From Left to Right or from Right to Left? The Sign of the Cross

Roman Catholics make the sign of the cross in the following order: The right hand moves from top (forehead) to bottom (chest) and then from left (left shoulder) to right (right shoulder). Most Eastern Christians do it in a different order: From top to bottom and then from right to left.

There are several theological interpretations of that difference. The biblical meaning of “the left side” is different from “the right side”. In a simplified manner we could say that in the biblical world-view the right side is good, noble, and heavenly, while the left is bad, low, and earthly. (I do not need to tell you that this approach can still be found in the English word “right”.) Against this background we can easily imagine a large symbolic difference depending on whether you move from left or right (symbol of ascension) or from right to left (symbol of incarnation).

But there is also a more historical approach. How did the difference between the Eastern and the Western practice emerge?

As far as I know, bishops (and priests) in the Roman Empire have always made the sign of the cross as a blessing over the people by writing the sign of the cross in the air. After moving from top to bottom they move from left to right. Why? Because this is the natural way of writing. Greek and Latin words – these two languages have always been dominant in the Roman Empire – are written from left to right.

What do the people do when they are blessed in that way? They do what is natural to them: They mirror the sign. So they move from right to left (sic!). Check it out with a little child: When you stand vis-à-vis to a kid and try to demonstrate the sign of the cross, the kid will mirror your movements. If you move from left to right, the kid will move from right to left. – That is why I know a lady who taught her grandchildren the sign of the cross sitting next to them, not vis-à-vis.

In this context, the movement from left to right is only done by those who write the sign into the air as a blessing over others. In all other cases the movement goes from right to left – even in private prayer: I do not bless myself, I am being blessed.

Around 1190 a Roman deacon – who later became Pope Innocence III – witnessed that some people in Rome have started to make the sign over their bodies in the opposite direction: from left to right. Since then, moving from the left shoulder to the right shoulder has become the typical Western way.

But why did these people start to change the direction? They started to reflect too much. “Look, the bishop moves his hand from left to right, so we should do the same!” Or, following another theory that refers to the different order of words in the Greek and Latin clause for “Holy Spirit”: “Look, when the Greek say ‘holy’ they touch the right shoulder, so we should do the same!” Anyway: The natural mirror effect was replaced by something on a higher level of reflection.

Nowadays the movement during a Roman Catholic blessing is always in a way distorted. This gets very obvious when a priest stands close to you and blesses you individually. While he writes the cross in the air, you criss-cross his movement with your own hand. In no way is this a natural gestural communication. Instead of intuitively mirroring the sign that is written over us, we got used to imitate the blessing gesture on our own bodies.

Someone in the 12th century started to change the direction of the movement. My personal plan is to be “someone in the 21st century” who starts to reverse that development. I always make the sign of the cross from right to left. When a bishop or priest makes the blessing sign from left to right, it feels natural to mirror that sign by moving from right to left. During this movement my arm goes from a cramped position (right fingers on the right shoulder) to an open and wide position (right fingers on the left shoulder) – maybe a nice symbol for spiritual development!

Is anyone going to join me? (But please do not ask me what you should do when you are a lefty.)



30 responses to “From Left to Right or from Right to Left? The Sign of the Cross”

  1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    Not me. I would strongly oppose messing with centuries of lay practice in that regard, as with attempts to get English-speaking Catholic laity to significantly change the Our Father, which mercifully have failed miserably (my current pastor tries to overtalk the congregation in this regard, which is a rather unprogressive approach….). This is trying to fix something that isn’t *broken*, and I question the wisdom of putting effort into it.

    Btw, direction is not the only important difference between East and West. There’s also finger formation and whether the second gesture goes to the lower torso rather than center (and differences within the East on those matters, too).

    1. Ioan Lightoller Avatar
      Ioan Lightoller

      I am Eastern Orthodox and we have never changed the way in which we make the Sign of the cross: forehead to stomach, right to left. This makes a rough Greek equal armed cross, In the West when a person crosses themselves the forehead, chest, the left to right direction reverses the original order. Karl Liam Sur is correct also in the finger formation in the Eastern Orthodoxy being different. We use the thumb, forefinger, and middle finger held together in remembrance of the Holy Trinity (Old Believers/Old Rite Orthodox use just the forefinger and middle finger for the two natures of Christ, human and divine), whereas the Western is more of an open hand.

      1. Karen Brown Avatar
        Karen Brown

        I come from a British Methodist background and now am a distinctive deacon in the Church of England. And come from a low back ground. Years ago I started to cross myself in private prayers and without knowing the way I developed a practice was right to left. As a deacon I still use this way even when serving at the altar. I know serve in a high church Anglican setting.

  2. Tom Bako Avatar
    Tom Bako

    I think KLS is right in that we shouldn’t “mess with” lay practice, if “messing with” means legislation or coercion, but I sense that LL’s original point is aiming more toward providing a discreet and voluntary example, rather than a showy and hyper-didactic one.

