“Here am I.”
“Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet,
for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
(Exodus, chapter 3)
Recently I have been praying in the mornings. I created for myself a place to pray. I face east, light a candle or two, and kneel. I pray novenas and rosaries, move the beads in my fingers one by one, cross myself, bow my head. It’s not much, but praying this way a fairly new thing for me. I feel drawn to a more physical expression of prayer.
What is it about kneeling? Holding beads? Candles? What is it about these physical things? Some might say they are trappings, or hindrances, or worse.
Moses was asked to take off is shoes. Why? Did God need this? I doubt it. Did Moses? I’m sure he did.
During the Penitential Act of the Mass we strike our breast three times while saying this: “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.”
We speak and we strike. It’s deep truth, it’s of the heart, it’s also physical. We confess physically, we worship physically. We bow. We kneel.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
I am curious about the physicality of worship; the actual, physical nature of worship. Perhaps more than curious, because the emphasis on the physicality of faith is one of the characteristics that drew me towards the Catholic Church and away from my Protestant roots. I found a richness in Catholicism and a kind of poverty in evangelical Protestantism. I’m sure some would disagree with me.
I also find those verses in Holy Scripture that point towards, or mention, physical acts of worship more than merely interesting. We are physical beings. Christ is physical (fully man). He drank, he ate, he knelt in prayer, he climbed up the mountain, walked into the garden and out to the wilderness. He stood, strolled, sat, slept. He broke bread. He went to the temple. He was whipped, beaten, crucified. He is God become man — the “physical act” par excellence. He worshiped with his body. Our bodies are part of our worship.
It is in the physical world that the intangible meets us. A kiss seals a courtship. The sexual act seals a marriage A ring betokens the marriage. A diploma crowns the years of schooling. A doctoral robe bespeaks intellectual achievement. A uniform and stripes announce a recruit’s training. A crown girds the brow that rules England. This symbolism bespeaks the sort of creature we are. To excise all of this from piety and worship is to suggest that the gospel beckons us aways from our humanity into a disembodied realm. It is to turn the Incarnation into a mere doctrine. (Thomas Howard, Evangelical is Not Enough)
Perhaps four bare walls and a pulpit is the symbol of a disembodied, even gnostic, faith. Perhaps the non-biblical, historically recent “doctrine” of the rapture speaks of that same desire to be free of the physical. Perhaps denying the Real Presence is just an example of fear — fear of our humanness, of our bodies, that God is actually one of us.
I can’t say. I wonder.
But I know the physicality of worship is everywhere in scripture, even in moments we might overlook.
And when our days there were ended,
we departed and went on our journey;
and they all, with wives and children,
brought us on our way till we were outside the city;
and kneeling down on the beach we prayed and bade one another farewell.
Kneeling on the beach. I would love to have a time machine. What is it about kneeling? Why not stand in a circle and hold hands? Or just stand around smiling with “Jesus in their hearts” or some such thing? No, they knelt — with Jesus in their hearts I’m sure, with love for each other, with the Spirit at work amongst them I’m sure, but they also knelt.
Is there a law at play here? I think so. Our human nature seems created for worship, and to do so with common, predictable, even specific kinds of actions. Why wouldn’t there be some similarity across humanity, across space and time? Scripture tells us this is true. Our nature, including heart, mind, and body, seem to cry out for a totality of worship — a combination of heart, mind, and body together in action.
We know that some situations just call for physical action, whether worship or supplication or awe…
Then Abram fell on his face…
Then she fell on her face…
And Jo′ab fell on his face…
(2 Samuel 14:22)
…and they fell upon their faces…
…he fell on his face…
…falling on his face…
(1 Corinthians 14:25)
Across the ages, welling up from within their humanness, individuals act in similar ways. There is a physical connection, built into the human body, connected to mind and heart, to situations and contexts that call forth acts of worship, deference, and awe. Is this not a law of nature, of creation itself?
Does a law mean there is a right way and wrong way to worship? I think so — at least some ways seem better than others (I’m no expert).
Does a law mean one is shackled, suppressed, controlled? No. A law is the path to freedom — like the athlete at play, or the rules of the road making driving safely possible, or a structure of government laying the foundation for civil society. You don’t have to kneel, bow your head, and certainly not light a candle or face east. But if you do, you just might be doing something good for your soul — something fitted to your very being itself. It’s your choice. It’s a mystery.
Do we “make up” the law? No. We discover it, like a miner discovering the vein of gold, or an explorer finding new lands, or a scientist understanding a fundamental rule of nature. The law is like a gift — something good and precious, and for our benefit.
Do we need to discover this law anew every day? No. We can listen and observe those who have come before us and have already discovered the law. But we can experience it fresh every day, for no day is the same, and life keeps moving.
We can look to the past.
And all the men and women of Israel,
and their children, living at Jerusalem,
prostrated themselves before the temple
and put ashes on their heads
and spread out their sackcloth before the Lord.
Why does God care that we act out our hearts and minds? Why prostrate? Why ashes? Why sackcloth? Today this is a curiosity, mere archaeology — see how strange they used to behave, clearly the actions of a simplistic people, right? Incomprehensible. Inconceivable. Perhaps we have become blind and incoherent in our sophistication. Perhaps we are the simplistic ones. We lost something precious, have we not?
Okay, ashes and sackcloth may be too strange for us, but how about some appropriate form of penance? Or some act of sacrifice? It might be good for us. How about kneeling in prayer?
We don’t act out our faith for God. I don’t think He needs any of that. But we need it, because God made us this way. He created our nature, gave us the gift of worship, bid us to worship rightly because in that we find life. It is for us, not for Him. Kneel because it is good for you. Face east because you know this is a tradition of the Church; facing towards the rising of the sun, pointing towards the new day and the harkening to the beauty of the risen Christ. Can you face in another direction? Sure. Which way is better? Discover the answer in your meditations.
Moses took off his shoes. He was standing on holy ground. Where is our holy ground?
And he took a cup,
and when he had given thanks
he gave it to them,
and they all drank of it.
There is no secular world, not ultimately. There, truly, is only the sacred. What we call secular is merely that which we grab for ourselves and call ours. But it is not ours. All belongs to God. Every one and every place is holy, sacred, belonging to God, made for His purpose. Sin corrupts much of this gift. We can fashion ugliness, do terrible things, turn from God in many ways, but God can make all things new and good, even our darkest actions, even our hardest hearts. All things are God’s, true, but there are some things which are called out, for our sake, to be seen clearly as holy — places and times that require worshipful action. These are great gifts of “holy ground” for us. The greatest is the Holy Eucharist — really, truly, and substantially Christ present with us.
The cup of blessing which we bless,
is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread which we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
(1 Corinthians 10:16)
We kneel, genuflect, bow, pray. We sing, chant, speak. We go, enter, stand, sit, be. We eat. We drink.
Our bodies are made for worship.