Photo courtesy of 123rtf and Eberhard-Grossgasteiger, edited by Carol Moskot

Topics: April/May 2023, Spirituality | Religion

Why I’ll make the sign of the cross for the rest of my life

How this Greek Orthodox gesture became part of me


May 2022. Two years since I have last flown. COVID. As I take my seat, excitement and anxiety battle for supremacy over my emotions. I close my eyes. Unconsciously, I tighten the metal clasp of my mask tighter across my nose. And equally unconsciously, I find my right hand moving up, down and across my torso in the traditional Greek Orthodox sign of the cross.

Years ago, I might have caught myself and completed the gesture surreptitiously. After all, who wants to be seen engaging publicly in such an ancient ritual? But I’m almost 60 now, and I’m not about to apologize for one of the few remnants of my faith that still sticks stubbornly with me. The motion may be mere muscle memory at this point, but it’s something that continues to bring me comfort — and allows me, tangibly, to explore my connection with the divine.

The simplest of gestures, it can express the most complex of ideas. The thumb of the right hand is brought together with the index and middle fingers, gently. Next you raise your engaged hand to the forehead, drop it to the navel, then diagonally lift it first to the right shoulder, then to the left, ending with an open palm splayed over the heart. Like you’re threading the air in front of you, tying things together.

Repeat two more times. There’s an obsession in the Greek faith with threes: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, by tradition. But the gesture also unites the mind, the body and the soul; the brain, the belly and the heart; you, me and everything else with which we share this miraculous world.

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My elders taught me to perform the cross as soon as I could understand instruction. I was told not to be too showy, rushed, automatic. Make it real. Make it you.

We’ve all seen baseball players from Latin America sign the cross before an at-bat, but luck and protection are the least of it. Now, at my age, crossing myself is sheer reflex, an unbidden expression of awe.

Crossing myself is sheer reflex, an unbidden expression of awe.

What a world this is! Amazing, beautiful, confusing, disappointing. We can’t understand what happens to us, or why. Here I am about to fly across an ocean. I can only shake my head. Or do the sign of the cross.

I turn to this practice in times of need, fear, remorse, shame, when I’m in conversation with my innermost self. Once, I felt powerless to protect someone I loved. At home, after a hospital visit, I gathered my thoughts, forced myself to eat, prayed and did the sign of the cross.

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It’s almost impossible to perform the gesture without some level of tenderness and vulnerability. You’re opening your soul in gratitude and wonder. Look closely at Byzantine icons of saints holding their fingers in the sign of the cross. Those are not hands, but little birds, poised to flutter, to nestle, to fly to the heavens.

As we grow older, we discard, intentionally or not, much of what we were taught as youths. But some things — rituals, often — carve out a permanent place in our beings. For me, the sign of the cross, which has remained a constant throughout my life, takes me back, with each repetition, to innocence and amazement. To the beginning.

And it will accompany me, I suspect, to the end.


John Danakas is a published author of children’s books who splits his time between Winnipeg and Greece.

This story first appeared in Broadview’s April/May 2023 issue with the title “Sign of the Cross.”

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