KNEEL: NO BUTTS ABOUT IT
Beware the Sajdah
May 2008By Shannon M. Jones
Shannon M. Jones is Chief Executive Officer of www.CatechismClass.com, which provides solid, authentic Catholic educational content for the 4Marks Daily Catechism Program.
American humorist Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) tapped into a fundamental human foible when he observed: "God created man in his own image and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor." Mankind, it seems, can never leave what is, as is. As we see it, everything in God's good creation needs our creative input before it can be considered "good enough" for either God or man. Hence, there will never be a shortage of innovative solutions to problems that really don't exist.
The bulletin of a parish in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Pennsylvania, recently advertised a special children's eucharistic Holy Hour that included a new mysterious new component. The ad stated that children should come to "partake in songs and prostrations." Having taken part in eucharistic adoration for many years with my young children, always emphasizing the proper etiquette — double knee genuflection, kneeling with back straight in the pews, sitting properly, praying the mysteries of the Rosary — I was annoyed by yet another scheme from the commissars of the New Liturgical Order, and somewhat curious as to what the new wrinkle was all about.
On the way into the church with four small children in tow, I passed a college professor friend who was leaving the church in a huff. He was furious that there were "kids laying all over the floor carrying on with their butts up in the air, with the parents apparently encouraging and approving of this cutesy but grossly inappropriate behavior." Continuing with his invective, he pronounced this children's Holy Hour as a "Muslim copycat fest." He warned me not to take my children inside. Convincing myself that it simply could not be as bad as he suggested, I entered the church. As it turns out, it really was that bad. I was dumbfounded by row upon row of children's derrières staring me in the face.
The children were instructed to crouch, bend over, raise their buttocks in the air, rest their foreheads on the floor, and repeat. Dozens of children were flopping up and down in this strange fashion in a pattern emblematic of the worship style practiced by Muslims. Little girls were making desperate attempts at modesty, pulling down their shirts or skirts and smoothing them over their derrières to prevent unwanted attention. Some of the little boys took advantage of this opportunity to express themselves by vocalizing gross bodily sounds, invoking laughter and carrying on in the group, all in the sanctuary of the church and during the public eucharistic adoration session.
None of the adults who were apparently in charge of this affair seemed to comprehend the significance of this perversion of Catholic etiquette. As an ordinarily easygoing mother, I'm reluctant to admit that I was shocked to witness this sacrilegious insult to the Faith and the faithful, but consoled myself with the thought that it had to be a mistake, a one-time accident, an experiment gone wrong that would never again be repeated. Imagine my surprise to find out that this new eucharistic adoration style is part of a liturgical innovation being perpetuated worldwide.
Legitimate prostration in the Catholic tradition, in which the practitioner lies prone at full length with his forehead resting on his hands, is peculiar to the ordained priesthood and is used at ordinations and on Good Friday, as well as in some religious communities. As a practice of personal piety, the laity may use the posture of prostration as an expression of humility in private.
Prostration, according to the Catholic sense of the word, has absolutely nothing to do with what was going on at the children's Holy Hour. The posture that the children were made to adopt en masse is called sajdah. It is the Muslim prayer practice of kneeling, slouching to the floor, and placing one's forehead on the ground. The Muslim sajdah and the Catholic prostration are two very different concepts. They should not — and cannot — be used interchangeably.
Catholics consistently call the action of putting one's hands together in prayer "folding," and consistently call the bending of knees on the ground "kneeling." Replacing sajdah (a foreign term) with the euphemistic "prostration" (a limited but acceptable Catholic concept) is a fraudulent attempt to convince well-meaning Catholics that an alien religious practice has disciplinary merit. The modern, un-catechized Catholic is predisposed not to question the substitution of one ecclesiastical-sounding word for another. While certainly no one would dispute the beauty and virtue of the private devotion of genuine Catholic prostration, one must question the motive for copying Muslim practices.
