Kneeling Down as an Exercise of Mercy

Yves De Maeseneer

Last month I received the request to write a short article for the monthly magazine for pastors and pastoral volunteers, active in the diocese of Antwerp. For the Holy Year of Mercy they had chosen the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to illustrate the different aspects of mercy. The Samaritan is a model of what it means to stop and see what is going on, to kneel down at the other in distress, to invest out of your material and financial resources. They asked me to explain what kneeling down could mean for Christians today in the context of Antwerp. This is a revised translation of my contribution:

For this year of mercy Filipino bishops chose the following slogan: ''If we want renewal, let us learn how to kneel again." It is hard to imagine that Belgian bishops would have formulated similar advice. It would have shocked many Belgian faithful as old-fashioned. Indeed, in most parishes, the pews were removed to create room for comfortable seating.  Undoubtedly, this older furniture was reminiscent of a time when people were living on their knees, belittled by men of authority and power.  Are Christians not called to stand on their feet in the light of the Resurrection?

Indeed.  But it also true that we have become mainly a ’sitting Church’.  It is somewhat ironic that thousands of young people rediscover the power of faith precisely in those places where there are no seats.  In the chapel of Taizé, for instance, they are sitting on the ground, or kneeling on prayer stools. When I was in Cologne for World Youth Day 2005, my most intense experience was to be with a million young people in silent adoration, together with the pope, kneeling before the Eucharist.

A Complex Gesture

Kneeling is a gesture in which you make yourself smaller. It expresses an attitude of humility. Humility is not the same as being humiliated.  The word ‘humility’ is derived from the Latin word humus, which means ‘earth’.  By kneeling you deliberately increase your contact with the earth. It also implies that you give up your freedom of movement. The position renders you defenseless, incapable of flight. Curiously, it is at once a powerful gesture. In this blog post I will briefly explore what the practice and symbolism of kneeling can teach us about the way of mercy to which human beings are called.

Repentance

Kneeling is painful.  As a bodily practice it confronts us with our vulnerability. The one who kneels expresses his distress.  Not coincidentally, the only ones still kneeling in public today are beggars who petition for a gesture of mercy.  Traditionally, Catholics kneel to confess their guilt and pray for mercy.  Kneeling was also perceived as a form of penance.  It is not only a sign of repentance, but also a first step to recovery. The physical act of kneeling embodies the searching for a new relationship to God, to yourself and to others – think of Rembrandt's painting of the prodigal son who falls into the arms of his father.

 

Oh Come Let Us Adore

Part of the contemporary resistance towards kneeling is due to a tradition which considered it as an expression of servility. The model was that of the medieval vassal who submits himself to his overlord. Thus, the symbolism of kneeling was closely associated with worldly forms of hierarchy. In this light, one can read Jesus’ explicit refusal to kneel before Satan in exchange for power over the kingdoms of the world as a critical reminder. “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Mt 4:10), continues to be the warning of Jesus against misplaced earthly submission.

For Christians the genuine model of kneeling is given by the three Wise Men falling down in adoration at the manger (Mt 2:11). They recognize God's glory in the lowly form of a newborn child. Their story made me aware of the fact that a child may be the only occasion for which Modern people spontaneously drop to their knees.  Kneeling down is a way to position oneself face to face with the little.  But that is not yet worship. What is needed is a radical change of perspective, which allows us to recognize God in our fellow human beings, especially in those most marginalized.  Kneeling is a practice which directs us to see the humility shared between the vulnerable child, the suffering persons we encounter, and Christ in the Eucharist. In this way, it is a practice which aids us in adoring God through our bodily postures, making us more like Him in His humility. 

Orientation

Egyptian desert father Abba Apollo once said that the devil has no knees.  The devil is not able to kneel and worship. There is a further elaboration of this thought in a tradition concerning Lucifer’s fall. It is told that the real stumbling block for Lucifer did not subsist in the recognition of God's majesty.  What the highest angel could not accept was that God commanded him and his fellow angels to serve the human creatures. In Lucifer’s view, God’s love for humanity disrupted the hierarchical order.  Lucifer's ultimate nightmare was ‘to bend the knees for an earthworm, a lump of earth and clay’ (as the Dutch playwright Vondel has it in his Lucifer).

