On Bended Knee

Reflection

When the life-giving Word of God dwelt in human flesh, he changed it into that good thing which is distinctively his, namely, life; and by being wholly united to the flesh in a way beyond our comprehension, he gave it the life-giving power which he has by his very nature. Therefore, the body of Christ gives life to those who receive it. Its presence in mortal men expels death and drives away corruption because it contains within itself in his entirety the Word who totally abolishes corruption.

—From a commentary on the gospel of John,

St. Cyril of Alexandria, bishop,
Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. II, p. 744.

Every time I enter the chapel at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital for our oblates’ corporate prayer, I dip my fingers into the waters of the font. Then their moist touch inscribes on my forehead, heart, and shoulders the outline of Christ’s cross. This reminds me of His victory over sin, death, and the devil and of His Father’s act to pour out upon me at my baptism His Spirit of adoption. By habit, I then turn to my left to put my bag and coat on a chair. As I do, I am always aware, out of the corner of my eye, of the gentle light emanating from the side room where the Tabernacle sits quietly and invitingly. I know that Father Clooney keeps there the reserved and consecrated hosts from the hospital’s celebration of the Mass. I know, too, that my Catholic and Episcopalian friends turn to face the Tabernacle when they enter the chapel and then offer their reverence to our Lord. But so far, I have not shared in that practice—and as I reflect on this, I am disturbed—because I have no good reasons not to offer that act of reverence. My only reasons are the weak ones of habit and inertia. I suppose that tradition explains why Lutherans and other Protestants have not genuflected, as that devotional act’s posture and gesture have smacked of acting “too Catholic,” which many have seen as not a good thing. But the truth of the matter is this appeal to tradition—we’ve always not done it this way—is no better reason to not do something than are habit and inertia.

So instead, as I reflect upon what I am not doing, a more reasonable and faithful question almost asks itself: Why would one genuflect, offering bodily a sign that one acknowledges the risen Christ, present in the consecrated host, as one’s Lord and Savior?

Because one can hardly go wrong by listening to the voices of Scripture and Tradition, it helps to turn to the New Testament, which provides Christians with several inspiring pictures of life in heaven, a life of worship of God, where His faithful offer endless praise to the Father, in the name of the Son, by the power of their Spirit. One example arises in St. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, where he writes:

Have among yourselves the same attitude
that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father
(Phil. 2:5–11, NAB; emphasis added).

St. Paul provides us with a vision of heaven, one in which a great gathering congregates (meaning “flocks together”) about the Father’s exalted Son. All who join this throng adopt a special posture, the posture that embodies the congregants’ acknowledgment of the lordship of Jesus Christ. Every knee is bent, so that all people and creatures—those in heaven, on earth, and under the earth—are bowing in homage to our Lord. At the same time, the vision tells us that every voice makes a common confession: Jesus Christ is Lord—κύριος Ιησους Χριστός (Phil. 2:11).

After St. Paul’s time, later in the life of the people of God, but still early in the history of the Church, St. John wrote his apocalypse. His Revelation builds upon the vision of St. Paul, saying:

After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
They cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.”
All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed:
“Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 7:9–12, NAB; emphasis added).

Here St. John’s beatific vision and audition come alive with more glorious details than St. Paul offers, but at the same time, the essentials remain consistent: God the Father sits on His throne; His Son, the Lamb, flanks Him; and they are encircled both by the uncounted multitudes and by the whole company of heaven. As the vision tells us, “They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed” their praises.

These are just two instances from the New Testament that envision the life of the faithful in the presence of the Lord of heaven. Digging deeper would help to extend the list. One could turn, for example, to Abraham’s prostration before the three visitors who came to him under the oaks at Mamre. One could also recall the time when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary embrace the feet of their risen Lord and offer Him homage when He meets up with them on their way to tell His disciples that the angel at the tomb had just told them He was risen. At the root, these and other testimonies from the Scriptures tell us that the faithful naturally bow before God and offer Him worship and praise.

We don’t live in the times of the Testaments, but we do live in the time of the Church, a community that thrives in continuity with those Testaments and the Traditions that gave rise to them and that flow from them. One can see in many places, then, the influence of the tradition of bowing. Christians often bow their heads to pray. Many bow at the naming of the triune God in corporate prayer, either by inclining the head or by bowing profoundly. Even in many Protestant traditions, acolytes will bow at the altar before and after lighting the candles. In some traditions, when the cross or crucifix is carried in procession, congregants will bow as the emblem of faith passes by them. In the Stations of the Cross, kneeling accompanies the offering of praise at each station: “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” Kneeling for the reception of Communion is common, especially in churches that practice more traditional forms of worship and that desire to emphasize the humility one feels in coming to the Lord’s Table.

