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The Privilege Of Kneeling

August 21, 2019 Frontpage No Comments


Those who are not new to this “Restoring the Sacred” column know that we have visited the topic of kneeling more than once over the years. Yet it is a subject with such vast implications for the reverent celebration of the sacred liturgy and for fruitful growth in the spiritual life that it deserves a further look, especially in light of the fact that there continues to be widespread neglect of this foundational posture of Catholic worship.
Previously we have spoken of kneeling as the ultimate manifestation of reverence; here we seek to work out further dimensions of this act of adoration.
One evening recently while I was praying in a chapel, a visitor entered who, while slowly making her way up the center aisle, glanced about with wonder at the beautiful stained-glassed windows of the nave. Before I knew it, she was on her knees at the foot of the sanctuary, directly before the Tabernacle, having a personal conversation with our Lord known only to her and to Him. I had seen this many times before, a solitary soul kneeling before the altar, young and old alike, having something to ask of God, something to say to Him, spontaneously dropping to their knees to do so.
There is something about kneeling before God that ennobles man, whatever his age or condition. For of all God’s creatures, only man has the supreme privilege of being able to kneel before His Creator. When man kneels, he finds anew his proper place in the universe; he in a sense finds his way back to Eden, back to being at peace with his God.
For kneeling, perhaps more than any other posture, expresses the restoration of harmony between the Creator and the creature He has set over His creation, the reconciliation between God and man that Christ won for us by His cross. Kneeling is the supreme physical expression of the reversal of the sin of Adam, of man’s renunciation of Satan and all his works, of man’s total repudiation of Satan’s vile “Non serviam.” In fact, kneeling is our battle stance “sword in hand” against the Devil. When we kneel, it frightens Satan almost as much as when we make the sign of the cross.
When God sees us kneel down before Him, He responds like the father of the Prodigal Son upon sighting his returning son. When we kneel, we take off some of our height and give it back to God. When we kneel, we as it were fold ourselves and make ourselves a little smaller so that God can take us like a little child into His loving arms.
When we kneel, it orients us to receptivity, it orients us to receiving from God. This is expressly so in the sacred liturgy, wherein we can find a multitude of examples of receiving from God on one’s knees. During the rite of priestly Ordination, each of the newly ordained priests kneels before the bishop to receive from his hands, albeit in a symbolic manner, the chalice and paten for celebrating Mass, representing the reception from God of the power to confect the Holy Eucharist.
The Sacrament of Confirmation is received by each candidate at the moment when, while kneeling before the bishop, the candidate is anointed on the forehead by the bishop with chrism. In the Sacrament of Penance, when received in the traditional manner with a screen separating the penitent from the confessor, absolution is received on one’s knees. In the rites of religious profession, the novices are presented with their religious habits and pronounce their religious vows on their knees. In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the blessed ashes of Ash Wednesday and the blessed palms of Palm Sunday are received while kneeling
Most important of all, kneeling has been for ages the ultimate physical expression of receptivity to the infinitely sacred gift of the Holy Eucharist. In the celebration of Holy Mass, it is while on our knees that we receive and welcome on the altar the sublime miracle of the consecration. Whenever we pass before the Blessed Sacrament, we wordlessly utter our grateful receptivity to His divine Presence with a genuflection. And it has been the centuries-old tradition, universally in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, and at least as a much-to-be-preferred option in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, to receive Holy Communion while kneeling.
Commenting on this traditional manner of receiving the sacrament in a 2006 essay, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand observed: “. . . kneeling in our culture is the most perfect expression of an adoring posture: that is, a bodily duplication of the proper posture of the soul. . . . For the posture of the body is bound to have an influence on the soul, just as the inner attitude of the soul calls for an adequate bodily expression” (Alice von Hildebrand, “The War on Symbolism,” Latin Mass, winter 2006, available online at
The decline of the practice of kneeling is not only a story of a venerable custom being neglected or forgotten. There has been in many cases a deliberate campaign to eradicate it, especially with regard to the Holy Eucharist, with many churches having torn down their altar rails and some having gone so far as to take out kneelers from the pews to prevent the faithful from kneeling. Challenging this opposition to kneeling in his 1973 work The Devastated Vineyard, Dietrich von Hildebrand asks:
“Is not kneeling the classical expression of adoration? It is in no way limited to being the noble expression of petition, of supplication; it is also the typical expression of reverent submission, of subordination, of looking upwards, and above all it is the expression of humble confrontation with the absolute Lord: adoration. Chesterton said that man does not realize how great he is on his knees. Indeed man is never more beautiful than in the humble attitude of kneeling, turned towards God….
“Should kneeling perhaps be prohibited because it evokes associations with feudal times, because it is no longer fitting for ‘democratic’ modern man?…And why can the faithful no longer kneel beside one another at the Communion rail — which is after all a great expression of community…?” (The Devastated Vineyard, Harrison, NY, Roman Catholic Books, 1985 ed., p. 67).
When we kneel to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, or kneel to pray anywhere else, we predispose ourselves to receptivity, to receiving from God in prayer His graces, His words to us, His inspirations, His teachings. One might say we have better hearing when we kneel, our ears opened and more acutely tuned and oriented to hearing the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) of Almighty God. Kneeling is our bodily profession of faith, and our bodily repudiation of heresy. For by kneeling in Catholic worship, we acknowledge that what we believe has been handed down to us, that truth is not of our own making, but rather a gift to be received, given from above, a gift to be greeted with humility and gratitude.
Children seem to love it when an adult, instead of talking to them from a standing position, kneels down on the floor to converse with them at their level, to enter their little world, as it were. Our good God did this for us when He knelt down, as it, were, descending to the Earth, descending to our lowly level, our little world, by His Incarnation. Is it not fitting then, that we should go to meet this loving God of ours on our knees?
In paintings and sculptures of the Annunciation, our Lady is most often depicted on her knees as the Angel Gabriel addresses her, an artistic expression of the Blessed Virgin’s total receptivity to the will and plan of God. In these depictions the Angel Gabriel is also usually in a kneeling posture as an expression of reverence for the divine message entrusted to him and of reverence for the woman chosen to become the Mother of God.
During the recitation of the Nicene Creed at all Sunday and major feast-day Masses in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, and at the Masses of Christmas and the Annunciation in the Ordinary Form, the words “descendit de caelis” (“came down from heaven” — Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, The Roman Missal — ©2010 ICEL) serve as a signal to all to kneel for the Creed’s proclamation of the Incarnation, man as it were descending to the dust of the Earth from which he was fashioned to hail the descent to Earth of his Creator.