The purpose of putting the Blessed Sacrament on display for adoration is to provide a visual connection and a sentient encounter with the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. This ocular encounter with the consecrated Host is a test of our faith in the transubstantiated presence of Jesus Christ. Pope Clement VIII, in his apostolic constitution Graves et Diuturnae (1592), stated that eucharistic adoration offers the laity the unique chance to pray before God and that one's "prayer shall ascend without intermission before the face of the Lord." It seems to militate against reason to expose the Blessed Sacrament so that we can look upon the face of the Lord, only to plunk our foreheads on the ground in such a manner as to prevent our gazing upon His face. The sajdah position is counter-intuitive to Catholic adoration because it denies the meritorious nature of a face-to-face encounter with the Real Presence of the Lord while the Sacrament is exposed in the monstrance. Proper attitudes of awe, adoration, and mystery are essential to this encounter. The sajdah "devotion" seems to eliminate all of these.
The players in this liturgical innovation, oddly enough, are not the usual "progressive Catholics" from whom we would expect nonsensical liturgical novelties. If my experience is any indication, this sajdah position is being pushed by a new brand of otherwise conservative Catholics, including some homeschoolers, who may not even be aware of how incongruent this behavior is when juxtaposed to their usual conservative attitudes with most things Church. What prompted this particular group in Pennsylvania to embrace a post-Vatican II experiment in worship is unclear. The only common denominator among the crowd that I encountered is their near universal disdain for the Tridentine Latin Mass. It is interesting to note that the priest advisor to the members of this group has suggested that a desire to attend the Tridentine Latin Mass is "prideful" and the Tridentine Mass itself is "from the devil." Is this sajdah movement the ecclesiastical equivalent of Newton's Third Law of Motion, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction? In laymen's terms, could the sajdah be this crowd's prideful "opposite reaction" to the restraint put on their self-expression in the Tridentine Mass?
Sadly, this new child-directed innovation is not an isolated incident but rather a movement threatening orthodox Catholicism. Fr. Antoine Thomas, the founder of Children of Hope, the primary peddler of this Muslim-mimicking positioning, essentially admits in his televised advertisements that the intention of performing these "prostrations" is to emulate Muslims. According to Fr. Antoine, both Christians and Muslims perform the sajdah ritual for the same reasons and to worship the same God, although the Muslims actually pray like this five times per day, (the implication being their superiority). Fr. Antoine suggests that the point of prostrating (sajdah-style) is to show that God is everything and I am nothing, "a grain of sand."
What Fr. Antoine fails to recognize is that the God Muslims worship ("Allah") is neither triune nor hypostatically united in the person of Jesus Christ, and Catholics certainly do not view themselves as nothing, "like a grain of sand." Catholics see themselves as fashioned in the image and likeness of God with real human dignity and authentic divine value. We kneel in adoration before the Eucharist because of the incarnate presence of God the Son, a theological reality inimical to Islam. We go to adore Christ in the Eucharist because He is truly there in His body and blood, soul and divinity. We don't theatrically bang our heads off of the ground in pretend fear of a remote and monstrous tyrant, but rather we kneel and gaze at the Real Presence of a loving God. For Fr. Antoine to suggest that there are parallels, similarities, and common beliefs in posture and doctrine, with equal value one to another, between Islam and Catholicism is absurd. In charity we should acknowledge that it's possible that Fr. Antoine, formerly of Paris, has been unduly influenced by the burgeoning Muslim culture found in modern-day France. However, this desire to engage in faulty ecumenism at the expense of young minds, bodies, and souls, should not be tolerated.
According to Fr. Antoine's Children of Hope literature, the purpose of the Fatima event was to teach children to adopt the sajdah as the preferred prayer position. Specifically, this passage is cited:
"Don't be afraid. I am the Angel of Peace. Pray with me." He then knelt on the ground, bending forward until his forehead touched it, and prayed: "My God, I believe, I adore, and I love You! I beg pardon of You for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope and do not love You!" He said this prayer three times. When he stood he then said to the children: "Pray thus. The hearts of Jesus and Mary are attentive to the voice of your supplications." Saying that, he vanished from sight. The children were overwhelmed and in a state of ecstasy. They repeated this prayer for a long time as the angel had done — on their knees.
