December 12, 2011

Daoism and the Sign of the Cross

It's fascinating how sometimes different cultures discover the same things, but explain them in completely different ways. One such example is how the Catholic Signum Crucis ("Sign of the Cross") correlates to the teachings of Daoism. Seems like a stretch? Actually, not as much as you might think.

For those that aren't familiar with it, the basic Sign of the Cross is performed by touching the forehead, then the chest, followed by the left shoulder, and finally the right shoulder. I say "basic", because there are some variations on this, which I'll cover later on, but this is the most common way it is done in Western Catholicism. The prayer that accompanies this motion is as follows:

(while touching the forehead): In nomine Patris ("In the name of the Father")
(while touching the chest): et Filii ("and of the Son")
(while touching the left shoulder):  et Spiritus  ("and of the Holy...")
(while touching the right shoulder): Sancti ("...Spirit")

Note that some traditions, namely the Eastern Orthodox church, reverse the order of the left and right shoulders.

First, let look at the points that are being touched during the Sign of the Cross and how they correlate to acupuncture points in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). The first point, on the forehead, is known as Yin Dao or Yin Tang ("Hall of Impression"). This is a very important point, and in many cultures is also known as the Third Eye. Activating this point will quiet the spirit and open the mind to mystical and spiritual experiences. This is, unquestionably, a desired effect of prayer so this isn't surprising. Note that this point is associated with God the Father, according the prayer. This is implying that the mystical and spiritual experiences can be attributed to the Father aspect of God. In some Christian traditions, this is asking the Father to guide the mind, and also symbolizes that the Father is above all.

The second point, on the chest, is CV-15 on the Conception Vessel. This point is named Jiu Wei ("Turtledove Tail"). In TCM, this point is known to stabilize emotions and to help with a variety of psychological issues. This is a typical goal of prayer, so again this is not surprising. This point, in the prayer, is associated with Jesus, the Son. According to Catholic tradition, Jesus purged humanity of its sin. And sin, ultimately, is an emotional or psychological issue. People commit sins because it feels good, or because their emotions get the best of them. Using this point to clear unwanted emotions is symbolic of Jesus clearing mankind of its sin, and is asking the Son to guide the emotions.

The final two points (the same point on both sides of the body) are LU-1, also known as Zhong Fu ("Middle Palace"). LU-1 is commonly used in both acupuncture treatments as well as in martial practice. Activation of this point clears and scatters the body's energy - which can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on how it's done. In the healing sense, which is the manner associated with the Sign of the Cross, it clears out obstructions or blockages in the body's qi system. It is also at this point that the Lung and Spleen meridians connect. Emotionally, the Lung meridian is associated with grief and sadness, while the Spleen has to do with worry and brooding. Cleansing and dispersing the energy at this point helps clear out those emotional states. From a Catholic perspective, this is implying that the act of overcoming grief, worry, and sadness is tied to the Holy Spirit, which is why the prayer uses that phrase while touching both of these points. Since these points lead into the arms, and arms are used for actions, Christian tradition holds that this portion of the prayer is asking for the Holy Spirit to guide one's actions. It is also symbolic of Christ rising from the dead (when done left-to-right) or of Jesus's message spreading throughout the world (when done right-to-left).

In addition to the individual points themselves, there is importance to the path traced out by the hand, namely the vertical line drawn in the first two lines of the prayer. In Ayurveda, the traditional system of Hindu medicine, this line is known as the hara line. The hara line connects the chakras and extends deep into the earth and up into heaven. In Daoist tradition, this line connects all three of the dan tien areas, and is sometimes referred to as the Golden Pillar or the Taiji Pole. Like in the Hindu tradition, Daoist also believe this line extends beyond the physical confines of the body. This motion is meant to unify Heaven, Man, and Earth.

When looking at the three dan tiens, however, it becomes clear that the Sign of the Cross only makes use of the Upper (forehead) and Middle (chest), but leaves out the Lower, which is just below the navel. There are several interesting reasons for this. The Upper, Middle, and Lower dan tien areas correspond, respectively, to Heaven, Man, and Earth. In Christian tradition, the goal is create a unity between Heaven and Man. The idea of the Earth, and nature, is not emphasized very heavily in Christian philosophy. Partially, this is because many so-called pagan religions occupied themselves in the realm of nature, so Christianity tended to steer clear of it.

