I do not want to belong to a religion which cannot kneel. I do not want to live in a world where there is No One to adore. It is a lonely and laboured world if I am its centre. My life is too short to discover wisdom on my own, to learn to identify and properly name my own self-importance, to learn how to love if I have to start at zero.
I came across these words in a recent article on Reconstruction by Richard Rohr. They are prophetic. Few things are as debilitating for true worship today as is the mistaken notion, so popular in many circles, that somehow we belittle ourselves, are regressive, insult human dignity, and put-down oppressed peoples, if we kneel, if we bow in obedience, and if we genuflect so as to acknowledge that we are below and Something else is above.
But that is what is happening in most of our churches. More and more, we are approaching the situation where less and less of us ever kneel and where virtually none of us ever genuinely genuflect. Even the very language that would do this is under seige. Expressions such as: “We live under God.” “Lord, without you, we are nothing.” “To You alone belongs the glory!” “That saved a wretch like me.” are seen as backward, unhealthy, and anti-Vatican II. In the name of religious progress we are teaching ourselves not to genuflect, not to kneel, and not to think of ourselves (and feel ourselves) as living under God.
We mean this sincerely and there are some understandable reasons for why we feel this way, not the least of which is, as we shall see, a religious upbringing that many of us are still reacting against, but this is not progress – religiously or otherwise. We are poorer because of this, poorer in every way.
Genuflection is the ultimate moral act – and it lies at the basis of all morality. We become moral on that day when we first genuflect and know what we are doing. Teilhard de Chardin once said something to the effect that we reach moral adulthood on the day when we realize that we have but one choice on this earth, to genuflect to Something beyond and above us or to begin to self-destruct. Simply put, as adults we either genuflect or we begin, in whatever way, to commit suicide.
Past generations of Catholics, whatever else they struggled with, in their own way understood this. For them, kneeling and genuflection were the great symbolic way of admitting to themselves that they were not the centre of the universe and that God was to be bowed to. The gesture was the prayer, it acknowledged finitude and gave true worship. Granted, some of this was tied to a theological cosmology (God is above and we are below) that we no longer accept, nor need accept. As well, on the basis of that hierarchical conception which makes God a Great Divine White Male, not everyone was always treated equally. Hence, the over-reaction today.
But it is precisely an over-reaction, a good thing taken too far. We need not think of God as physically above us, nor do we need to mythically picture God as a white male, in order to continue to genuflect and kneel before that which breathes us anew into life every split second and without which we have ultimately no significance whatsoever. Perhaps we do need a new language which no longer uses phrases like “under” or “below” (though, like Rohr, I doubt this) and perhaps we do need gestures other than genuflection and kneeling (though my imagination runs out of gas here) but, whatever the language and whatever the gesture, we need again to “kneel” and to “genuflect” and put ourselves “under” Someone. Not to do so is religious suicide. Rohr is right. It is not worth belonging to any religion that cannot kneel.
To kneel does not belittle or demean us. It does not make us smaller. It makes us larger. No adult, woman or man, is taller, in terms of dignity and genuine adultness, than when she or he kneels in prayer, in adoration, and in obedience. Worship is what takes away our littleness and worship is, always, an act of prostration. More than good works, more than any morality, more than any fine liturgy, and even more than works of justice, God wants from us surrender, just that, surrender.
There are ways of expressing surrender, outside of kneeling and genuflection, and each of us must find his or her own way. But this is one area where we should not too quickly distance ourselves from the wisdom of the past. There are few gestures singularly powerful as is that of bending the knee before the God who made us.