Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Prayer, Posture and Late Night Revelations

It is my custom to read late at night before going to sleep. Often the contents of that reading take the form of dreams before the night is over. Other nights, I find myself provoked to reflection, my mind racing at a point when my body is ready for anything but more stimulation. On those nights I awake the next morning to dog-eared magazines and books piled next to my bed, reminders from the night before that there was something to which I wanted to return.

Last night an article on prayer made it to the “return to” pile. Amid the numerous stories hyping the upcoming General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the story about the cutie-pie Cuban priest (actually his Spanish name is pronounced Cutie-ay) becoming an Episcopal priest in Miami and the disturbing news that my classmate Kevin Thew Forrester may not be confirmed as bishop due to his supposed lack of “orthodoxy” (as defined by his detractors) was a column entitled “Dance of prayer and praise: kneel or stand?” Written by a parishioner at St. Anne’s Church in Atlanta, it provided a thoughtful reflection on the role of body language in the liturgies of catholic tradition churches.

A convert to the Episcopal tradition as a college student, I was once comfortable with what I call the Homage to St. Otis (the elevator man), the drill that seemed to mark catholic liturgy – stand up, sit down, kneel, repeat. Coming from a Methodist tradition (I often tell people I just followed the Wesleys home) which rarely used their kneelers (though, unlike the Baptists down the street, we actually had them), I greatly appreciated kneeling as a regular part of the eucharistic liturgies I encountered in my new home in the Episcopal Church in the mid 1970s.

By the late 1980s, I began a process of studying religion that would change my life. Before it was over I would find myself attending seminary, becoming an ordained priest and, recognizing that parish priesthood would be far too confining for me, eventually obtaining the Ph.D. in religious studies I needed to make my living as an academic. Like most religious academics, the more I read and reflected, the more certain aspects of my religious and devotional life made less and less sense to me.

One of the aspects that changed along the way was my view on kneeling as the primary expression of prayer. As I got closer and closer to standing behind the altar, my vision of the eucharist became more and more organic. The words, music, movements and decor needed to reflect the lives of the community assembled at the same time it respected mystery and spoke of transcendence. The theology expressed in prayers and liturgy needed to reflect healthy relationships with self, others, the creation and to G-d if it was to speak in constructive ways to the spiritual lives of the assembled. The notions of parent/child relations which mark most medieval religious thought and still dominate our Episcopal prayerbook became less and less compelling as the worship and music I encountered featured creation spirituality imagery and inclusive language.

As these understandings changed, I became more and more aware of the way that body language connected to spirituality as well as to self-understanding. Increasingly I came to see the upraised open arms orans position used primarily by priests as the default prayer posture for all worshippers. The orans position dates back to the practices of the Jewish contemporaries of Jesus and perhaps Jesus himself. It speaks of an openness to a G-d reaching down to humanity and the responsive embracing of the divine by the people of G-d, a symbol readily visible in the two triangular halves of the Star of David.

I should hasten to note here that I am NOT referring to the “holding up the sky” orgiastic prayer of charismatic worship, a style of worship that has much more to do with middle class comfort, sentimentality and self-focus than prayer (“Oh, come, let us adore us” – and BTW, “OUR God Reigns” – repeat 30x). The more I saw of that here in the Diocese of Central Florida and other churches in this region, the more I realized that I ultimately had very little in common spiritually with those who find this expression compelling including my own brother. To paraphrase a friend, I could more easily become a Buddhist than a charismatic Christian.

I am also not referring here to the lively, energetic worship of Pentecostalism with its roots in African spirit possession which has long spoken to the souls of many African Americans and provided the spiritual spark for both of the Great Awakenings in America. The role of culture in shaping the theologies and postures of prayer is a strong one indeed. And while I respect that expression of spirituality, it is not my own.

What I came to reject was the huddled, cowering posture of the middle ages, head bowed to reflect the sovereignty of G-d and the unworthiness of the human subject, kneeling with white knuckled hands in supplicant position. I had come to see this as reflecting a theology of power over the powerless, relationships of dominance and subordinance between a condescending G-d and an apprehensive humanity constructed out of fear and marked by pleas for mercy. I had come to see this understanding to be unworthy of psychologically healthy, mature adults in relationship with their Creator.

By the end of seminary, I had become clear on what prayer-based body language made sense to me and why. Not surprisingly, it’s little more than an adaptation of Anglican theology, as most of my theology tends to be: One stands to pray, sits to listen, kneels for penitential purposes.

So why stand? An understanding of the church as “the people of G-d” as Vatican II so rightfully recognized it to be points toward an understanding of all worship as an encounter of grateful adult human beings with their creator, not fearful children wincing before a punitive parent. The people of G-d at worship implies a corporate prayer posture of standing to pray, perhaps with outstretched palms open to receive G-d’s blessings and ready to serve G-d’s kingdom (as the Episcopal Baptismal Covenant so well says it, “I will, with God’s help.”) This is the posture of dignified human beings, standing erect in gratitude for the many blessings of providence. In my view, this should be the default position for most prayer.

