February 17, 2008 - Posted by | Western Rite Pieties, Western Rite Quotes | , , , , , , ,


  1. It is my historical understanding that Old Rite Russian practice represents the original way the cross was made. I have done some in depth study of the Old Rite and have been friends with the Erie parish for decades. What I have discovered is that Old Rite preserved the oldest Byzantine forms and by historical connection, the oldest Western practice also.

    Comment by worthodox | October 31, 2010 | Reply

  2. Fr. Augustine, a Russian lady who was in our parish in Austin from exactly Cheesefare Sunday to Palm Sunday, before suddenly getting word her husband had gotten a job in Arizona, and having to leave, had provided some kind of educational materials to a woman in our parish who was less familiar with Orthodox traditions. And in those materials there was something about fasting until 3:00 p.m. on fast days. The Russian lady was dearly loved for teaching people correct customs. In any case, I was surprised to hear that and I have asked for a copy of these materials, which I have still not seen yet.

    I hear that in Moldova in monasteries the fasting from all food until late in the day is still kept up. Otherwise, I don’t know where it’s found anymore. Maybe in very conservative parts of Russia? I should find out what the Old Ritualists do…

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | May 25, 2010 | Reply

  3. Does anybody have any quotes on Christians making the sign of the cross with one finger?

    Comment by Andrew | December 10, 2009 | Reply

  4. Amen. I keep the fasts by the (Orthodox) Western customs, FYI – but I have a blessing to do so, and it makes sense that a monk might be required to fast a bit more strongly.

    When I first came to the monastery, however, I was absolutely forbidden to fast until the ninth hour for the stations and fast seasons. I obeyed, of course – but I wonder: if my spiritual father (who is a disciple of Fr. Seraphim Rose and a man of good spiritual judgment) was emphatic that that practice of actual fasting is not encouraged in Orthodoxy today, can we credibly argue for preserving the custom in Western Rite Orthodoxy simply because that was the historically Western discipline? I mean, the historically Eastern discipline has changed.

    Although, I am intrigued by tuD’s statement that fasting is still a normal part of his church life. When I was in the Synod, I heard nothing of fasting (in the precise sense). Likewise, my spiritual father (who forbade me from fasting) was an archpriest in the Synod, trained by Fr. Seraphim Rose. Where is actual fasting still being practiced in Orthodoxy? Besides the Holy Mountain?


    Comment by fatheraugustine | April 16, 2008 | Reply

  5. Ritual propriety (not mixing and matching rites, or remaining true to a historic Orthodox rite’s practical, daily-life aspects) should not, it’s true, be some kind of hermeneutic principle, some kind of archaeological exercise. On the other hand, we must admit that the fasting traditions of the Western people, guided and formulated and practised by the Western Saints, represent a way of life shaped by the Holy Spirit Himself. If Western rite people would simply fast, abstain, and pray like their Western ancestors in Holy Orthodoxy did, these questionable areas would be 99% resolved. Then it would be an easy and not a cataclysmic step, to make any adjustments Byzantine bishops might deem necessary. Of course, old calendarist faithful of the Western rite are already doing just that, but I refer to the vast majority of Western rite Orthodox, who only fast, abstain, and pray, in the ways bequeathed them by the Protestant reformers on the one hand, and the Counter-reformation de-asceticised Roman Catholicism of the 20th century on the other. This church-life based on heterodox principles, instead of historic Western traditions which an Orthodox origination, is what makes for such a painful spiritual disconnect between the Eastern Orthodox and their Western rite brethren. Resolving it would not only be for the health of WR people but would be a spontaneous deed of righteousness, for “blessed are the peacemakers.” Doing this deed of blessedness would require no giving up of Western ways, no betrayal of Western customs or traditions, no movement away from Western rite.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | April 12, 2008 | Reply

  6. I think it’s a job of the Church thinking together. The bishops tho, are the deciding factor. But even then, when not gathered ecumenically, there is some recourse. But I’m just being a stickler. 🙂

    When did the ER suspend fasting? We still talk of both fasting an abstinence and practice both. No one told the clergy I know, who still give sermons on both, or the writers who still write about both, let alone those of us who still do both.

