Project Canterbury

Tracts on Principles of Divine Worship

No. 2. Bodily Postures in God's House

Published by the Men's Guild, St. Ignatius' Church, New York, n.d.

I. Standing before God.

The spirit of reverence in the soul will show itself in reverent attitudes of the body, at all times, in God's House. Not alone during common worship but whenever we are within church-doors, we are in a special sense ''before God;'' and recollection of this fact should lead us to stand or walk before Him there with reverence in some degree like unto that which we should have when kneeling on our knees before His altar.

In the Mass, we present, in connection with the offering of the Lamb of God, "ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, living and holy sacrifice" unto God. The sacrament of the Body of Christ is given to us to preserve our bodies and souls unto everlasting life. Bodies, as well as souls, so dedicated and hallowed to God's service, ought to be particularly subject to that service whenever they are within His House.

Therefore, on entering into the Courts of the Lord's House, we should walk, or stand, conscious of a special presence of God, at once His worshippers and worshipping Him, in a higher manner than when standing or walking in the street, albeit there also recollected of the Divine omnipresence.

As we walk in God's House, whether it be to go to the place we shall occupy during a public service or while engaged in private devotion, or in passing at any time through or from one point to another in the church, there may (and should) be something of the nature of worship in the act of walking; negatively, in the absence of a sauntering gait, an over quick, tripping step, or a bustling, fidgety movement, which commonly betray either forgetfulness of God's presence or over much self-consciousness; and positively, in the spirit of prayer and reverence for a place far holier than that of which the patriarch Jacob was constrained to say, "How dreadful (how full of awe) is this place. This is none other than the House of God; this is the Gate of Heaven!"

2. Bowing the head and bending the knee.

The traditional practice of Christian people has been to make some special act of reverence towards God's altar and towards the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle, or (it may be) exposed on the altar, whenever they entered or went forth from a church-building.

The common Western usage at present is for the worshipper to genuflect (i.e., bend the right knee so that it nearly or quite touches the pavement) when he comes in sight of or passes before the chief altar in a church.

With us, the practice prevails of distinguishing between the altar alone, and the altar where there is a reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. We on entering or leaving a church, bow the head profoundly towards the altar when there is no reservation, and genuflect when the Sacrament is present.

The several acts of bowing, genuflecting and kneeling are all akin to each other, and are acts of greater or lesser reverence, to be made in accordance with the traditional ceremonial rules of the Church, and with a proper regard for the different degrees of reverence which may be required, and for the manner of showing reverence according to the dignity of the occasion or of the person towards whom or by whom the act is made.

Bowing the head and bending the knee are kindred acts of reverence, yet they do not always go together, nor are they always common to both men and women. Ordinarily, when a genuflection is made the head ought not to be bowed; but when we kneel on both knees the head also may be bowed.

All alike, men women and children, genuflect towards the Blessed Sacrament when they come to receive the Holy Communion, also whenever they pass before the Sacrament, also on entering or leaving a church where the Sacrament is reserved, and at the words "and was incarnate * * * and was made man" in reciting the Creed in the Mass.

But at the mention of our Saviour's holy Name, when it occurs while the people are standing, and also when an act of reverence is made to the altar alone, men do not genuflect but only bow their heads, and women bend the knee without bowing their heads.

This distinction, "as it hath been accustomed," is similar to others ordered by holy Church. For example, men must bare and women must cover their heads within God's House; and the order in which the Rubrics require them to come to receive either Confirmation or the holy Communion, is for men to come first and women last.

The acts of reverence that are to be made at the mention of the holy Name, are proper also at the mention of the Blessed Trinity, and should be made also (but less profoundly,) at the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and at the name of the Saint whose festival is being celebrated.

3. Kneeling.

Anciently, Christian worshippers knelt during Divine Service in God's House, only on fast-days and days that were not festivals or not in festal seasons, and in penitential services or during the penitential parts of a" service. Yet for the sake of doing away with abuses, the Church of England authorities in the 16th and 17th centuries enjoined kneeling in many instances where formerly the more common posture had been that of standing. The eighteenth of the English Canons of 1603 requires that all "shall reverently kneel upon their knees when the General Confession, Litany and other prayers are read." Both Canon and Rubrics direct the people to kneel humbly "upon their knees;" thereby condemning, as incongruous and irreverent, the posture of sitting and bending forward with bowed head.

Kneeling is enjoined upon the people during the prayers, because it is a fitting posture for penitents; and at other times ( as, for example, when receiving the holy Communion), because thereby faith in, raid due reverence for, the mysteries of the Christian religion may be the better preserved.