The implication is that children should be praying in a manner similar to how the Angel is described as praying. While it is clear that the Angel of Peace was sent to prepare the children for the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, neither the Angel nor Mary herself endorsed or requested that the children physically assume that particular position. In fact, it is noted several times that the children remained "on their knees." Clearly, both the Angel of Peace and the Blessed Mother want men to pray as men, and not as diaphanous angelic figures.
The message of Fatima was explicit. It was in no way cryptic, obscure, or enigmatic. The Blessed Mother was precise in her predictions, directions, promises, instructions, and warnings. The children had a perfect understanding about her expectations; they knew where to be, and when and why. They knew to pray the Rosary and seek the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. They understood that the Blessed Mother sought reparation for sins and sought to bring souls to her Son. There was no ambiguity regarding the message she brought or the requests she made. It is odd that almost a century after this approved apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mother a more enlightened and sophisticated generation should deduce a brand new message that was up until now unexpressed and unidentified.
Moreover, there is absolutely no credible support for the practice of the sajdah in any of the accepted writings of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Critical examination of the Church's discipline yields not a single bit of evidence or writing to support, legitimize, or even recognize this foreign prayer posture, but does yield a wealth of writing in support of proper positioning. Upon consultation of the Scriptures, saints, scholastics, popes, bishops, and a whole stream of Vatican directives, we find a consistent teaching on the use of proper prayer postures, with a specific emphasis on kneeling.
A thorough analysis of Scripture indicates a constant respect for, and use of, kneeling as the approved and mandated posture. Christ Himself specifically knelt to pray. In the Garden of Gethsemane, and on His knees, Jesus prays: "Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done" (Lk. 22:42). In the Acts of the Apostles we are told that St. Peter "knelt down and prayed" (9:40), and that St. Paul "knelt down and prayed with them all" (20:36). The first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, fell to his knees and prayed that his enemies be forgiven (cf. 7:60), and we see how the whole Christian community, men and women and children, prayed on their knees (cf. 21:5). In St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians, we are told that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (2:10-11; italics added). Scripture is consistent in giving due respect to kneeling.
Scrutiny of the writings of saints, scholastics, and patristics suggests that kneeling is the proper posturing. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his hymn Adoro Te Devote, wrote, "O Godhead hid, devoutly I adore Thee, Who truly art within forms before me; To Thee my heart I bow with bended knee." In the Nine Postures of St. Dominic, he proposes nine different ways of praying, each marked by a different bodily posture, including bowing the head, striking the breast, bowing at the waist, genuflecting, prostration (the legitimate Catholic form), kisses, and orans. This great saint, who is associated with initiating the Rosary, recognized that praying involves more than just the soul. None of St. Dominic's postures includes placing one's forehead on the floor and buttocks in the air, sajdah-style.
Contemporary theologians and popes reinforce the adoration of the Lord on one's knees. Pope Pius XII wrote, "It is, therefore, the keen desire of the Church that all of the faithful kneel at the feet of the Redeemer to tell him how much they venerate and love him" (Mediator Dei, 1947; italics added). Francis Cardinal Arinze stated, "People want to venerate our Eucharistic Lord on bended knee. To facilitate this, there should be kneelers in front of the Blessed Sacrament" (The Church Teaches Forum, 2003). Pope Benedict XVI's writings are consistent in that he continually describes the proper posture of the laity in prayer to be on one's knees. In The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000) he wrote, "The kneeling of Christians is not a form of inculturation into existing customs. It is quite the opposite, an expression of Christian culture, which transforms the existing culture through a new and deeper knowledge and experience of God. Kneeling does not come from any culture — it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God."