    Comment by tuD | April 12, 2008 | Reply

  7. I think there is also a compelling argument, that disciplinary matters like fasting rules should not be something related primarily to rite, but to pastoral needs. The Eastern Church, for example, once asked its people to fast and abstain, but has since come to relax these rules encourgaing merely abstinence.

    I know that the ancient Latin Orthodox rules mitigate the severity of the fasting by always allowing fish, wine and oil. But, I think there are two questions that could be asked: if the mind of the Church, in the centuries since the schism, has found it proper to modify the fasting rules to abstinence at all times with a somewhat stricter approach to fish, wine and oil – is this something which pleases the Spirit for the whole Church, or can we credibly assert that such a development is only for the Eastern Rite? Secondly, if the modern WR parishes are even allowing dairy at times on fast days, following a heterodox custom, is this appropriate? Of course, people should fast as their spiritual father counsels them. But, in terms of the standards “on the books,” it seems like we prefer to keep the stricter practice on record as a reminder of the ideals.

    I just wonder if on this matter of fasting, and on some other disciplinary matters, we should stop thinking of things primarily in terms of “ritual propriety” and more in terms of “what does the Spirit actually want implemented?” Obviously, that’s a job for the bishops.


    Comment by fatheraugustine | April 9, 2008 | Reply

  8. If the Western rite Orthodox people would all simply fast as did the Western people before the Roman Schism, and for centuries after it, the Byzantines would not be scandalised. But only the Greek Old Calendarist Western rite Orthodox keep those original Western traditions these days.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | April 9, 2008 | Reply

  9. My spiritual father left the AWRV for a variety of reasons. The most serious, were that when he approached the dean with information about two freemasons functioning in his parish (and he was the priest, who had charge of their souls), the Dean told him to butt out. Then, he noticed a lack of seriousness about embracing Orthodoxy: the bishop had insisted that the Articles be removed from the prayerbooks (having the Protestant Articles of Faith printed in a prayerbook of the Orthodox Church was obviously a potential for huge scandal and misrepresentation). The bishop was told “yes” to his face, and “no” when he left through the parish’s failure to do anything about it.

    I’m not saying this characterizes the AWRV today. They have their own prayerbook, which does not have these scandalous things still inside it. And, I hope, there are no practicing Freemasons. But if there were, it’s not like this is unknown in other jurisdictions (especially the GOA). The problem is not merely a Western Rite one.

    But, one thing I hope this forum may do, is help Western Rite people to understand that there is going to be an especial scrutiny shown to them, since there is so much natural suspicion already directed against them by many of the Orthodox. I hope that will lead to a real concern to be as pure and diligent about serious matters as is possible (even to the point of adopting stricter fasting standards, regardless of whether or not they have a “Western” pedigree of one kind or another), so as to not scandalize the faithful of the Eastern Rite. One has to draw a line somewhere: the Western Rite can’t be expected to simply Byzantinize and undermine herself at every turn for the sake of others’ consciences.

    Still, in matters of ascetic discipline and spiritual purity (like freemasonry and other zealous “causes” outside the Church), I hope they will strive to prove themselves more zealous than their Eastern Rite brethren.


    Comment by fatheraugustine | April 9, 2008 | Reply

  10. From my own limited reading…

    I think there is at times a clear volitional impulse to construct in AWRO an embodiment of “this is what reunification would look like.” Add to this the American tendency to trivialize such expressions of faith as “mere pieties” and add of course entrenched Protestant individualism even among “converts.” But let’s not be so unkind to the “Protestants” as if there were really one such thing. There are parishes with memebers who are Freemasons. I would also add certain overly intellectualist tendencies within American Orthodoxy, those of a “reformist” mind as well as those keen on “American conservatism.”

    Let’s remember that among casual, at times sloppy, formality and ritual eschewing Westerners are the highly demanding customers at Starbucks. They want to get their latte “right” but what leads to conversion, theosis, salvation, “Hey, don’t be so uptight. Take it easy.”