Lucifer illustrates how power and prestige have a disorienting force. Kneeling in adoration is a counter-practice to Luciferian pride, aiding us in finding our right orientation.  It is also a form of concentration.  Personally, I experience this especially when I'm kneeling on a prayer stool that I got from Taizé. The position requires me to ground myself and at the same time to straighten my back. What happens in kneeling is that my field of view is reduced.  Paradoxically, it is precisely my choosing to refrain from physical mobility that is the condition for being moved intensely in mind and spirit.  This spiritually receptive attitude of the body is crucial for a life of mercy.

 

Foot-washing at L'Arche, Chicago, 2015. Borrowed from:  http://www.larchechicago.org/news/foot-washing-2015

Foot-washing at L'Arche, Chicago, 2015. Borrowed from: http://www.larchechicago.org/news/foot-washing-2015

Service

There is a close link between kneeling and the commandment of charity.  Jesus makes this clear, not only in the parable of the Samaritan kneeling down at a human in need, but also on the last night of his life, when he gave a sign of his love by kneeling down and washing the feet of his disciples.  In kneeling, he gives us the example of how to love one anotheras he loved us.

In his meditation on the Gospel of John, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, wrote: "The history of humankind radically changed at the moment when God was kneeling humbly before us and searched for our love."

In the story of the feet-washing we find an interesting contrast between Jesus and Judas.  "Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God" (John 13:3), Jesus dares lay down his power and kneel in radical service. About Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, the text literally reads that Judas “lifted his heel against him” (John 13:18).  Kneeling down is presented here as the opposite of trampling.

In contemporary training for nurses and care-givers, one of the first lessons in ergonomics is that bending through the knees is essential if you want to raise someone. We could take that simple lifting technique figuratively. If you really want to help someone in need, you cannot do good ‘from above’.  Like Jesus, we have kneel down, literally and figuratively, leaving behind any pretense of condescension.  Christ teaches us that true service always requires an approach from below.

Learning to kneel

There are many occasions in which we can exercise ourselves in kneeling both as a bodily practice and as an inner attitude. One can think ofprayer, the encounter with children, contact with injured people, gardening. The Filipino bishops suggest the liturgy as a training school.  In Belgium the only time in the liturgical year that Catholics are still in the habit of kneeling is Good Friday. Its rich symbolism may serve as a final word on kneeling and mercy. During the veneration of the cross, we go forward one by one to kneel in silence before the cross, to touch it reverently, or even to kiss it. As such we kneel before Jesus, reciprocating his own gesture of foot-washing. In this gesture people lay down their burdens and those of others in order to take up the yoke of Christ’s humility. In the depths of our manifest sorrow, we kneel with the Crucified to rise from the dead again.

Meditation Before the Closed Door of Mercy

Dr. Patrick Ryan Cooper

Locked Inside and Out

The doors of mercy are shut closed at this hour, locked from the inside, only to be soon opened on the Feast of the Immaculata.

How ridiculous, pathetic even at first, a man is, who vainly tries to open a closed door that is bolted shut. He is invariably lost and confused. ‘How on earth can I ever get inside?’ he stammers. While farce and whim are generously given to the onlookers close by.

The liturgical sealing of the door─as it was celebrated here on the hill at the Benedictine Archabbey of Saint Meinrad─in this season of Advent, and in view of the jubilee of mercy, is a sober, penitential symbol. For it is we who bolt the door close, from the inside, fearfully refusing the pleas of others; obsessing instead over our own security and autonomy. While the ridiculous man, swearing at the door now deepens in its sad humor when he comes to learn─not unlike those locked from the inside─that it was he, the poor guy, who locked himself out in the first place.

We are continuously reminded of these intolerable truths in the arrival of migrants and refugees along our countless western borders at this very moment, herded before locked doors without any threshold. How quickly the story of their plight has changed in tone over the past few months. And yet, even upon entering, an impenetrable door needs no seal, nor hinge. For it cannot be opened, nor even remotely ajar, for again, the door lacks a threshold; the barrier that lacks crossing, is accursedly abysmal.