That is not to say that there is never a place for kneeling. The penitential aspects of the eucharist such as the collective confession of sin suggest a body posture which expresses contrition, remorse, even sorrow. Here kneeling makes more sense, with or without the white knuckles. This might even extend into penitential seasons such as Lent or Advent.

One other situation in which kneeling might be the best expression of one’s spirit is in private prayers of individuals in sacred sites, often offered in the flickering candlelight of votive altars and side chapels devoted to various saints. Feeling oneself as a part of a stream of tradition is an important aspect of private prayer in holy places. And for much of its history, Christianity has expressed its self-understandings through kneeling. While there is no magical formula for this, kneeling or sitting quietly in the pew would seem to be the default positions for private prayer. Clearly, in this case standing would be inappropriate, perhaps even narcissistic.

As I grew and changed in my understanding of prayer and the body, I began to wonder why so many catholic traditionalists insist upon kneeling as the only appropriate posture for prayer. Last night as I lay in my bed reading the Episcopal Life national newspaper, I found my answer: Says Pat Royalty of St. Anne’s Church, Atlanta, “I was made to be on my knees, arising from a lively sense of guilt of what I have done and what I have left undone.” As I read her thoughts, the words of the Confession of Sin from Rite I in the Book of Common Prayer came to me:

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time most grievously have committed by thought word and deed against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us…..the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, most merciful Father….

One can almost feel the sting of the cat 'o nine straps on the bare back here. This is decidedly the medieval church at its best (or worst). The carved stone tympanum - the half moon shaped relief sculpture over the entrace under which the penitent would have passed to enter cathedrals containing relics of lost saints and statues of the goddess/intercessor Mary - featured sculptures of ravenous demons dragging souls to hell beneath the indifferent faraway gaze of the Christ now turned judge of the world and eternal punisher. The tympanum simultaneously marked the point of no entry for those in mortal sin as well as the rejoinder to get down to the serious business of salvation for those who were able to enter. Once inside the “manifold sins and wickedness” of Cranmer’s late medieval England would have been made more than clear through sermons directed towards those assembled (though the unworthy hands of those sinners would have been barred from ever receiving the remediating communion elements for most of the middle ages).

Little wonder that the legacy of a religious anthropology constructed out of sin and unworthiness and a god constructed out of notions of power, patriarchy and punishment continues to hold such sway over modern imaginations in the form of “a lively sense of guilt..” And, no doubt, such guilt-driven self-understandings are best expressed through white knuckled prayers for mercy on one’s knees.

Perhaps that is why this prayer posture makes little sense to me. Oppressed peoples do not have the luxury of constructing their self-understandings in terms of sin and guilt. This is hardly to say they never sin, only that everything in their lives already reinforces their worthlessness in the eyes of their culture. Prayer language and posture which legitimate socially constructed worthlessness is untenable to any human being with even an ounce of dignity. Indeed, they can be hazardous to one’s mental health and wellbeing. As the brochure for addictions treatment at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco once observed, “We don’t need to reinforce the fact we are powerless. What we need is to find enough self-respect and dignity to stop hurting ourselves.”

Ultimately, each of us must find our own way when it comes to the life of the spirit. For some, prayer itself seems nonsensical, particularly in corporate forms. For others, a word-driven proper middle class Protestant service in which the congregants are predominately passive listeners seated in pews is the only form that makes sense while others like myself would find it cruel and unusual punishment. For some, the smarmy sentimentality of charismatic worship is the only way to pray while to others like myself, it seems inauthentic and self-focused. Perhaps it is the Hindus who get this one right: many roads, one destination.

As I watch the trials and tribulations of my friend, bishop elect Kevin Thew Forrester who was courageous enough to actually revise the liturgies and prayers of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in his parish – an act for which he may now pay a very high price from brittle idolaters of traditional language and theology – my heart sinks. You see, Kevin has figured it out. The self-deprecating, sin-obsessed theology of the medieval church no longer works for most people in the 21st CE whose cosmology is light years away from people like prayerbook editor Thomas Cranmer. Like many of my fellow boomers, I was NOT “made to be on my knees,” I was made to stand on my feet with head held erect, something it has taken this gay man over 50 years to learn and embrace. My spirituality is not driven by “a lively sense of guilt,” it is marked by a sense of gratitude to a very gracious G-d who is always present. I can also tell you from my experience teaching Gen Y, most of them have little idea what Ms. Royalty is talking about. One wonders who will fill our pews once our graying church is pulled up from its knees and off to the rest homes, a reality that lurks ever closer for many of us.

I am indebted to Pat Royalty for the insights and provocations her comments provided me in the late hours of last night and much of the day today. I admire her courage in being willing to spell out her understandings of prayer even as some - perhaps many - like myself will find little to resonate with in her words. If she meets G-d on her lively guilt-driven knees, so be it. She has my respect. In the meantime she has brought some perspective to my own understandings of prayer which I offer here for consideration but prescribe for no one. For that, I am, indeed, grateful.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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