    Comment by publican123 | April 8, 2008 | Reply

  11. I should clarify it was in an ER venue I saw two and five fingered crosses. The five fingers, I think, is made by touching the tips of index and middle finger to forehead, while keeping all five fingers side by side and relaxedly bent. The two-fingered cross may be made as you described, and just the bent three fingers (ring, small, thumb) are more relaxed.

    In any case, I appreciate this explanation, and I appreciate the encouragement that making the sign of the cross, if done reverently, is at least better than the common practice we see nowadays of making no sign at all, which seems to be an American disposition to keep the arms at the side or in the pockets at all times so as not to stand out (something developed in American public schooling) or commit any ritual (an attitude born in American evangelicalism), and that is truly sad.

    Where I have concern, I suppose, is in what I see as a general treatment of Roman Catholic pieties as fitting for Orthodox Christians. There does seem to be a trend of ER Orthodox wanting to be more understandable to the culture, fit in better in the known and understood and familiar religious world, etc. and so there’s a tendency to do the little clerical collar thing instead of the canonical vestments, and keep clean-shaven, and adopt all the programs and programmatics of post-Vatican II Roman Catholic services – you name it – the users, program bulletin, sunday school (the children only entering the church just in time for the chalice), and add to that the endless committees, singles groups, groups for psychological healing, and so on. And all the while, the actual services of the Church, outside of Sunday mind you, are barely attended or not held at all.

    In short, my concern is that the reasons for these pieties creeping in may not be autonomous or a memory of Western traditions of piety, but something a little more unsettling. The form and matter, even where right still leaves the intent, and that’s more difficult to gauge.

    Comment by tuD | February 23, 2008 | Reply

  12. I’ve never read a written explanation of the pre-schism sign of the Cross in the West, other than a vague one which mentioned crossing with three fingers joined. I don’t recall hearing which three fingers were joined.

    But, when I look at the old iconography of the West, the three joined fingers are the thumb, pinky and ring finger. The thumb is variably joined to the large joint (two from the tip) of the ring finger, or is lain across the small joints (first from the tip) of the pinky and ring fingers.

    I believe it was Fr. Aidan who told me that the laity crossed themselves using the same manual disposition as the clergy blessed with. My explanation for the “meaning” of the fingers is somewhat my own, somewhat the explanation of the Old Believers – an Orthodox Christian can understand the symbolism of this style with ease, intuitively.

    I am far from an expert on the subject, however, and should state that anybody with more concrete historical evidence should enlighten us on the matter.

    Incidentally, the “boy scout finger” method, if the thumb is touching the ring finger, represents the older Western manner of making the sign of the cross – which is also a documented, pre-schism manner of making the sign, at least for the clergy. I don’t think we would need to object to it.

    The “open hand” is actually not merely an open hand, but is supposed to represent the five wounds of Christ, which heal the five senses of man. This manner of making the sign of the Cross is late and post-schism, but if it is made in the right spirit (as a prayer that the power of the Cross would quicken our five senses and bring noetic healing), we have less to complain about than might at first appear. Of course, it could be made in a Nestorian sense, as a devotion specifically to the five physical wounds. I don’t approve of innovating a new sign of the cross – although, as Fr. Aidan pointed out, the way we make the Cross now was a tenth century innovation. Therefore, while I am not in favor of the practice, neither would I jump to the conclusion that it is impious and unorthodox. The sign of the Cross has been made in many different ways in many different places, and our current method is only a little over a thousand years old (and in Russia, less old). It seems that there is some room for variation on the matter.

    Lastly, there is something to be said for an Orthodox uniformity on this practice. There are also arguments for preserving a Western distinctive, if there was one. I think time will settle this issue – and indeed, it seems it already is, if the AWRV is now encouraging the standard, “Eastern” Orthodox method.

    Comment by fatheraugustine | February 23, 2008 | Reply

  13. Suaiden’s theory that the AWRV is actually intentionally preferring post-schism “living” texts, devotions, and so forth over pre-schism ones (which would be considered archaeology) is disturbing in this light.

