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Embodying praise

The church says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The body says: I am a fiesta.
-- Eduardo Galeano in Walking Words


Generally I fancy myself a flexible sort, comfortable inside my skin, willing to move with the rhythms of the universe.

Then somebody suggests changing the familiar sit-stand-kneel of the liturgy and I freeze into lockstep.

You want us to do what with our arms at the Hosanna? Slowly raising my arms in praise feels like jumping out of a helicopter without a parachute. Stand with my palms out? You’d need a crowbar to pry them open.

These are simple, meaningful gestures; why do they make my palms sweat like a teenager’s at the Sign of Peace? I have dived off cliffs (well, big outcroppings of rock) into white water (OK, it was just bubbly) with greater aplomb than my body feels when it’s told to move a new way in church.

My mind, as usual, is entirely at odds with my instinctive physical reaction, ready to cheer any change that livens things up. The sit-stand-kneel has become such a soothing mantra, I could probably do it at home to end insomnia. Except that kneeling at home feels even sillier than waving my arms about in church.

Where did all this bodily self-consciousness come from? This country’s been through a sexual revolution and a feminist enlightenment; we’ve been prodded into fitness, dosed with herbs, seduced by comfort. We may not exactly worship with the body, but we certainly worship the body.

Or maybe we worship only its ideal form. Put to the test, we continue to find our own bodies graceless and misshapen, full of unfixed flaws and weighted by inevitable death.

Take the cultural hatred of imperfect, low-tech flesh and add religious teaching that urges children not to move or wriggle or whisper or look around or skip down the aisle at Communion. The same teaching cloaks bodily sexuality in a voluminous, cinctured black cassock of itchy wool and brands every visible act a sin. When a group of 6-year-olds imitates the priest’s grand gestures at the Eucharist, teachers remind them that only the priest gets to move; they should keep still.

It’s no wonder we leave our coats on in church.

Karen Armstrong, a former nun and theologian who’s written about all three branches of monotheism (and been interviewed by Bill Moyers, yet) recently told me that, in her opinion, “The one great flaw of Christianity is that we have not been able to integrate sexuality and the sacred. Muslims and Jews and Hindus have done much better. Christians should have valued the body more than any other faith, because we believe God valued it so much he took it himself.” Here she sighed heavily. “But it didn’t work out that way, and that’s a tragedy.”

Tidy at the nativity

In every nativity scene, Mary kneels upright, tidily dressed, her face composed -- and there’s not a drop of blood on the straw. Roman Catholics don’t even kiss during the marriage ceremony that transforms them into one body. Christ’s most wondrous moment is the Transfiguration, his earthly body washed in pure light.

Roman Catholics aren’t even the worst offenders. We use our bodies more freely than many Protestants, genuflecting, rubbing sacramental oil, making a holy-watered sign of the cross, processing. Other churches sit stiffly and listen, wishing they were angels. Protestant theologian Sallie McFague says, “The most prevalent spiritual disease of our time is not wanting to be here, not wanting to be in a physical body.”

On the other hand, many religious traditions don’t hate or shun bodies at all. They use them to express their souls. The Shakers danced their way into ecstasy; so do whirling Sufi dervishes and some Indian and African Christians. Orthodox Christians stand for hours, giving praise. Hindus use yoga’s postures and breathing to meditate. There’s even an Episcopal church in California, St. Gregory of Nyssa, where the congregation hears God’s word around a lectern and then does a sort of line-dance over to the altar.

Me, I’m still having nightmares in which, for some incredibly logical reason, I’m standing in a church pew stark naked, reciting the usual responses and praying no one will notice.

School Sister of Notre Dame Carol Marie Hemish is associate director of the Center for Liturgy at St. Louis University. She’s also working on a degree in biospirituality, studying the integrity of the body in relation to spirituality. When I ask her to talk to me about our use (or avoidance) of the body in worship, she confides that in 25 years as a spiritual director, teacher and liturgist, she’s realized that “we learn very well to separate the body from the spirit. And what we’ve learned so well for 400 years is now probably holding us back.”