Recent Vatican documents and bishops' statements further emphasize the discipline of kneeling and highlight the dangers of creative posturing. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in its Vatican Directory on Popular Piety & the Liturgy (2001), wrote, "The faithful should be encouraged to read the Scriptures during these periods of adoration, since they afford an unrivalled source of prayer. Suitable hymns and canticles based on those of the Liturgy of the Hours and the liturgical seasons could also be encouraged, as well as periods of silent prayer and reflection. Gradually, the faithful should be encouraged not to do other devotional exercises during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament" (#165; italics added). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation" (1989), wrote, "To live out in one's prayer the full awareness of one's body as a symbol is even more difficult: it can degenerate into a cult of the body and can lead surreptitiously to considering all bodily sensations as spiritual experiences. Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being. To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations" (#27-28; italics added). The desire to create new and innovative bodily styles promotes the cult of the body, whereby the practitioner is actually worshiping the posture rather than the Lord, and the focus is on the self rather than the Eucharist.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) makes it clear that the postures we exhibit in public prayer are not to be self-determined but done in conformity with the Church. The USCCB Committee on Divine Worship writes, "The Church sees in these common postures and gestures both a symbol of the unity of those who have come together to worship and a means of fostering that unity. We are not free to change these postures to suit our own individual piety, for the Church makes it clear that our unity of posture and gesture is an expression of our participation in the one Body formed by the baptized with Christ, our head. When we stand, kneel, sit, bow and sign ourselves in common action, we give an unambiguous witness that we are indeed the Body of Christ, united in heart, mind and spirit" ("Postures and Gestures at Mass," 2002). Novel and inventive prayer techniques may allow the purveyor to feel a superior sense of pietism, but in actuality are a disruption to the Body of Christ and a misalignment in the Church Militant.
The modern-day practical sacrilege is the excessive use of self-expression in the context of liturgical activity. Many of the problems generated by the Novus Ordo Mass have been traced back to an exaggerated preoccupation with the theatrical. Examining the entire history of Catholicism yields nothing to defend this most recent liturgical creation, while volumes suggest our taking a stand against it. Drawing from St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Arinze, Popes Pius XII, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, as well as Vatican documents, it is clear that while private prostration (the Catholic version) can be appropriate and even meritorious during times when one is not on display, the public manipulation of children through forced sajdah is to be avoided. According to authorities throughout the history of the Church, it is at best highly inappropriate to be doing this very personal thing in public. It is even worse to use the Church's authority structure (priest, director of religious education, faith formation teacher) to impose it upon others, especially innocent children.
If the ultimate goal is to convince people to embrace the many varieties of liturgical offenses, the sajdah is the perfect place to start. After all, if it's tolerable to express oneself like a Muslim before the Blessed Sacrament, why not dance, hop, sway, roll, or crawl? There is no difference between adopting one posture that runs contrary to Catholic discipline over another.
Knowingly mimicking the prayer practice of heretics in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is sacrilegious and constitutes an act of desecration. The fruits of this practice so often yield a false sense of superiority and an exaggerated sense of religious piety. A carte blanche willingness to take liberties in a paraliturgical setting easily translates into shirking the established discipline within the liturgical venue as well, a tendency toward an individualistic free-for-all that effects and contributes to other rubrical dismissive behaviors, including the excessive lay use of the orans position; changing the wording, intonations, cadence, and flow of the established liturgical responses; and varying the postures during the Consecration to show greater piety than the others present. The prideful breaking of accepted Church practice by substituting the ritual of a religion that denies Christ, on the grounds that it is more pious than the approved Catholic practices, desecrates the Church, scandalizes the observers, and blasphemes the Lord.
As noted, Mark Twain humorously identified man's inclination to impose his creative input on God. We are naturally inclined to look for the latest and greatest, the newest and most innovative, the slickest and most exciting. Once we recognize that the Creator neither needs, wants, nor solicits our creative input, we may begin to simply enjoy the beautiful creation that He has fashioned. Six times the author of Genesis tells us God looked at His creation and said, "It is just fine, don't mess with it." It's time to take Him seriously.
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Catholics worship the One True Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. That is not the god that Muslims worship via their sajdah!