Monday, February 15, 2016

Our inner resistance to true genuflection

As a presider at Mass, it is very easy to observe the way in which Catholics enter their pews to pray.  After all, the presider’s chair is positioned in a place that is most visually accessible, and just as my body language and eye movement is subject to everyone’s observation and scrutiny, the reverse is just as true.  The facial expressions of persons in solemn and fervent prayer or those that are flitting in between consciousness and comatose, or just demonstrating with no intention to mask their boredom and impatience are all open to survey from my chair.  But it is the observation of the way that people genuflect before taking their seats that I would like to reflect on today.

Many other churches in the Christian tradition have pews in their prayer halls or places of worship.  But it is only in the Catholic Church that we have a tradition of placing one knee on the floor before actually sitting down to pray.  Very much connected to our belief that in the Catholic Church, the consecrated host reverently housed in the Tabernacle in each church is the very presence of God, it is to this Real Presence that we go on bended knee, signifying not only our belief, but perhaps far more important than just that, reminding us of the need to embrace humility in our hearts.

I have a feeling that many of us Catholics have somewhat lost the deep significance of mindful genuflection.  What a mindful genuflection is, is really a combination of how truly God is present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist with how badly we need to live lives of true and genuine humility, which is at the core of the call to holiness.

Genuflection is in itself an action that the human body naturally resists.  More often than not, it requires a mindfulness of one’s balance, and many Catholics will use the support of one hand on the pew to do this action without being clumsy, and to be able to get back on their feet thereafter.  Effort is indeed required, and I have seen many versions of the genuflection’s related cousins – the curtsey, the half squat or even the half body bow.  There are also many who simply jettison any gestures of deference and respect to Jesus’ real presence in the Tabernacle, and simply saunter into their pews as if they were taking their seats at a concert or a movie theater.  I do need to state that I am quite aware of parishioners who have weak or unstable knees, and that if a genuflection is not possible due to one's physical limitations, one can and should make other forms of respect and adoration in place of the tradition bending of the knee.

It won’t surprise the reader of this blog that I am a huge advocate of the genuflection, and that I truly believe that this action should never be overlooked or discarded.  In fact, I believe that it will be to our utter detriment if we stop this noble practice that has been with the Catholic Church for centuries.  We will be much poorer for it if we stop genuflecting in our churches.

Humility is something that all of us struggle with in so many ways.  Embedded in the action of genuflection is the acknowledgement that we are not ultimately only accountable to ourselves, and that we are willing to submit ourselves to a power that is above us in every way.  Many will say that God is not just ‘above’ or ‘in front’ of us, but is omnipresent, giving excuse and justification to do away with this kneeling action.  However, my response would be that in mindful genuflection, we also acknowledge our own finitude and limitations, something that the current narrative of the self-serving and self-promoting culture militates strongly against. 

There is another thing about genuflecting that we misunderstand and fail to benefit from.  It is the mistaken notion that when we genuflect, we make ourselves small and weak, and no one likes this, so we stop doing this, or at least we tell ourselves to do it in a perfunctory way, hoping that others do not notice us. 

In fact, the opposite is much truer – that when we are doing this action mindfully, and let ourselves be immersed in the majesty of God that we live under, that we actually become larger and stronger.  Genuine adulthood and maturity is when we know ourselves for who and what we are, and not live in some sham confidence.  A truly humble person knows true greatness when he sees it, and surrender to the ultimate power is seen as a large person in God’s eyes, and not a small person as the world sees him or her.  It is a truly strong person who knows his or her true limitations in life.  The small person lives as if he has no flaws or imperfections, and is loath to confront them.

It will be to our discredit and loss if we abandon such actions that remind us of the need to place God at the highest position in life. 

I was asked by a catechist after Mass yesterday how one can effectively teach young children in Catechism class what a Doxology is.  The word is made up of two parts – doxa is glory in Greek, and ‘logy’ as a suffix usually denotes a teaching, a theory or a science, related to work.  Thus, the Doxology is the praise and glory that is due to God at the high point of the Mass, which takes place when the consecrated bread and wine which have become the body and blood of Christ is offered up to the Father just as the way that it was done on Calvary, the very action that caused our undeserved salvation from sin and damnation.

When one removes from one’s consciousness the need to kneel in humility before God, it will also make understanding a term like doxology something extremely challenging and relatable to life.  Maybe this is why explaining what a doxology is to anyone, not just young children in catechism class, is going to be a challenge in itself, and it is lamentable.

Maybe what is much more lamentable is the fact that in so many other areas of our lives, there is much more doxologia given to mammon, and we find ourselves genuflecting obsequiously before false gods instead. 


  1. Hi Fr. Luke,
    Funny you should mention this.

    Just two Sundays ago I reminded my family members of the importance of our posture during mass – and this includes the way we genuflect and bow when in church.

    I may be mistaken here, but I believe that, in a sense, we also “pray with our bodies” as well as with words and gestures. Our bodily attitude betrays, more often than not, just where our heart lies (just my 2 cents worth).

    God bless you, Fr Luke !

  2. As a convert who grew up "believing in me and loving me only", it was so difficult to genuflect (as well as beat on the chest).
    In the early years, I had to imagine myself as a knight coming back to report to my King. A proud knight could certainly break his knee to give tribute.
    Today...I am a servant genuflecting before his Master. It is with humility that I bow before my Lord knowing that without his grace, the week would have been so much more unbearable.
    Indeed, it is only on bended knees and a contrite heart that one can be taught Glory.

  3. “....that in mindful genuflection, we also acknowledge our own finitude and limitations,”

    Recently, the children were home for the festive season and a visitor to our home remarked that she found it quaint that we were in the habit of hollering out to one another that we are home, the minute we returned home. This was a habit we had established when the children were young as we were always grateful to be finally ensconced in the comfort of the home after a whole day’s it at school, work or play. No doubt it was a habitual action but it flowed from the heart for we were always glad to be ‘home’ take joy in one another’s presence in the comfort and security of the home.

    Similarly, when we enter the church and bless ourselves with holy water, it is comforting to genuflect deeply before we slide into our pews and pray.......for it seems to be a ‘home-coming’ too. No doubt, over the years, it has become a habitual action, nevertheless, it flows automatically from the heart too - for in this very simple act, we acknowledge the comforting presence of the Almighty, our Creator and in the same breath we also acknowledge our ‘creatureliness’ and our gratitude to be able to have Him so close to us.......or as you have so succinctly put it ............ “ in mindful genuflection, we also acknowledge our own finitude and limitations.”

    In a way it speaks of a ‘bonding’ - characterised by affection and trust – as between two people who have spent time together. Genuflection can be seen as an extension of a heartfelt attempt at adoration ,praise and worship – befitting for the Ultimate One who squanders his love on the Prodigal, the Un-deserving.

    God bless u, Fr.


  4. Thanks frLuke for "Thus, the Doxology is the praise and glory that is due to God at the high point of the Mass, which takes place when the consecrated bread and wine which have become the body and blood of Christ is offered up to the Father just as the way that it was done on Calvary, the very action that caused our undeserved salvation from sin and damnation." i was told this is the high point but never really explained or explained and i don't get it. I am slowly beginning to and will take it to prayer.