4. Standing during Prayer.

With us, so common has become the custom of kneeling, on all occasions, for prayer, that we do not readily perceive the fitness, at certain times and places, of the ancient custom of standing in prayer. Our Saviour Christ referred to this custom when He said, "And when ye stand praying, forgive.'' To this day the members of the Church in Oriental Christendom largely preserve the custom of standing while engaged in public worship. In Eastertide they never kneel, thus adhering faithfully to the ancient rule which forbade kneeling during seasons of great joy.

Wherever, in our parish-churches, the ceremonial observances which belong to our English Rite have been restored, we may witness, at Solemn Vespers and Solemn Mass, a perpetuation, in some measure, of the ancient custom of standing in prayer: For then, not alone the officiating Priest but also his attendant clergy, and the acolytes who assist in the sanctuary, stand oft-times when the people in the body of the church are kneeling. And this they do as closely associated with the officiating Priest, standing generally when he stands, and kneeling when he kneels.

5. Standing to praise God.

However diverse the ceremonies at other times, all Christendom has ever been at agreement in requiring every person in the church to stand upright at the Gospel in the Mass and to look towards the Book of the Gospels. Even the Bishop, who often sits while others stand, rises, lays aside his mitre, and stands facing towards the Book while the Gospel is read. All stand because of the very reverent regard the Church has always had for the holy Gospel, in which the very words of Christ are recorded. We should stand (except hindered by infirmity) without any support, erect and attentive, not reading in our books, but reverently listening to (as it were) the Voice of the Lord Christ.

We stand also when the Creed is said, as in readiness to defend as well as to confess "the faith once for all delivered to the Saints." And we stand always during the Gloria in excelsis in the Mass, because (with us) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ is then present on the altar, and because the Rubric expressly requires this posture at that great hymn of praise to God. For the same reasons the standing posture is obligatory whenever a metrical hymn is sung in lieu of the Gloria in excelsis.

The people stand also when they are censed, that thereby they may manifest their reverent regard for the incense which is a token and emblem of the merits of Christ.

6. Uplifted Hands.

In ancient times, when Christian people stood or knelt in prayer, they were not indifferent to what they did with their hands. The first Christians were converts from the Jews, with whom the literal application of the passages in God's word about hands uplifted in prayer, was a traditional custom from the beginning. "Thus will I bless Thee," says the Psalmist, "I will lift up my hands in Thy Name'' This gesture in prayer, seems to have been valued by the Jews, not alone because of the authority for it which they gathered from their sacred Scriptures but also because it was the posture taken by Moses in the prayer which brought victory for the Israelitish forces in their struggle with the Amalekites. Christian people in retaining this custom, modified it by requiring the hands not to be uplifted ( as was the Jewish custom ) at arms length above the head but spread out at the height of and about as wide apart as the shoulders, and thus disposed somewhat after the manner of our Lord's hands upon the cross. St. Paul, inspired of God wills ''that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands."

The hands of the Priest, when officiating at the altar, are thus uplifted and extended, or else joined, because the ceremonial rules of the Church, retaining and perpetuating the ancient customs, so appoint.

Among the people the more common posture, after the earliest ages, has been to join the hands, palm against palm, before and about the height of the breast. The clasping of hands in prayer is of Saxon origin, and equally with the older method (of joining) calls for an uplifting at least as high as the breast.

7. Sitting.

The ancient rigour which kept people standing or kneeling during Divine Service, and made no provision for their sitting down in church at any time, has been relaxed in Western Christendom, so that we are now allowed to sit down during the reading of the Lessons in the Daily Offices and during the Sermon in the Mass.

Long before seats were provided for the people, the Church was wont to act on the principal that sitting is normally the posture of authority; standing, of subservience; and kneeling that of supplication. Therefore the Bishop or the Priest sat while preaching and the people stood to hear him. And seats were provided in the sanctuary, for the clergy; not because the clergy were infirm and the people strong, but because the seats and the sitting posture betokened official authority, and, according to the position and excellence of the seats, the different grades of authority.

While we may welcome, at the proper times, the restful posture of sitting, we have need, when thus released from the necessity of some bodily exertion (as in standing or kneeling), to take heed lest we become less reverent and attentive. Especially is this likely to be the case by reason of failure to guard the eyes. If while engaged in prayer, or in praising God, some care must be exercised to keep our eyes uplifted towards the Cross, the altar or the Blessed Sacrament, or else reverently cast down, care is also required to keep these gateways into the soul guarded from the admission of wandering or evil thoughts, while we are sitting at our ease.

Blessed shall we be, if while in church, inspired by the cross, the altar, and the pictures or images of Saints and Angels, we see nothing that does not aid our devotion; and by preserving good attention, and right intention, at all times during the Mass or Offices, we so serve the Lord, that when He judges us for our "deeds done in the body,'' we may be rewarded and not condemned.

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