For the Christian, this abyss undoubtedly remains, though this abyss is not singular, nor is it the only door that remains closed. As Francis has indicated, this extraordinary jubilee year of mercy begins with the feast of the Immaculata herself, the Mother of Mercy, who Newman pointedly frames[1] as the Janua Coeli [Gate of heaven] as both conduit and its full participant in the commericum of Redemption, uniquely fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophetic words (Ez 44, 1-3) that “The gate shall be closed, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, since the Lord God of Israel has entered through it─and it shall be closed for the Prince, the Prince Himself shall sit in it.”

Recovering the Depths of Mercy

Francis’ Bull of Interdiction, Misericordiae Vultus, has called for a rediscovery of the richness of mercy, continuously contemplated in the face of Jesus Christ, who uniquely shows the Trinitarian mystery of the Father’s mercy as asymmetric and distinct, yet inseparable from the “fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.”[2] We need to indeed rediscover both the heights and depths of this inseparability, for there is nothing “condescending” about mercy.

One, who can teach us a great deal about the concretissimum of this inseparability is the mid-20th Century French Catholic Madeline Delbrêl (1904–1964), who founded in 1933 a small équipe, a lay contemplative community that sought to live unabashedly among the poor and working class in Ivry-sur-Seine, then the center of French Communism. Delbrêl writes that in the daily face of sharing genuine brotherly love amid an ideological milieu of totalized immanence,

 

Everything that is alive, everything that is loved, loses its foundation in being and thus crumbles from within. Everything is swallowed up in nothingness and meaninglessness. But when the life of faith comes into contact with this disaster, it reacts. The Christian examines his Christian life. He asks himself about God, about God’s importance, about God’s place, about how he seeks God’s protection. He then begins to realize how easy it is to lose God in Christian life or to lose him in Christ; and then how easy it is to lose Christ in Christianity; how easy it is for Christianity to continue on at first without God and then without Christ. Finally, he has the vertiginous realization how easily such breakdowns can occur.[3]

Delbrêl’s posthumous writings, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (Nous autres, gens des rues, 1966) have lost none of its vigor nor relevance over the past decades, for she writes from a fecund, concrete between of inseparability between love of God and neighbor, one that at any moment could, but does not flinch at such vertiginous, dizzying heights, what von Balthasar rightly discerns as her “perfect love of her Communist brother (including common work in all human issues) and a decisive rejection of his ideological program.”[4] It is only in traversing this perilous between that the “Christian receives the gift of the concretissimum of obedience in the following of Christ,”[5], for there is nothing abstract about the superabundance of this between, about the Church in her mystery and its vulnerable extension as the Mystical Body of Christ. Rather,

this passion for God will reveal to us that our Christian life is a pathway between two abysses. One is the measurable abyss of the world’s rejection of God. The other is the unfathomable abyss of the mysteries of God. We will come to see that we are walking along the adjoining line where these two abysses intersect. And we will thus understand how we are mediators and why we are mediators…. We will cease being perpetually distracted: distracted from the world by God, and distracted from God by the world…. But it is on behalf of the world, it is on behalf of each person, of every human being that we will be personally faithful to God, that we will personally place ourselves in the service of his glory─and we will do so, not because of the world, not because of people, but because of the God who loved the world and who loved all people with a first and gratuitous love.[6]

Whether in or out, the door remains locked at this present moment, and in resignation, we are tempted to utter those profound words of Bernanos’ Curé from The Diary of a Country Priest, "Qu'est que cela fait ? Tout est grâce." Yet the difference does indeed remain, if only since there is no crossing the threshold, no commericum, and by Madeline’s example during this upcoming Jubilee Year, we may even learn how to walk this perilous line.

[1] See generally John Henry Cardinal Newman, Meditations and Devotions (Templegate; Springfield, Il 1964) 125-6.

[2] Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, n. 2.

[3] Madeline Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, trans. David Louis Schindler Jr., Charles Mann (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK., 2000) 194.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Preface to the German Edition of Nous autres, gens des rues”, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK., 2000)xv.

[5] ibid, xvi.

[6] Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, 195.