“I want my posture to help me pray,” continues Hemish, “and moving from standing to sitting or sitting to standing helps me to become aware again of how I am praying with my body. Catholics who have been going to Mass forever know when to stand and sit. But I’m not sure we have ever really been invited to do any reflecting on what we are doing. And when I don’t think, I can become disengaged.”

Her careful use of the first-person frees me to agree. Sit-stand-kneel does let me smugly follow the drill while my imagination goes elsewhere. But what about the re-explosion of controversy over kneeling or standing during the Eucharistic Prayer? That one doesn’t disengage me at all: I kneel very consciously, sinking my weight onto my knees with a sense of relief. Humility, at that moment, feels so much easier than the constant shoring up of ego. I grow tired of asserting myself, criticizing authority, questioning assumptions, refusing acquiescence. Here I can admit God’s overwhelming greatness and kneel before him. No wary caveats, no bravado.

“I had always believed that kneeling came in as a response to ‘I am not worthy,’ ” says Hemish, reading my mind. “Then I did some reading and found it as early as the Arian heresy. The effort was to emphasize the divinity of Jesus by contrasting our humanness.”

Why they want us to stand

So why do so many emphatically post-Vatican II liturgists want us to stand? Hemish steers me to her boss, Center director and Jesuit Fr. John Foley for a history lesson. “From the eighth to the 11th century, people began to be instructed to pray with bowed heads during the Eucharistic Prayer (called the Canon before Vatican II),” he begins. Immediately, the story is complicated by class: Catholics began to adopt different postures depending upon their degree of participation in the liturgy. “The peasants had no understanding of what was going on, so they would kneel, as if before a holy event they were more or less watching.”

In the 13th century, ecclesial authorities emphasized reference for the Lord’s body, Foley continues. People were told to drop to their knees whenever they beheld the body -- even outside in the mud as a procession passed. “On Sundays and feasts the people who were full participants would stand, bowing their heads during the elevation, but on penitential days they would kneel throughout.” By the 15th and 16th century, “all Masses began to be modeled on the low Mass and people would kneel throughout, except at the gospel, when they stood.”

Now I’m wondering why we didn’t start out kneeling. I know ancient Greeks and Romans prostrated themselves in worship, which might be impractical on flagstone, but. ...

I ask someone so progressive she doesn’t want her name used. “Early Christians prayed standing, so they were not bowing down to idols,” she says crisply. “Standing is the position of one who has been raised up, restored, looking toward the heavens. People often stood with their hands raised and held outward in the orans posture. Charismatics love to do that and who can blame them, it’s a wonderfully open and balanced posture for prayer. And there is quite a bit of evidence that it was the normative posture for prayer. There are early Christian wall paintings where everyone is standing that way.”

When God began to be portrayed as a feudal ruler and judge, and people began to be chastised regularly for their sin and unworthiness, they assumed the posture of the supplicant. “Kneeling becomes a big issue at the Reformation,” my source says. “There starts to be conversation about what are you kneeling down to. In the Church of England, there was a great deal of dispute about whether kneeling was an appropriate posture to receive the sacrament, because you are implying worship of what you are receiving rather than what it represents.”