    And perhaps one of the deepest concerns is that the AWRV has always been so ad hoc in its attitudes toward such things. Premature in its efforts, and cavalier or insensitive if not headstrong and misguided in its methods.

    Comment by tuD | February 21, 2008 | Reply

  14. Many if not most WR Orthodox cross themselves with three fingers. I have never seen it otherwise in the old calendarist WR communities. In the AWRV they used to use five fingers like the Catholics, and they officially promulgated this method. However, some instructional materials have now come out in the AWRV which teach a three-finger (old Western) sign of the cross. But things are moving in a more traditional direction now, as regards the “admirable sign.”

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | February 21, 2008 | Reply

  15. Hmm. Are you saying the WR people aren’t joining thumb, index, and middle finger, leaving ring and small finger unjoined?

    Incidentally, the screwed up stuff that we’ve witnessed includes crossing oneself with open hand (no fingers joined) and doing it with two boy-scout fingers. This is the first I’m hearing of the above.

    Comment by tuD | February 21, 2008 | Reply

  16. What, again, is the proof for the three fingers of the cross-sign being the thumb, ring finger, and little finger? I just can’t recall. I know that Western rite bishops gave blessings with the fingers so disposed.

    Regarding the Seventh Oecumenical Council: at the time of that Council, the large sign of the Cross (head to breast, shoulder to shoulder) had not yet been devised. The cross was traced, and usually with only one finger, upon the middle of the forehead, over the heart, or upon the lips, or upon one’s arm (for before work). The Council did not make any decision or even mention the manner of making the sign of the Cross.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | February 21, 2008 | Reply

  17. Yes, the Old Believers preserved that practice, but the Russian Church has mandated the normative one, as have the other ‘canonical’ churches. I believe that the 7th council mandated it, but don’t quote me. 🙂

    My only concern is that people doing this sort of thing apart from other Orthodox in significant numbers. There is always some reason, and that reason sets them apart from others of their Faith and creates, w/o them realizing it, micro-schism or at least a competition of spiritual psychologies if not doctrines. There seems to be a love of following after or imitating Roman Catholics in this way which, I would contend really presents a wrong attitude and makes for the ordinary people on the left and the spiritual elite who have an esoteric way on the right.

    Comment by tuD | February 17, 2008 | Reply

  18. Didn’t Pope Innocent III mandate the left-to-right change?

    And, thanks for pointing out what I neglected to mention – that our (“Eastern”) Orthodox manner of making the Cross was also known in the Orthodox West.

    Comment by fatheraugustine | February 17, 2008 | Reply

  19. There is another Orthodox manner, shared by the Old Believers and the ancient West. In this method, the thumb, ring and pinky fingers come together to represent the Trinity. The ring and pinky fingers look alike, indicating the Son being begotten of the Father. The thumb looks different (indicating procession, different from generation), and rests between them – the Spirit proceeding from the Father and resting in the Son (i.e., one element of the ORTHODOX sense of the Latin, Patristic Filioque). The index finger is held straight up and down (representing the Divinity of Christ) and the middle finger is slightly bent (the Humanity of Christ). This slight bend also makes a “cross” with the two fingers.

    Of course, right to left is a non-negotiable, since the Apostolic Tradition (so omnipresent in scripture, as well), is that the right side represents blessing. Therefore, when we bless ourselves we always give precedence to the right side.

    If some people are using the “five-fingered” sign of the cross on their own initiative, that’s a pity. But, if they have the blessing of their bishops to do so, well… it’s for their salvation, and we can thank God.

    Comment by fatheraugustine | February 17, 2008 | Reply

  20. It is also documented that Western rite Christians crossed themselves with three fingers joined, and touched the right shoulder first and then the left. In fact, they continued doing so until the 15th century, and later than that, in some places. Pope Innocent III, no great friend of the Orthodox, was very clear that in his day (13th c.) the sign of the cross was so made. In England the first indication that the sign was beginning to be made with five fingers indiscriminately, appears in the 15th c. In the same century we get our first indication that the left shoulder was being touched, by some, prior to the right shoulder.

    Comment by hieromonachusaidanus | February 17, 2008 | Reply

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