But having inventoried those many ways that inclining the head, bowing, and kneeling form parts of the vocabulary of gestures in worship, most Protestants draw a hard, uncrossable line at genuflecting in the direction of the Tabernacle in a Catholic Church. What really could be the reason?

A thought experiment might help. If any of us were to walk into a sanctuary and were to see, out of the corner of the eye, the risen Christ Himself sitting on a chair off to the side, is there anyone who would not bow? I believe we’d be safe in saying that we would—all of us—practice the most profound of bows, the one the New Testament Greek (προσκυνέω) characterizes as “falling upon one’s face in worship.” So if we would do bow like that if we saw and recognized Christ with our eyes of sight, what ought we do when we see and recognize Him with the eyes of faith? Our bowing for prayer and our kneeling for Communion tell us we have at least a vestigial muscle memory of genuflection. So, when our eyes of faith perceive Christ present in our midst, we naturally show Him the honor due Him.

Does this mean that our eyes are blinded to His presence in the Tabernacle? Maybe they are, but that’s when we ought to rely upon our Catholic and Anglican brothers and sisters to serve as our seeing-eye dogs. We can trust their eyes of faith to see what we cannot see for ourselves.

One final question to ask is whether, by not genuflecting at the Tabernacle, we are in fact confessing by our actions—or inactions—that we believe Christ is manifestly absent from the consecrated Host. For some Protestants, this may be the truth of the matter, as they believe that in Holy Communion the bread and wine never become the body and blood of our Lord. The elements signify His body and blood; they remind us of His sacrifice; but they remain bread and wine, and only bread and wine. On the other hand, some Protestants trust that in the Eucharist they encounter the real presence of the risen Christ in the bread, His body, and in the wine, His blood. They would say that He is physically present to the Church in the elements, just as touchable in Communion to the congregants in the nave of the Church as He was palpable to the disciples sitting in the bow of one of their fishing boats on the Seas of Galilee. One might think this view of Holy Communion would lead to reverence for the elements—the bread and the wine—even after the liturgy has ended. In some cases, this may be so, as in the occasional Lutheran parish with a Tabernacle. But for the most part, Protestants will “clean up” after Communion by putting leftover wafers back in the box or in a plastic bag in the freezer and by pouring leftover wine back into its bottle or down the drain. Sometimes the altar guild or the clergy will consume the remainders or pour the wine onto the ground, but rarely in Protestant churches will Christians reserve the elements and hold them in reverence.

So, despite what any formal Protestant theology may hold, the functional understanding of the mystery of Holy Communion is that the presence of Christ is temporary, lasting as long does the liturgy, or perhaps long enough for parish visitors to take Communion to the parish’s shut-in members. Digging into the history of theology to understand more deeply how some Christians came to understand Christ’s promises to give Himself to us in the bread, His body, and in the cup, His blood, as having a kind of spiritual freshness dating—best by noon on Sunday—is a journey down a long, winding, and tangled road that leads beyond the bounds of this particular reflection.

In the end, then, would I place enough trust in a theology that claims Christ has placed an expiration date and time on His promise to come to us in the bread and cup? My own answer must be “no.” And if that is the case, then I can do nothing else than to confess that I trust the lived faith of my sisters and brothers, made visible in their honoring of Christ’s presence in the Host reserved in the Tabernacle.

This leads me to and leaves me in a wonderful and wild place. The next time I come to the chapel at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, or to any Catholic Church, I am entering into the presence of the risen Lamb of God, the crucified and exalted Christ. In His presence and with the sound of His name on my lips, I join the unnumbered throng on bended knee, our voices rising as one to say, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” to the glory of God the Father. This is the posture and the proclamation of all who adore our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Authorship

This reflection was written by David Frye, who made his final oblation in 2009.

“Like a Weaned Child”—Seeking Humility

Reflection

About four and a half years ago, I was struck by a kind of imbalance in my life. I felt the need to “do something” to cultivate more fruitful spiritual practices to ground my days. I’d accumulated a lot of knowledge and information about life in the Church—its liturgy, theology, history and biblical study. But my spiritual life seemed weak. I did not pray regularly or practice service to others.

As I was casting about for guidance on what to do, I remembered somebody somewhere saying something about having made a good retreat at a monastery in Schuyler. Thanks to Google, I located the Web site for that community’s Benedictine Mission House and found the schedule of retreats. One title beckoned to me: “Experience the Life of a Monk for a Weekend.” I signed up and prepared to go, not really knowing what to expect. But that decision was for me a risk, inviting me to step out into the unknown.

For a few months at that point, I’d been trying to use some different devotional resources. I don’t remember now which one I was using for my morning prayers, but I do remember reading the New Revised Standard Version’s translation of Psalm 131 in my room at the retreat center after I’d gotten ready for the day.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

(Psalm 131, NRSV)

That seemed to be a good fit for the hours ahead. I was preparing for a taste of a life with rhythms and practices and notions unfamiliar to me. I knew the bell calling the community to prayer would ring soon, so I left the room to walk from the retreat house to the oratory to join the brothers for the Office of Readings.