“I Fled Him”

Kneeling also expresses the joy of totally surrendering ourselves to God. There is a unique happiness in “giving in” to God, in letting Him have His way with us. I recall a conversation I had some time ago with a gentleman who told me how after being away from the practice of the faith for years he had finally “surrendered” to God by returning to the sacraments, and what a joy it was for him to have done so.
The relentless and tireless “Hound of Heaven,” as Francis Thompson memorably named our Lord, had at last caught His prey, not to make an end of him, but to make a new beginning of him, not to take his life, but rather to give him eternal life — the loving God who will pursue us to the ends of the Earth to make us His:
“I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him down the arches of the years. . . . I hid from Him….From those strong Feet that followed, followed after. . . . That voice is round about me like a bursting sea: ‘. . .Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!. . . Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee / Save Me, save only Me?…Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’ (Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven,” in Selected Poems of Francis Thompson, London, Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1923 ed., pp. 51, 56).
Whenever we kneel, it takes us back to that blissful moment when we stopped running from God. There is no better posture for meeting God than this, for wherever and whenever we kneel to pray, it turns us “ad orientem,” it turns us to face God with reverence and humility. And in this supreme gesture of receptivity and self-surrender to God, we likewise articulate our supreme response to Him: the total gift of ourselves to Him. “Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will exalt you” (James 4:10).

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