Should we kneel: a response

by Fr. Seraphim Gisetti

Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ;

O Son of God, Who rose from the dead, save us who sing to You: Alleluia.

Father Michael Koblosh's article "Should we kneel on Sundays" (O.N.E., April 1995), assumes that the answer to the general question "Should we kneel?" is a YES. However, having attended services in many of the churches in our diocese, I have found that most individuals do not kneel in church even on weekdays, even during the Diocesan Assembly.

Before going further, let's take a look at what is meant by the word "kneeling." The Orthodox Church has always recognized that the physical attitude of an individual during prayer or worship is important.

We often speak of the Church as including all the senses in her worship, but we usually limit our concepts to the five senses. However, for the Church, our kinesthetic sense ­ the sense of body movement and body position ­ is just as important as smell, taste, touch, hearing or vision.

In fact, the Church has recognized eight positions of prayer and worship: standing upright, sitting, inclining of the head and neck (what is called a "bow"), bowing at the waist ("deep bow"), touching our forehead to the floor ("bow to the earth" ­ popularly known as a "prostration"), bending one's knees ("kneeling"), standing on one's knees (also, improperly, called "kneeling"), and holding a bow to the earth ("full prostration").

There is a ninth action that is seen in many churches today a bow with the addition of touching one's hand to the floor. That is either a pietistic addition to a deep bow or a replacement of a prostration. In the latter case, I believe it was begun by people who could no longer make a prostration because of their health, but has been taken over as a "replacement" prostration.

The eight actions are performed by both the clergy and the laity at various times in the services. Though most eliminate as many as five of the actions, replacing them with just three standing upright, bowing the head, and sitting whether appropriately or inappropriately. Appropriate sitting is when it is called for, such as during the Kathisma, while inappropriate sitting is done by custom, such as when the Royal Doors are closed or during all litanies.

Each of these eight positions has its own distinct term in Greek (and in Slavonic). Only in English have we not established appropriate terminology as yet. Thus, we speak of "kneeling" which should mean bending a knee to the ground and manage to confuse all activities in which a knee touches the ground. We speak of "prostration" despite the fact that lying on the ground (being prostrate) is not one of the eight actions.

As a result, there is a lot of confusion, especially when reading the fathers or the Canons of the Church in translation. The same confusion often exists because the words for "prayer" and "worship" are also often confused and assumed to mean the same thing when they, also, are quite distinct in Greek and Slavonic.

So, when the Fathers speak of "standing," we need to be very careful to know which term they are using because they can be referring to "standing on one's knees" as well as "standing upright."

At the same time, when they speak of not "kneeling during prayer," we need to be very careful not to assume that they are categorically saying that no knee should touch the ground. Such things are simplifications due to the limitations of English terminology and not their intent at all.

But why should Christians use any of the eight actions beyond simple standing upright in church? The answer comes from the Gospels. All of the actions were either performed by the Lord Himself, or by various individuals to Him.

Thus, when our Lord is praying in the garden of Gethsemane, He "places His knees down (on the ground) and prays." (Luke 22:41); the same thing that we do in the "Kneeling Prayers" of Pentecost we "again and again, bending our knees, placing them down (on the ground), let us pray to the Lord." For each action, there are appropriate correspondences, both from the Gospels and the services.

So why don't we do all these things any more? Two reasons ignorance and laziness. So many people who come to church are not sure of what action to perform at what time, so they watch the older folks. As one ages, one's joints tend to ache and one's mobility tends to become limited, so many of our older members cannot perform many of the actions that they used to do with ease. So as they do less, so does the entire congregation, because everyone else is following them.

The second problem is the very effective but misguided teaching that no knee should touch the ground on a Sunday. This is where ignorance and laziness combine. Kneeling and prostration is work. Prostrations are impossible in any church with pews (which means most parishes in New England), unless you leave the pew and move to the aisle at the appropriate times, which causes noise and confusion.

So many of our pews are set so closely together that even kneeling is uncomfortable, and in those parishes without pews, the thickness of the carpeting leaves much to be desired. Over all, the general approach towards having a knee on the ground for any length of time, in almost all of the churches of the New England Diocese (and most other churches in America), seems to be to make things as difficult and uncomfortable as possible.

Our churches are built and furnished to stand and sit in, not to kneel in. This is in contrast to the pictures of churches in Greece or the Holy Land or Russia in past centuries, when they were filled with fairly thick oriental carpets, precisely to allow people to stand on the knees without permanent damage.

Throughout the centuries, kneeling (whether standing on one's knees, or bending one's knees in prayer), has been one of the foremost weapons in the spiritual fight against pride.