    I should add to the symbolism that, for those of us attached to the preconciliar form of the Latin Rite, the Eastern (and older Western) direction of right-to-left also mirrors the transition of the Missal from Epistle to Gospel side, and symbolizes how the Gospel came first to the Jews (right), then to the Gentiles/all nations (left).

    Let me put it this way: like Karl Liam Saur, I wouldn’t get too hung up on it either, nor do I think that the modern Latin practice is “broken,” but I personally would not mind seeing an organic, bottom-up transition to the older form, which we could share with our Orthodox brethren. (No, I’m not going to get into the whole three- vs. two-finger Old Believer schism…)

  3. Barry Craig Avatar
    Barry Craig

    I have made the sign of the cross on my body from right to left for most of my adult life. I picked it up from the Ukrainians, and it felt more natural, so I stayed with it. Neither direction, nor finger formation, has any implicit significance – all interpretations on such emerge after the practice, and interpretations can be generated to support anything. I am a Roman rite priest of 30 years. Few of the people who actually notice it have ever said anything, and the only person to ever get cross was an English monk.
    When before little children who are still learning the practice they do mirror me, and thus make the sign of the cross left to right; when blessing them they mirror the sign being made and so go right to left.

  4. Ron Feledichuk Avatar

    Through the centuries following the Popes has many times led to a weakening of the faith and a divergence with Eastern Christianity. Whether the sign of the cross, the changing of the Nicene creed, or the watering down to an almost Protestant form of the Catholic mass. Not looking for a fight just offering for sobre thought.

  5. Jon Doein Avatar
    Jon Doein

    It seems to me the beginning of this article made sense then you lost me. If you’re blessing someone, hand facing out to some degree and go left to right, ascension. You’re blessing them to ascend to Heaven. If you’re blessing yourself after prayer, right to left, inviting the holy spirit in. Incarnation. It just so happens doing it this way if the priest or father is facing the individual, he goes left to right to give blessing, the person goes right to left to bless themselves and you get the mirroring effect as well. I’ll be honest, I don’t follow a specific religion soley, but this makes the most sense to me.

  6. Michele McGrath Avatar

    Right to left was first. It is the orthodox way, no distortion. To be on the right hand if God. Many things changed after the schism.

    1. Michael paglia Avatar
      Michael paglia

      I believe, that it is the right way, from left to right, when you sign yourself. It seems to me that I have done that from childhood. It feels more natural that way, to bring your right had back to the center to join with the other hand.especially if you are right handed, how does a left hander feel about that, or do they use their right hand, to make the sign.

    2. Ioan Lightoller Avatar
      Ioan Lightoller

      I was part of the Western Church and I always crossed myself with three fingers and found, when becoming Orthodox, the right to left motion was more natural–don’t ask me why, because I’m right handed, but for me, it just feels natural.

      And you’re right–a lot changed post-Schism.

  7. Alex Bok Avatar
    Alex Bok

    Just looking at the history of the sign of the cross this should not even be up for debate it’s been universally (or Catholically if you prefer) done from right to left by the early church and continued to this day by the Eastern church. The 2 finger gesture is the bigger deal IMO and the oldest form also used by the early church (evidenced in the oldest icons). The index and middle fingers pointing upward with the middle slightly bent symbolize the Christ being fully man and fully God with the thumb, ring, and pinky fingers all adjoined symbolizing the Trinity.

    Of course there is no salvation in the way you cross yourself after all Jesus said he desires mercy not sacrifice, however, I feel it is important to try and keep the tradition handed down for us from the saints as much as possible. That’s just my opinion.

    God Bless!

    1. Andrew Rex Avatar
      Andrew Rex

      Is this perhaps the origin of the English less than affectionate expression labelling Roman Catholics as “left handers”?

  8. Rev . Nicolas Youroukos Avatar
    Rev . Nicolas Youroukos

    To be the right way we would have to know how Jesus was nailed to the cross was the first nail on the right hand to the left-hand or from the left-hand to the right I feel either way is Right . It acknowledges that Jesus was nailed to the cross. hallelujah

    1. Elisabete Roberto Avatar
      Elisabete Roberto

      I’m left handed and use left hand to my right side first and then to my left, and I am R Catholic…

  9. leila delavari Avatar

    when in italy, multiple times now people have stopped in the middle of the street and done the sign of the cross at me..can anyone tell me what this means??

  10. Michael Weldon Avatar
    Michael Weldon

    To me as a simple Man . To me I believe head to chest , Right to left . I was always told that the son ,Jesus was seated at the right hand of God .

  11. Marco gelpo Avatar
    Marco gelpo

    God looks at your heart

  12. kathy salsman Avatar

    Blessed Holy Thursday to all bloggers. The comments that struck me most were about ‘ascension'(L-R) and ‘incarnation'(R-L). It seems perhaps more than a compromise then, to teach that we begin prayer with the sign of the cross R-L (Incarnation-inviting the Holy Spirit to form His thoughts & Will in us) and then teach that afterwards our prayers have been sent and make the sign of the cross L-R(Ascension). Like consecrated bookends to our oblations. I’m much happier to inform catechumens than to tell them one way is right vs. wrong or worst yet, east vs. west. It’s both and! God Bless You, Rev. Youroukos! Please pray for me.

