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.
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.
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.
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.