In giving up this physical lowering of ourselves, we also give up much of the battle against the "I." There are three reasons why Christians kneel: as a sign of humility, as a sign of repentance, and as a sign of awe. The physical act of lowering oneself is simple to do, yet is one of the most difficult spiritual acts of Christian piety because it runs counter to our prideful image of ourselves.

So often we see ourselves as good people yes, we sin, we transgress, but overall, we see ourselves as basically good. If we kneel, it is because it is a custom, not because it reflects our spiritual state.

How many Christians truly feel unworthy to receive the Body and Blood of Christ? How many of us see ourselves as publicans in a world of Christians? How many of us, as we recite the prayer before Communion, truly mean that we are the chief sinners in all the world? The answer, unfortunately, is very few.

Why is this true? Why have we lost the sense of sin and sinfulness in our lives? Why doesn't our conscience convict us more thoroughly than it does? Go to a church for a weekday or Saturday service; how many people kneel? How many of us lower ourselves before God, our fellow Christians, and the world? Again, not many.

Both pride and the devil's temptation have convinced us to stand upright in church. Sitting is acceptable, kneeling ­ well, that is old fashioned and we know better now. And yet the First Ecumenical Council wanted us to kneel in prayer for 271 out of 365 days of the year call it three fourths of the time and we, for the sake of the letter of the law, have given it up entirely.

At the same time, are we truly following even the letter of the law? The Fathers distinguished between prayer and worship. The communal act of the Church is worship. Prayer is an individual act, always.

Even in those circumstances that several individuals pray the same words simultaneously, the understanding has always been that each prayer must come from each individual's heart. In other words, what I feel as I pray has no bearing on what you feel as you pray. That is why the priest prays so regularly at every Sacrament, that the Grace of the Holy Spirit will come down regardless of the priest's sins or lack of faith.

Thus, when the Fathers speak of standing "in prayer" they do not mean standing "in worship" nor do they mean standing "in a service," nor do they mean that your knee must never touch the floor on a Sunday. And, when the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council refer to "those who kneel in prayer" and establish that "prayer (shall) be made to God standing," they are saying nothing about kneeling in worship or during a service.

To fall down before God, whether in a bow to the earth or by standing on one's knees or by bending of our knees is an act of worship of creature to Creator. We are not worthy, we are not capable, of being children of God without His intervention, His Mercy and His Grace.

Kneeling should never be a ritual, nor should prostrations be a mindless activity. They should be reflections of our love for God. Unlike the Roman Catholic West, most kneeling and prostrations in the Orthodox Church have very little to do with repentance. The prostrations of St. Ephraim's prayer, at the Alleluia at Matins, at the penitential troparia at Lenten Vespers or Com-pline, the holding of a bow to the earth during "Let my prayer arise," or "My soul, my soul, why are you sleeping?" and other similar instances are the only penitential times.

The standing on one's knees during the Eucharistic Canon, the bows of various depths when the Mysteries of the Eucharist are brought forth, the bow to the earth before receiving the Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ are all instances of awe or humility, not penitence.

The real answer to the question, "Should we kneel?" or even "Should we kneel on Sunday?" is to be found by looking at our lives as Christians. It is a sad fact that the Church in America is becoming, more and more, a "Sunday" Church. The vast majority of Orthodox Christians attend church only on Sundays even including Saturday evening Vespers, which is still a service belonging to the Resurrection cycle.

It is useless to say that people should come to church more often they don't. We must teach people where they are rather than where we would like them to be, and where they are is on Sunday.

For almost two thousand years, the act of kneeling has been one of the most potent weapons against pride. To this day, find a humble person, and you will find a person who kneels, regularly and consistently.

It is this weapon that we are depriving ourselves of when we need it the most. This doesn't mean that everyone who kneels will instantly and successfully become humble, but we are making it that much har-der for ourselves by removing it from our repertoire of spiritual and pious acts.

Because we are a "Sunday Church," we need to reintroduce kneeling on Sunday for no other reason than to return to the proportions envisioned by the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. There are 52 Sundays in a year; if we keep the eight Sundays of Pascha and the two or three Sundays from the Nativity through the Theophany as "kneeling free," we will still keep the vision of Pascha and the "Winter Pascha" as special times while reintroducing the physical aspects of humility and awe and adoration into the lives of most Christians.

As Fr. Koblosh stated, whether we kneel or not, is not going to be the reason God accepts us into His Kingdom. Our salvation depends on our faith and our humility. Let's not throw out one of our best weapons against the sin of pride.

(Fr. Seraphim is the former rector of Ss. Cyril and Methodius Church in Terryville, CT)

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