…points back to. The ripples point back to the rock, the cosmic radiation to the origins of the universe, children to their parents, the lover to his beloved, the heavens to the glory of their Maker; it seems self-evident. Perhaps this is why the South has always been so Christ-haunted. The great Northern cities that emanated from man and his money can only ever point back to money and man, while the slow, dusty Southern fields can only ever point back to their slow and dusty God. Not that there’s any real difference crossing the Mason-Dixie any more, outside of the sudden and shocking lack of sweet tea, but you take my point.
We need to understand this intricate step in the Universal waltz — this witness that comes from emanation — if only to pin down our own place in it. So often in our awkward relationships with the Creator of all things, we are of the belief that we must react, react and always react to Him. It’s a silly belief. Let me explain myself.
There are two ways to kneel. One is in reaction, the other in ritual. A man might kneel as the result of being struck by the power of a passing King, or he might kneel in imitation of being struck by that same power. The latter method isn’t bad, by any stretch. Our man would hardly be called out for not being struck with awe every time a King rolled by. Indeed, it’d be a poor, miserable man deriding himself for merely going through the motion of kneeling.
This is true of all reverence and gesture. As far as I’m aware, women do not refuse to walk through doors opened by men who lack a brimming love for women. We do not refuse to clap until we feel an innate desire to slap our hands together. We do not remain silent during the national anthem until we are struck by the greatness of our nation. We do not refuse our spouses a kiss until we are in awe of their beauty. (Well we could, I suppose, but then we’d be jerks.) In short, we do not disdain doing a thing in ritual instead of doing it in reaction.
And yet so much of modern Christianity is in the habit of promoting this very idea; reaction over ritual. We are to do as the Spirit calls us to do, we are to speak what the Lord puts on our heart, we are to pray spontaneously, we are — in short — to react to God. And of course, none of this is bad. In fact, it is very, very good! The problem comes when reaction is exalted and ritual damned as mere hypocrisy or scrupulousness. It is most often termed as such: “It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing to Mass, what’s important is your heart. It’s not about how well you kneel, or fold your hands, or bow or genuflect; what’s important is your relationship with Christ.” It otherwise termed as: “Everything we do we should do from the heart. It is hypocritical to bow if we don’t mean it.” This is all well and good, but it begs the question: Well what if your heart is full of angst and dryness? Should you not then kneel? What if your relationship with Christ sucks? Should you forsake ritual, remain true to reaction, and lay on the floor?
Seen like this, reverent posture — the kneeling, bowing and such — is seen all wrong. It is considered the posture of either holy men or hypocrites. But any historical glimpse at our holiest men shows an awful lot of them dancing naked in the woods. No, I hold that reverence is the posture of sinners. St. Thomas Aquinas fell to his knees in angelic rapture, in direct reaction to God. We kneel in imitation, in ritual, in recognition that what forced the Saint to his knees is here with us. We kneel despite our wandering thoughts and fickle hearts. And well we should, for all that emanates from points back to. We fold our hands not because we are good, but because we are so very bad, and folding our hands points us back to God. All reverent gestures are reactions to God, and thus performing these gestures points us back to Him. In kneeling we imitate those struck to their knees, and as a small ripple might be caught up in a larger one, the performance of ritual can lead to authentic reaction. Opening doors for women leads men to appreciate women more. Singing the national anthem makes a man more patriotic. And kissing his wife, even if its the last thing he wants to do, may very well make a man more romantic. And thus we genuflect every day of our lives, in preparation for the day that the majesty radiating from the tabernacle forces our legs from under us, and we buckle onto one knee.
We should dress nicely for Mass. We should fold our hands. We should genuflect. Not in recognition of our holiness, but in recognition of our sinfulness. For only if we are comfortable with reverence when it is mere ritual will be comfortable with reverence when it is true reaction; when we are urged, like David, to dance naked before the Lord.