Standing began to seem like a good idea again after Vatican II, with the emphasis on full, conscious, active and inclusive participation in the entire Mass. “Those who read the history as saying kneeling originated in penitentiary times believe we should adopt the ancient stance, standing with arms outstretched,” explains Foley. “Others want to honor the more recent tradition. Ask Catholics who knelt before Vatican II if they were doing penance and they would say, ‘No! We were kneeling before the Lord. But after Vatican II, the thinking was that kneeling is the posture of servitude.’ ”

Still a hot issue

Foley is a little puzzled that, three decades after the liturgical changes that followed the Vatican Council, kneeling/standing is still a hot issue. But liturgist Paige Byrne Shortal thinks the controversy’s power comes from its roots in both ecclesiology (Who is the church? the priest or the people?) and Christology (Who is Jesus? God or man?). Naively, I’m convinced the answer to both questions is a simple “both.” So I listen closely as Shortal makes, not an either/or distinction, but one of time. “The experience of kneeling before the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer as Father speaks the holy words, the bells are rung, the incense is pouring, can be a powerful experience of the transcendent. But it’s the wrong moment. What is happening on the altar is that Jesus is present in a mysterious way, and we are praying this prayer. The Vatican II image is that the assembly stands around the altar praying the great prayer with great intensity as one body.”

I’m startled once again by my own ignorance -- first, of the long history of these postures; second, that I’ve never even thought about their implications. Monkey see, monkey do. Challenges to habit catch me off guard -- just as a friend does, when she tells me she doesn’t like genuflecting because she doesn’t want to see the holy as localized. Reverence is suddenly growing very complicated.

With relief I turn to the simplest posture of all: sitting for the sermon: “Sitting, in our culture, I see as a much better way for us to be receptive and attentive, not distracted by being uncomfortable,” says Hemish. “It can be a real opportunity to let go of my attention on my body and be open to what I hear.” She pauses, then does what I was afraid of: complicates even sitting, by reminding me that it may be “a First or Second World option,” indicating a dependence on comfort the Third World would deem pure luxury.

I’m feeling even worse by the time Foley explains that the classic prayer position, with palms pressed against each other and fingers pointing upward, “originated in the Middle Ages with the position of the knight submitting to the king. The king would place his hands outside the knight’s and accept his fealty, because of course you are helpless when your hands are enclosed.”

Why don’t we just dance?

If praying, sitting, kneeling and standing are this fraught with historical baggage, why don’t we just dance? An image two decades old returns with sudden clarity: a young ballerina, clad in white whose every movement powerfully, exquisitely expressed faith’s deepest mysteries. Yet “the emphasis tends to be less and less on dance, body and gestures,” Foley says. “Dance is less represented now than it was in the years after Vatican II.” To me, that’s counter-intuitive. Aren’t we getting more comfortable about anything?

“Over a period of time, people began to cool to it,” he explains. “They want to have something that can be done from week to week, generation to generation.” He asks, “Is America a dancing people?” I’m not sure how to answer -- and neither is he. All he knows is, when he worked with The St. Louis Jesuits (a group of five Jesuit musicians at St. Louis University in the 1970s who, individually or together, composed some of the best-known liturgical music in the United States), some people saw their music as “something extraliturgical, imposed on the Mass. What I was trying to do was allow movement of prayer, in the body, in the ritual. Not sentimentality, not, ‘I just go because I want to feel good.’ None of that is worthy of Christ being among us. But our souls move and our bodies and souls are united. Therefore. ... ” He speaks his own lyric with quiet fervor: “Turn to me, oh turn, and be saved.”

Kateri Caron began turning visibly when she practiced liturgical dance with a woman named Lupe Serrano. “It was a prayer as no prayer I have ever encountered to watch her dance,” recalls Caron, who’s since worked with women in Guatemala and dance companies in Chicago. “In the beginning, dance for me was a way to dress up the liturgy, an adornment. I have become less and less able to do that. I have come to believe that dance is among the arts that help us examine something deeper. Dance reaches to a level of the soul our words can’t reach.”

Often Caron won’t even use the word dance; she’ll simply warn a congregation, “There will be movement.”

“People respond differently depending on how the dance is presented to them,” she says. “It’s funny that we have to prepare each other for this. But I might say, ‘There are many different ways of praying. Some of us like to sing, some to read, some to say the rosary, and some of us like to use our bodies. Those are all ways to express our relation with that deeper spiritual power that we have to stay connected to.’ ”

The explanation is gentle. But Caron still encounters “people who close their eyes and won’t watch me.” Or who say, “A woman’s body should never be exposed that way, a dance is a sexual thing.”

