By Marlene Schultz
When I was converting to Catholicism, I always thought that genuflecting was like the secret brofist/ handshake that Catholics shared apart from the rest of society. People walk, talk, lie down, sit, and stand every day, but genuflecting – the act of dropping to one knee – was an inscrutable art form to me. I was vaguely aware that this motion was popularized by Tim Tebow, a religious football player, and dubbed “Tebowing,” but I mostly knew about it from my mother, a lapsed cradle Catholic. Occasionally I would attend a Mass for snits and giggles, and I was fascinated by how my mother quickly kneeled and crossed herself. I would try imitating my mother’s motions, only to wobble over like a fainting goat. Forget making the Sign of the Cross while genuflecting – I was blessed when I didn’t face-plant behind a senior citizen. After numerous practice sessions in front of a mirror, I finally became an expert at genuflecting… only for my mother to inform me that I was kneeling on the wrong knee. I scoured YouTube for tutorials on genuflecting, but I couldn’t find any that tediously demonstrated the mechanics for an uncoordinated penguin like me to understand.
But I had unknowingly been avoiding the true mystery – why did Catholics genuflect in the first place? It couldn’t just be some quaint meaningless custom that no one had a reason for. I was confused by how the parishioners at some churches genuflected, but other churches did not. Even my mother wasn’t sure why she genuflected. She was raised Catholic, but no one had ever told her why she was supposed to kneel at church. It was just something you were supposed to do, like shaking hands with strangers, or saying “bless you” after a sneeze. It was appropriate and polite, but perhaps it wasn’t necessary. That was probably why some Catholics had stopped genuflecting at many churches; there didn’t seem to be any tangible reason for the custom.
That feeling doesn’t avoid me. Even though I am now a baby Catholic firmly wrapped in the embraces of Holy Mother Church, sometimes I kneel only out of habit. I can pull out of genuflecting faster than a hyperactive toddler, and I am proud of the bruises on my knees after ten minutes of kneeling on a hard marble floor. I feel the numbness slipping into my mind, the forgetfulness. I have to keep asking myself – why do I genuflect? Do I keep the reason in my heart every time I bend my knee? Or will I let it become an instinctive habit, ready to be lost in my human frailty. Every time I lower myself to the ground, I am trying to show an act of reverence. But who is that reverence intended for? I could only uncover the answer by going to Mass.
Even to this day, I constantly have to renew the true devotion behind genuflection. Last Sunday marked the beginning of Passiontide, the final two weeks of Lent. Every moment of the Church’s liturgical calendar is sweeping dramatically towards the Cross and the Resurrection, but that Sunday was a chance to take a deep breath. I lingered after Mass in the church, and I slowly started to take another look around me. The electric overhead lights and candelabras were turned off, so you could better see the sunlight gently raining through the stained glass windows. It illuminated the incense spread like a cloudy sea across the pews of my church. And there it was – deep in the sanctuary at the front of the church, behind the communion rail, up a threefold of steps, and resting upon the marble high altar – the reason! I could breathe anew. How could I have been so distracted?
A sanctuary lamp shone behind a small golden box. The box is like a house with doors, a roof, and small twisting columns on each side. But the little house, the Tabernacle, is not what we genuflect to. Every home has an occupant, someone living and waiting for you to acknowledge them when you enter into their home. Inside the Tabernacle, like in the ancient days of Judea and the time of Moses, is housed the Holy of Holies – the Divine Presence. Don’t look at me weirdly, but yes – the Tabernacle houses the Real Presence of Christ, body and soul, under the appearance of bread. The Eucharist is consecrated at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and even when the Mass isn’t being said, the Presence of the Lord is still there for us. The sanctuary lamp is always on, and he is beaming out from the veiled Tabernacle, a lighthouse in the dark. This isn’t a symbol. I wouldn’t kneel because of a symbol.
Like knights swearing fealty to their lord, we pay homage to our King. We genuflect because it is rather impractical to
throw ourselves prostrate on the floor every time we pass in front of our Sovereign Lord, Creator, and Master of the Universe. The traffic jams in church would be indescribable. So we kneel.* As Moses cast his sandals off before
the Divine Presence in the Burning Bush, external signs of reverence must align with our internal devotions. But we must never lose sight of the love that spurs us into action, even to something as simple as genuflecting! I let myself get so obsessed with the motions of an action, that I lose sight of the One whom I intended it for. He always knows how to sweep me off my feet and onto my knees, but I know how quickly I want to forget his gentle reminders. We must never forget whose house we are in.
*Unless you’re an Eastern Catholic and don’t do that genuflecting thang. In that case, thou shalt bow. And stand. And stay standing. Sitting is for the weak.