A co-worker once complained that she went to a wedding in a Catholic Church and was so tired of kneeling, standing, sitting, and genuflecting, that she said, "Thank God I'm not Catholic." I laughed this off and told her she could use the exercise. (She could have, too!) I explained that Catholics worship with our whole bodies. We don't just sit and listen to a sermon.
When I think about it, I'm glad we Catholics have these different positions of prayers. They help me focus and think about what, and more importantly, why, I'm in a certain posture. Actually, the posture itself can be prayer.
This is why I read with interest Father Joseph Briody's presentation to the seminarians in Boston's St. John's seminary. I've copied and pasted it for you.
Adoring the Lord: Posture and Practice
Kneeling and Standing: Because kneeling is probably the most distinctive posture, let’s look at it first. “Kneeling doesn’t come from any (particular) culture … it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 185). The New Testament is full of “kneeling” – the verb is used fifty nine times there, twenty four times in the Apocalypse, which presents the heavenly liturgy as model (Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 185). Kneeling expresses adoration, the recognition of Jesus as Son of God, and it also expresses supplication. As with all bodily gestures, it is “the bearer of spiritual meaning” (Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 190). The act of kneeling or genuflecting affects the whole person. Cardinal Ratzinger states that “the man who learns to believe learns also to kneel” (Ibid., 194).
When we kneel or stand in the liturgy we look out from ourselves to the One who comes to us and draws us to himself. This is very different from the lotus position or the sitting position of oriental meditation. There “man looks into himself. He does not go away from himself to the Other but tends to sink inward, into the nothing…” (Ibid., 197) Kneeling and standing in the liturgy are distinctively Christian postures of prayer, as we are drawn out of ourselves and towards the face of Jesus Christ in whom we see the Father (Jn 14:9).
Bowing low expresses respect, humility, worship, supplication and dependence on God. Again it expresses “the spiritual attitude essential to faith.” It expresses the truth of our being. Monsignor Moroney referred to this act and spirit of bowing low before God in his opening Rector’s Talk, when speaking of the Supplices of the Roman Canon. Check it out again on the Blog.
Sitting expresses attentiveness, receptivity, readiness and willingness to learn from Christ the Master at whose feet we sit. And so we sit for the biblical readings, except for the Gospel which merits special reverence. On the other hand, other actions such as forms of dancing and applause are not part of the liturgy and are more on the level of entertainment, when we focus only on ourselves, our own closed circle and what is merely human.
At Mass: Sometimes there is some confusion over when we should genuflect or bow. We genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament when entering and leaving the sanctuary at the beginning and end of Mass. However, during Mass, we bow low to the altar because the altar is the focus during Mass. After the Consecration, the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar are the focus, and so we genuflect if passing or approaching the altar after the Consecration. After Communion, once the Blessed Sacrament has been reposed in the tabernacle, the altar becomes the focus again and we bow low before the altar.
Outside of Mass we genuflect before the Most Blessed Sacrament, when passing before the Tabernacle. During Morning Prayer, if a server is coming to read at the ambo he bows low to the altar. At Evening Prayer, because the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, a genuflection is made because at this point the exposed Blessed Sacrament on the altar is the focus. Many people like to make a double genuflection during Exposition if entering the chapel late or leaving early. This is commendable and praiseworthy. However, if you are reading or serving during holy hour then asingle, reverent genuflection towards the Blessed Sacrament is sufficient.
Last year, a new tabernacle was installed and blessed in the college chapel of St. John’s. This makes it very clear the Jesus Christ is the center of our lives here. Everything we do revolves around him. He is the living heart of our churches and our lives. Pope Paul VI reminds us that the unique presence of “the Lord glorious in heaven” is made present “on earth where Mass is celebrated” and
…[T]his existence remains present, after the sacrifice, in the Blessed Sacrament which is, in the tabernacle, the living heart of our churches. And it is our very sweet duty to honor and adore in the blessed Host which our eyes see, the Incarnate Word whom they cannot see, and who, without leaving heaven, is made present before us. ( Paul VI, Credo of the People of God, 26)
Before the Blessed Sacrament our prayer could well be that of St. John Chrysostom. He suggested that when we see the Body of Christ we should say: “Thanks to this Body, I am no longer dust and ashes. (Cf. Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 144)