Carrying the scars of our lives

“We carry the scars of our lives in our bodies,” she says, the tension of understanding throbbing in her own voice. “You can see it in people as they walk and sit: They carry their fears. And when they judge those who move liturgically, the judgment sounds rational, but it often comes out of hurt or damage or hating their own body.”

In her own life, Caron found dancing “a cathartic way to free myself from some of what binds me.” Still, “when hurts happen, I can crawl into my body and use it as a shell, and it becomes harder to move. Dance is like going to confession in public.”

Done with power and honesty, it cuts too close to the bone. Done in a silly, decorative way ... As Shortal puts it, “When it’s good it’s very good, and when it’s bad ... it’s embarrassing. Middle-aged women in white diaphanous robes going UPPP for joy and DOWWNNNNN for sorrow.” She says liturgical dance should “enhance the movement already existing in the liturgy -- the entrance procession, recessional, procession with the gifts at the Preparation (or Offertory, as some still call it) and the Communion. Bad liturgical dance stops the movement while we do a little ‘meditation after Communion’ -- in effect holding the congregation hostage.”

Shortal’s overall hesitation is that “it’s almost impossible for dancers not to take away the bits of movement left to the people.” Still, she feels a debt to liturgical dancers of the past, for “the legacy they left of gracious movement, which others have unconsciously imitated and handed on.”

I think of all the Communion lines I’ve watched, the hunched insecure shoulders, the slight unsure swaying, the hands folded primly over pocketbooks, the muffling of babies and steering of toddlers. Gracious movement, it’s not. Only at special school or communal liturgies have I seen what Shortal’s talking about: people rising with alacrity, moving with quick sure grace, enfolding each other with heartfelt warmth.

Wondering what’s possible, I think of the bodily movements that feel holy to me: Floating on dark choppy water. Holding my breath and gliding, longer than I think possible, under the surface. Taking a leap of faith across jagged rocks. Making love. Being held and rocked.

Honoring the body’s grace

These movements are not practical for liturgy. But in Women-Church: Theology and Practice, Rosemary Radford Ruether finds many creative ways to honor the body’s grace. She imagines a celebration center: a round, sun-filled room; an indoor garden with roses and herbs for healing and bracing teas; a hot tub, cool plunge and sauna for rites of puberty, menstruation and baptism.

Ruether describes a rite of healing: “With eyes closed, [a woman] locates the various parts of the body where she feels pain and distress and also talks of the anxieties, angers and stresses that may be connected with this physical distress. The women [surrounding her] put their hands on these parts of her body.” After a guided meditation, she is immersed in warm water and wrapped in a warm cloth; the ritual closes in a common embrace.

In a puberty rite, a young woman might swim and take a sauna with her mother and other trusted women, discussing her questions about sexuality. Then, clothed in a bright dress and crowned with flowers, she might chant with them such words as, “My lips are not objects of control over me. My lips are the way I speak and sing and eat and kiss. ... My body is not an object of control over me. My body is me. It is my being, my acting and my being present wherever I want to be. Let my body always be the joyful expression of myself.”

Most congregations would be mortified at the thought of swimming together and chanting about their bodies, which are emphatically not joyful expressions of their selves. Better to slide one’s bottom anonymously along the varnished pew, sit-stand-kneel and go home.

Yet Hemish -- who admits cringing at much of what body-hating Augustine wrote -- cherishes one particular passage about the Eucharist: “Augustine says, ‘Let your Amen be true; be what you see and receive what you are.’ I continue to hear that as a tremendous challenge, an invitation to remember that, even though I may not think or believe the same way as the person next to me in the pew, somehow we are still fleshing out the body of Christ.”

Now if we could only get comfortable with the human body we already share.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998