    1. Judith Ciolino Avatar

      I was told that the sign of the cross meant, the father means “brain” , the son means,the “heart” and the holy spirit means “you” is this true ??

    2. NGOZI PAT ANYIAM Avatar


  13. Nina Brunson Avatar

    My father, a Ukrainian, told me that we cross right to left just as Micheal Weldon states ” Jesus was seated at the right hand of God. I have always crossed right to left as a child and still as an adult.

  14. Geo Paul Avatar
    Geo Paul

    I think only Latin and Syro-Antiochene traditions changed the first millennium practice of sign of the cross “from right to left” to “left to right.” Syro Malabarians, a latinized tradition also changed it due to the influence of the Latin Church (but they corrected it recently in their liturgical texts) … Other than the above historical reason there seems to be another reason, may be theological/symbolic reason: When we say “in the name of the Father” we move our hand from top to bottom, and when we say “and of the Son” we are moving our hand from bottom to right side – in the biblical understanding Son is at the right hand of the Father (though I don’t know God has any side?). Sign of the cross itself is a Trinitarian formula.

  15. Joseph Kibui Avatar

    The teachings and the comments are all good. The sign of the cross has been mentioned or seen in the scriptures in many cases. Like Moses fighting the Amalekites and when his hands are raised perhaps forming a sign of the cross, the Israelites won the battle. The same Moses was told to make a bronze serpent and raise it on a tree so that whoever looked at it was healed. Jesus dying on the cross again shows the cross as a big sign of victory. For me therefore the “sign of the cross ” has the greater meaning. It is a weapon to fight our enemy the “devil” . A prayer, ” by the sign of the cross, deliver us from our enemies, you who is Our God, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit. Amen” We say this prayer as we touch our forehead, the lips and the chest or belly and finally make the big cross that is head, chest or belly and the shoulders.

  16. Jessica Ely Avatar
    Jessica Ely

    Is it important to cross ourselves a particular way? In a word, YES. We do not have the authority to choose willy-nilly what parts of the Christina Tradition we want to follow. Our fathers, and countless saints crossed themselves from right to left. Ancient icons show Christ or bishops beginning a blessing from right to left. the right side is referred to in a preferential way many times in scripture and our sacred hymns What should we want to change?
    The Romans changed it officially in ROME not all Catholicism lol in the 15th century.

    1. Rev. D Gordon Braun Jr Avatar
      Rev. D Gordon Braun Jr

      By Christina Tradition are you referring to the Swedish Lutheran Church which still maintains the Apostolic Succession? Please share more. I am an Anglican and don’t know much about Lutheranism or the various countries’ traditions.
      Thank you!

  17. Mia Abapo Avatar
    Mia Abapo

    I’ve done mine from left to right. It’s like when you’re at your lowest (left) you’ll be redirected to the righteous way (right). And also I may add, left hand is the receiver (you receive the holiness, grace of the Lord), right hand is the giver ( you share the holiness and blessings of the lord to others) . Please no hate it’s just my own personal perspective. Godbless us all.

  18. Martyn Storey Avatar
    Martyn Storey

    Having joined the latin rite roman catholic church about 50 years ago, I am used to left-to-right, and once only. But that is custom and habit. In a different context I would hopefully adapt.

    A different question might be whether in a liturgical setting we see the bishop/priest as blessing the assembly, in which case mirroring the gesture makes sense; or as asking for God’s blessing on the whole assembly including themself, in which case repeating the gesture would also make sense in a different way. But that is a different question that I am sure that has been discussed somewhere on PrayTell before?

  19. Bernard Misiura Avatar
    Bernard Misiura

    Being brought up both, my father Roman Catholic and my mother Eastern Orthodox, imagine when I went to Sunday school and was corrected after an extended stay going to church at my grandfather’s Church in Eastern Pennsylvania where we did it right to left, although I didn’t know the origins, and people never told me what they were or why it all makes sense now but when this popped up in one of my searches I just got excited and started explaining to my wife yes I actually used to do it right to left and was just told I was doing it wrong and CCD classes without ever it being explained to me

  20. Elizabeth Needham Avatar

    I am left-handed and a Catholic I always try to do it with my right hand my mum needs to get very annoyed with me and I tried my hardest but it was just automatic to just do it with my left does this really make a big difference and should I go from right to left I’ve often wondered please let me know if you can explain it thank you.

  21. Susan McDonald - Timms Avatar
    Susan McDonald – Timms

    That was do interesting. The ‘thinking too much’ part hit home. (Not that I’d know anything about that ! Ha ! ). Well whatever is the ‘right’ way, i did like your little thing at the end, where you spoke of the symbology of going from the cramped hand – position whilst touching your right shoulder, then the hand opens up naturally as it moves to the left shoulder (IF you are right handed, and thus using your right hand in the whole sequence). Its quite sweet no matter what

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