The small card in the pew stated the page numbers for the office in The Liturgy of the Hours and said that today was Saturday of Week I. As the seven resident monks and the scattered guests began praying together, we came to the first text: Psalm 131:

O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul
in silence and peace.
As a child has rest in its mother’s arms,
even so my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and for ever.

(Psalm 131, The Liturgy of the Hours)

A coincidence? Perhaps. But there’s nothing unplanned about the cycle of the psalms in the Divine Office. What if I’d chosen a different book for my devotions? What if the retreat were on another weekend? What if …?

What did happen is that the same psalm appeared twice to me in the same morning as I was seeking God and His guidance for my life. That’s how this day started for me. Later that same day, while walking from the oratory to the retreat house, another man on the retreat told me he was a Benedictine oblate and explained what that meant to him. That conversation struck me and stuck with me too. When I got home from the retreat, I Googled some more and found out about Sister Phyllis and this chapter. The retreat, that man’s witness, and my exploration became the first steps on my journey to becoming an oblate.

This short story explains why Psalm 131 is special to me. Through it, the Holy Spirit worked to change my life, to lead me down a new path, to guide me to seek admission to this “school for the service of the Lord” (Rule of Saint Benedict, Prol. 45). As a happy consequence, my ears always are perked up to listen for this psalm and my eyes remain vigilant to watch for it in my readings.

Over the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate the depths these brief verses contain within them. Often I find that when I pray this psalm, I am aspiring to a state that does not yet describe my life. When I look unflinchingly at my own actions and thoughts and feelings, I often see that my heart is proud. My eyes are haughty. I am preoccupied with things beyond my control. I drag my soul down into the depths of turmoil. I am restless, kicking against God’s embrace and trying to escape from His lap.

Pride and arrogance, feelings of superiority, self-appointment as judge of others—these are the spiritual challenges I often face. So thank God He guided Saint Benedict to turn to Psalm 131 for the biblical grounding of the first thoughts recorded in Chapter 7 of the Rule, the chapter entitled, “On Humility.” Saint Benedict writes:

Holy Scripture, brethren, cries out to us, saying,
“Everyone who exalts himself
shall be humbled,
and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
In saying this it shows us
that all exaltation is a kind of pride,
against which the Prophet proves himself
to be on guard when he says,
“Lord, my heart is not exalted,
nor are mine eyes lifted up;
neither have I walked in great matters,
nor in wonders above me.”
But how has he acted?
“Rather, have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul.”

(RB 7:1–4. The Rule of Saint Benedict, Leonard Doyle, trans.
Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press.)

Here Saint Benedict uses portions of Psalm 131 to reinforce our Lord’s teaching from Luke’s Gospel—those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. The Rule teaches that pride and humility stand in opposition to one another. So long as I take pride in myself, I cannot be humble. And since our Lord desires for His followers to be humble, like Him, my pride stands in the way of following the Lord.

So, is there hope? How can one who battles with pride, with high regard for oneself at the cost of looking down upon others, be infused with a spirit of humility? Saint Paul tells us the way. He writes to the Church at Rome, saying:

Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.

(Rom. 6:3–4, NAB).

Our baptism makes us participants both in Christ’s death and burial and in the promise of His resurrection to life anew. This is the path of discipleship, the road we follow as oblates, who, like all Christians, seek to live as Christ does.

Saint Paul has another way to describe the trajectory of Christ’s life—and ours. In his letter to the Philippians, he writes:

Have among yourselves the same attitude
that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

(Phil. 2:5–11, NAB)

This helps me to see why humility so often eludes my grasp, why I cannot achieve it on my own. The path of humility that Christ blazes for us is one that we travel only in obedience to Him. It leads inexorably to death. But the good news is this: because we have been baptized into that death and because we live by the promise of new life, we can trust the Father’s promise that we will share in His Son’s exaltation through the working of their Holy Spirit. When the great day dawns, we will bend the knee with all who gather around the throne. We will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

In the meantime, we have Saint Benedict’s Rule to guide us along the path between the font and the grave. He turns to Psalm 131 and advises us to emulate the Prophet, who says,

“Rather, have I been of humble mind
than exalting myself;
as a weaned child on its mother’s breast,
so You solace my soul.”

(RB 7:4).

That is good enough for this mean time in which we live. The Father has delivered us from sin through the waters of baptism; we feed upon His Son’s body and blood in the Eucharist; and, like weaned children, we find solace and nourishment for our souls in the Spirit’s embrace in the arms of Mother Church. Amen.

Authorship

This reflection was written by David Frye, who made his final oblation in 2009.