A Note on Kneeling

About this article

This short essay explores the historical perspective of kneeling and gives a meaningful reflection on this act of reverence and supplication.

IT WASN'T UNTIL I COULD NO LONGER kneel that I began to savor the lovely simplicity of this ancient act, and guess at its provenance, and savor its humility, and notice it not only in Mass but in many other aspects of life--proposing marriage, laboring in the garden, accepting knighthood, burying the bird slain by the cat, retrieving socks that have leaped from the overburdened laundry basket, listening to very small children.

So simple an act, the folding of the body onto its knees, and done in as many idiosyncratic ways as there are idiosyncratic human beings. At Mass these days, no longer quite supple enough to fold that far, I sit back in my pew as the rest of the congregation begins to kneel and wince as my children flop to their knees with the careless recklessness of the rubbery young, and watch entranced as my wife contracts with her usual pliant grace, and empathize with the old and sore as they slowly creak to their knees like old horses closing up shop for the night.

Kneeling must have originated first as a gesture of submission to a greater power. Catholic theologian Father Jeffrey Sobosan, C.S.C. has observed that kneeling really is a presentation of the head, the seat of all five senses, to a higher authority--an offering of your head as acknowledgment of that person or person's sway over your very life. Think of the decapitation ritual, for example, which requires kneeling by the condemned so that the executioner can get a good angle on the head of the unfortunate executionee. (Saint Thomas More was famous for his courtesy in presenting his head to his decapitator, as was the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero.)

Curtseying, bowing from the waist, genuflecting, and bowing the head alone are all diminished variations of kneeling--minor-league kneelings, as it were, mini-kneelings, gestures toward kneeling but all as a family are acts of reverence, awe, gratitude, supplication, and submission before the presence or idea or sign of the Creator.

So the body bends before the blessed, and we act out the reverence we feel before the king of kings and his works and creations--in the Mass, in Confession, at novenas, in moments of prayer, sometimes while looking for socks. Mostly the act is deliberate but sometimes it is a reaction: I have seen people forced to their knees by news of sudden death, by the birth of a child, even once by the stunning presence--or more accurately, the stunning absence--of the Grand Canyon, seen for the first time in a long life.

We are not the only creatures to bend before our betters. Many biologists have noted that submission to a dominant being is a trait of many mammals, particularly the more intelligent and social ones. The great American biologist Edward O. Wilson has speculated in his book Consilience (Knopf, 1998) that the elaborate signals of respect used in religion are close cousins to the hierarchical semiotics of higher mammals as well as hallmarks of religious groups' evolutionary success as close-knit communities.

I am struck not by the biological semiotics of kneeling, however, but by the sheer poetry and clarity of the act. Faced with the awesome, we drop to our knees, we deliberately reduce ourselves, we abandon at least some of our precious status and power. On a high hill in Massachusetts once, by the sea, I fell to my knees to propose marriage, a moment of enormous power and mystery.

And because a remarkable woman said yes, I have knelt often since, mostly to console our children or to see what they saw or to arrive at their level so that we might converse and regard each other as equals rather than as child and remote, awesome father. A friend of mine knelt once to listen carefully to my small daughter, a quiet act, a sign of his egolessness and his respect.

In a way, Jesus Christ is himself a sort of respectful kneeling on the part of God the Father, is he not? The Father inclined to our level by sending his Son as one of us, God made man by woman, a thin, dusty, prickly, confusing Jewish preacher before whom people kneel left and right in the gospels--as we kneel before him today (in Mass, during the other sacraments, at ritual and casual moments of awe and power); and as we kneel before saints, as men and women privileged to have lived and died his message so completely; as we kneel, occasionally, before popes and cardinals and bishops and priests and nuns and brothers and monks and deacons, in respect for the way they have given their lives and talents to trouble others for Christ; and as we kneel, occasionally, before each other, as miracles who house the love of Christ in our hearts, not to mention our bony lovely knees.

By Brian Doyle, editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland in Oregon. He is also the author of Credo, which includes this article and many others. Brian and his father, Jim Doyle, are also the authors of Two Voices (Liguori Publications, 1996), a collection of their essays.


This article first appeared in U.S. Catholic magazine and is reprinted here by permission of the author and U.S. Catholic. For more helpful articles from U.S.Catholic, visit their web site at http://www.uscatholic.org.

Published February 1, 1999.