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Genu-reflections: deep knee bends prompt deep thoughts on the spirituality of gesture.

DURING A RECENT RENOVATION OF OUR PARISH CHURCH the daily chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved came under the wrecking ball. So when the tabernacle was moved back to the main church, the congregation had to return to the practice of genuflecting before we enter the pew. The eucharistic ministers and celebrant helped people remember by genuflecting before the tabernacle when taking or returning consecrated hosts.

Genuflecting can be uncomfortable and awkward when one does not do it as a matter of course. It can even be a minor health risk for older people and those who are physically challenged. I always thought my balance was good, but "bending the knee" (which is what the word genuflection means) involves co-ordination and a weight shift that can be tricky if you aren't used to doing it.

Genuflecting has been a part of religious and liturgical practice from the earliest times. While pagan Rome expressed reverence with the hand over the mouth and a turn of the body, it was the East that introduced bowing and prostration. In the early church, standing, extending or raising the arms, and kneeling were common forms of gestural spirituality. Over time kneeling became recognized as a form of penitence. Only in the 16th century did genuflecting or kneeling in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament become a common practice.

In the Eastern church kneeling continues to be a sign of penitence and is far less common than bowing or prostration as signs of deep reverence. The Western church retains prostration, as those who have been to an ordination know. As part of the ceremony, the candidates for ordination lie prostrate in the sanctuary.

In the West, one of the most solemn instances of genuflection comes on Good Friday. Recorded in the Roman Missal, the solemn Prayers of the Faithful include instructions to kneel, then pause, then rise. The Liturgy of the Hours also retains the instruction to kneel while praying a special set of prayers every Wednesday and Friday during Advent and Lent.

"Gestural spirituality" can take many forms: from attitudes for private prayer to the public expressions of piety, penitence, or reverence. The posture of our bodies, like the manner of our dress, can contribute as much as detract from prayer, devotion, or attention. While we can pray in any position--kneeling, lying in bed, or standing in the shower (a Jesuit spiritual writer said this)--the habit of slovenly posture, like carelessly thrown-on clothes, can diminish our prayer life. There can be no "grunge spirituality."

I have come to appreciate the spirituality of genuflection. Penitence, reverence, and humility are all involved. This awareness has affected how I see other gestures as well. Making the sign of the cross while genuflecting is common. Bowing or holding hands (or extending and raising the hands) at the Our Father are other familiar forms of gestural spirituality. Exchanging a handshake, an embrace, or a kiss at the sign of peace can be a form of piety. All these powerful human gestures signify our devotion.

MORE YOUNG PEOPLE SEEM AWARE OF GESTURAL SPIRITUALITY than I would have thought. At Pentecost Sunday Mass at the Abbey Church of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, the monks filed in and took their places in the choir stalls around the altar. During Mass, at the solemn incensing of the congregation, a young man next to me responded to the acolyte's bow with a bow every bit as reverential and profound as that of the acolyte. I've also been pleased to see young parents teaching their children to dip the holy water, make the sign of the cross, and genuflect before they enter the pew. At times like this, it seems we are reclaiming our tradition from the body up.

Now our church's renovations are complete. The Blessed Sacrament is back in the newly renovated daily chapel. At Mass some people continue to genuflect; others have returned to a pause and a bow to the altar before entering the pew. If we have learned something besides cheerful patience during the months of renovation, perhaps it is to give greater attention to our gestural spirituality.

ED BLOCK JK, professor of English at Marquette University and a member of St. Alphonsus Parish in Greendale, Wisconsin.
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Title Annotation:practicing catholic
Author:Block, Ed, Jr.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Words:710
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