Another reason has to do with what each dan tien represents. The Upper is the seat of the spirit and is believed to house all spiritual aspects. The Middle is the seat of emotions and the heart. Both of these have strong implications in Christian traditions. However, the Lower is associated with the physical - health, vitality, and sexuality. Sexuality, obviously, was not something that Christians wanted to develop. But more so than that, it was almost counterproductive to the Christian faith to develop and improve the physical body. The suffering of the body was something almost to be desired, as it was symbolic of the suffering of Christ and was also thought to focus the mind on more spiritual matters. The Lower dan tien is also considered the seat of power, and from a political sense the Church, traditionally, did not want their followers to become powerful.

In Ayurveda, there are seven primary chakras on the body, all aligned vertically on the center line. The ones touched during the Sign of the Cross are the 6th chakra (brow), 3rd chakra (solar plexus). But the path traced out by the hand also passes through the 5th chakra (throat) and the 4th chakra (heart). These chakras all correspond to emotional and spiritual aspects that are emphasized in Christianity. Starting at the top, the 6th chakra enhances the mind, intuition, insight, and wisdom. The 5th chakra is the seat of integrity and truth. The 4th chakra has to do with love, both for one's self and others, as well as forgiveness and compassion. The 3rd chakra is associated with self-control, harmony, and inner strength.

However, the 2nd chakra (below the navel), the one left out of the Sign of the Cross, is associated with sexuality, creativity, and joy. These traits, especially in the past, were not traits that the Church particularly desired in it's followers.

Interestingly, Catholics and other Christians in the past used to make the Sign of the Cross by bringing the hand down to the stomach, and not just to the chest. In fact, some sects of Christianity still do so to this day. Others perform the motion by touching the forehead, chest, and shoulders, and then add an additional motion to touch the stomach. The symbolism of this, in addition to the aforementioned traits associated with the Lower dan tian and 2nd chakra (which apparently were accepted by at least a few groups in the past), was that the stomach symbolized the womb, where Jesus was miraculously conceived. It is no surprise, then, that this motion is tied to the line in the prayer about the Son. As stated previously, the lower dan tian point is associated with sexuality. In the past, this connection wasn't always an undesired one, even within Catholicism. In fact, several saints have used language that is very romantic and erotic in nature to describe a relationship with God (this is not to imply, by any means, that the relationship between man and God is an erotic one, just that such terminology is the closest we have to describe the depth of emotion involved). For more on this, see the writings of St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross. A fairly good overview of their work, especially in this particular area, can be found in Gerald G. May's Dark Night of the Soul (as a side note, this book has helped me quite a bit in my own dark night).

The formation of the hand while performing the Sign of the Cross is also important. Traditionally, it was originally performed with two fingers, the index and middle fingers, while the other fingers were curled into the palm. These two fingers symbolized the dual nature of Christ - man and God. In Daoism, this duality is symbolized in the yin and yang. Later, some traditions, including Catholics, switched to using three fingers, with the thumb, index, and middle fingers all joined at the tips. In Daoism, this connection creates a link or circulation of all the meridians of the hand, except for the Fire meridians which are in the last two fingers. This is a common hand position used in many Daoist meditations. The effect of this is to calm the body and to create harmony. As an interesting side-note, though it may not seem a big deal by our modern standards, the switch from two to three fingers was the cause of great controversy throughout Christianity, and many groups split from the Church over it. In modern usage, the Sign of the Cross is performed with an open hand, with all five fingers extended. The five fingers are symbolic of the five wounds of Christ (both hands/wrists, both feet, and his side). This hand position allows the energy in the meridians of the hand to flow freely and naturally. It also allows the energy to project from the center of the palm, which is facing toward the body while performing the Sign of the Cross. This projected energy can enhance the activation of the points on the body.

While the Sign of the Cross is the most basic of Catholic prayers, it still holds deep symbolism and makes use of fairly significant energy manipulation. In effect, from a Daoist perspective, it is a form of qi gong or meditation. As the Daoists say, "there are many paths to the top of the mountain".


  1. Anonymous11:19 PM

    Until just now when I read your post it had not occurred to me that I had been taught to do the sign of the cross in two different fashions. By my very elderly godmother who taught me to "cross" my thumb and forefinger when doing it and to go from forehead to stomach (navel) when doing the sign of the cross. Much later when I prepared for my first communion I was taught to do the sign of the cross in the more modern way with the hand open and stopping at the chest. It feels different when doing the sign of the cross in the two different ways, yet familiar. :)

    Thanks for the post it was very enlightening.