All That Emanates From…

…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.

  • No One Important

    Why, then, is it the denizens of the “Christ-haunted” South who are forever denigrating “empty ritual” and bashing Catholics for engaging in such?

    And why is it always the case that the North is criticized for consisting only of “man and money,” when it was the home of immigrant Catholics who were the very incarnation of reverence and ritual. And, by the way, it’s this very attitude that is now attacked by Catholics, who cannot see the humility of these immigrants.

    Our relationship with the Creator is much more awkward than was theirs. And the notion that the South was, or is, “Christ-haunted,” whatever that even means, isn’t really borne out by the lives of Southerners themselves.

    • Paula

      I am from central Virginia (quasi-South), but I lived in the North (Massachusetts, to be precise) for two years. I know two years is not much in the long scheme of things, but it was enough for me to see that Catholicism there is rarely practiced either in ritual or “at heart”. Long gone are the days of devout immigrants. Also, and again from personal experience, the Southern Baptists, the Lutherans, the Methodists, all these and more dress x10 better for their church services than the average Catholic. We have a lot to learn from our Protestant brethren who live in the South, for, quite often, they do take ritual seriously because they have not rejected the value of tradition as many in the “enlightened” and “progressive” North have. [p.s. let it not go unsaid: I absolutely LOVED living in the North and would like to spend more time there if I can. What I have written is only to note that my life experiences have affirmed many stereotypes about the North and the South.]

      • Karyn

        That has not been my experience with church-goers here in North Carolina. I have been told that Catholics are not Christians because they use ritualized, memorized prayers, that they aren’t born again, and that they don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. And most of the church-goers I know select their churches based on their ability to go in jeans, on whether or not they like the pastor and how he preaches, and whether or not their kin go to that church. One of the big draws of the most popular church here is that they have a rock band and a screen that scrolls the lyrics – this is pretty far from most traditions I’m aware of.

      • No One Important


        All you are doing is repeating the same stereotypes against Catholics that have become standard. There are many ways of taking one’s faith seriously; the way it is done in the South is only one and not the best. Just being outrageous in one’s behavior, emoting, putting everything “out there,” doesn’t prove that one is a better Catholic than someone who may practice his or her faith in a quieter way. You have made a lot of assumptions about Northern Catholics on the basis of two years. The South is not normative.

  • SubTuumPraesidium

    I found this quote from C. S. Lewis very relevant: “Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone you will presently come to love him.”

  • RTB

    “Ritual, how could we do without it! Though it may seem to be gibberish and irreverence, though the Mass is offered up in such haste that the sacred sentence, ‘hoc est corpus meus’ was abbreviated into ‘hocus-pocus’ by the bitter protestor and has come down into our language meaning trickery, nevertheless there is a sureness and a conviction there. And just as a husband may embrace his wife casually as he leaves for work in the morning, and kiss her absent-mindedly in his comings and goings, still that kiss on occasion turns to rapture, a burning fire of tenderness and love. And with this to stay her she demands the ‘ritual’ of affection shown. The little altar boy kissing the cruet of water as he hands it to the priest is performing a rite. We have too little ritual in our lives.” Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness. Unfortunately I don’t have my copy of the book with me, so I can’t give you the page number, but I remember being struck by it when I first read it.

  • Elizabeth Anne Gill

    This really struck me. Here I lie, struck.

    Who, perchance, is/are the saints that danced naked in the woods? Or did I read that wrong?

    • Trugdor

      St Francis, King David, I’m sure St. Augustine did it sometime in his life…those are the one’s I’ve heard of

  • David

    This reminds me of a quote by Matthew Kelly “Our lives change when our habits change”. In other words, habits lead to realities.

  • Emma Hollingberry

    This is very beautiful, and very relevant. Thank you for this.

  • Emma Hollingberry

    This is very beautiful, and very relevant. Thank you for this.

  • Safia

    This is very beautiful, and very relevant. Thank you for this.

  • rightactions

    Even worse, those are her Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion clothes.