Seeds of Adoration

In our culture nearly all vestiges of adoration of any kind have been removed. So do we even know what we are doing when we say we are adoring?

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There are movements so linked with purpose that the purpose “wants” to find fulfillment in the movement, while the movement without the purpose is false. Consider the military salute. It is a movement which shows honor as coming from someone whose office or role is to honor. Soldiers in uniform salute the flag; civilians or soldiers not in uniform do not. A uniformed soldier lives by honor and “wants” to salute according to military “customs and courtesies.” The practice seems grounded in human nature and goes back centuries, to the Roman legions and before. Today, French, English, Ukrainian, or Russian, all armies it seems have something like it.

But now suppose someone were to propose that a group hold a meeting precisely to show honor by saluting—when the members of this group are not in military service and they have had no experience saluting. How could this idea, to meet together to salute, even make sense? How could the group be drawn to it? How would anyone see the point? They do not know what saluting means. They never make movements of saluting. They do not occupy roles which require saluting. 

I wonder if something similar holds of adoration and, then, the proposal that Catholics meet for Eucharistic Adoration. Of course, in some nominal way most Catholics will acknowledge its value. But do we even have the bases in our society, any longer, to understand what adoration is? It is true, a handful of the faithful will “go to adoration”—but very few. They grasp, at least, that they are supposed to be silent and serious and pray. But then what? What specifically now do they do, when they arrive at the Church, in order to begin to “adore”? What standard would they apply in examining themselves and asking, “Did I succeed in adoring, or not?”

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Adoration, like saluting, is a movement linked to a purpose. Curiously, each of the two competing etymologies of the Latin word adoratio is mapped to each aspect. One etymology, the more obvious, says that the word comes from adorare, “to pray to.” Obviously, if you pray to someone, supposing He Himself has the power to grant your request, whatever it is, you are therefore taking Him to be divine, and your “praying to” Him counts, as they say, as latria, that is, the worship owed to God alone.

The other etymology is that it comes from the action of approaching the statue of a god, in polytheistic Rome, and putting one’s mouth to its hand, to show obeisance and one’s loyalty by kissing it: (manum) ad os (mittere), “to place one’s mouth to the hand.” 

The more common movement of adoration has always been bending the knee, “genuflection,” which accompanies putting one’s mouth to someone’s hand. An extreme gesture along the same lines would be to bow in order to place one’s head to the ground, or even to prostrate oneself. 

It was said of St. Pope John Paul II among his close friends that if you wanted to find him you should look in the chapel, and you should look carefully because he would not be seated in a pew but lying prostrate before the tabernacle, in adoration.

In Greek, the word for adoration probably comes from the attitude of a dog toward its master, of crouching and licking the hand. The Canaanite woman praised by Jesus for likening the gentiles to dogs most likely knelt and kissed his hand, as your dog may do to you.  

We sing at Christmas, “O come let us adore him.” But when in the translations it says that the magi “adored” the infant Jesus, the Greek word suggests that they knelt before him and perhaps kissed his forehead, hands, and feet. It has been a Catholic custom in the Christmas season for the faithful to process to the altar rail where they would kiss the infant Jesus held up by the priest. On Good Friday, we genuflect before a cross and kiss it: “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung our salvation: come let us adore.”

Catholics with Protestant sensibilities may feel an inner recoil at the suggestion that they should adore or worship a cross; they rationalize what they do, nonetheless, on the grounds that they are worshipping, rather, the God who hung on that cross. But as the ceremony shows, there is a sense of adoration that has always been extended more widely than to God. Traditionally, this gets called dulia, to distinguish it from latria. And such adoration as is rightly shown to the Virgin Mary gets called hyperdulia. There is a sense of adoration that has always been extended more widely than to God. Traditionally, this gets called dulia, to distinguish it from latria. And such adoration as is rightly shown to the Virgin Mary gets called hyperdulia.Tweet This

A healthy Christian society is one where adoration in this extended sense is shown all the time, so that one special type of adoration needs to be distinguished for Mary, and then another kind which, as regards its object, is infinitely beyond that, needs to be distinguished for God.  

But in our culture, which was Protestantized and now is post-Christian, nearly all vestiges of adoration of any kind have been removed. And this gives rise to the crisis of meaning and the question which I raised at the first—do we even know what we are doing when we say we are adoring?   

Obviously, if adoratio means to pray to, then we can pray to lots of persons. I can pray to saints and thereby “adore” them. I can pray to the Virgin. I can pray to anyone superior to me still alive, insofar as I make a humble request. I can pray to my friend and neighbor, as in the old address, “I pray thee,” which became shortened to “prithee” and came to mean the same as our “please.” But can it be that, in a ruthlessly egalitarian culture, simple manners must eventually go as well, along with distinctions in rank which underwrite adoration in this broad sense?

I will pass over such things as that kneeling is not required to receive Our Lord and people mechanically genuflect when they enter a Church, as if conditioned behavioristically. I am asking about life outside of churches. Whom, after all, do we still adore? 

Where would anyone still use this phrase, “I adore you”? I can think of only two objects: babies and lovers.  

Mothers still commonly say that they adore their babies, bend down to them, and kiss them to bits. So, here is one practice in our society which gives meaning to adoration. And yet, it hangs by a thread because her attitude, where an abortion culture reigns and where the “right” to abortion is underwritten by law, from a public point of view, is construed as a subjective preference, like a taste for chocolate over vanilla ice cream.  

From the point of view of what is recognized publicly, there is nothing objective about her attitude, or at least, there is nothing about her “adoration” which makes a claim on everyone else to recognize the worth of the baby as well. (Admittedly, after Dobbs, we are seeing a partial restoration in some jurisdictions of a sound culture.)

Lovers still sometimes say, “I adore you.” But the phrase no longer means what it used to mean, and should mean, for it to be of any good for us. What it should mean is, “I honor your beauty and would sacrifice my life for you in holy matrimony.” But what it has generally come to mean is, “I’m narcissistically obsessed with myself and want you to be obsessed with me.” 

If you doubt this, consider what is probably the best-selling pop song on the theme in recent years: Miley Cyrus’ “Adore you.” Released in 2013, it has sales of over six million. Its lyrics, although insipid, have promise: “When you say you love me/ Know I love you more/ When you say you need me/ Know I need you more/ Boy I adore you,” and, “You and me, were meant to be in holy matrimony/ God knew exactly what he was doing/ When he led me to you.” But the music video gave Miley Cyrus’ interpretation and consisted of scenes of her, mainly undressed, running her hands along her body obsessed with her good figure. “‘Adore You,” wrote Billboard, “is another intimately-shot video, featuring Cyrus between the sheets and in a tub.” 

So, there is still love of babies and beloveds as sources of adoration, but they exist only residually for us, and very tenuously.

Classically, there were also shock and awe, and profound gratitude. The disciples in the boat after Jesus shocked them by walking on the water fall down in adoration and say, “You truly are the son of God” (Matthew 28). Churches used to be designed to provoke something akin to awe—incense rising up to dark recesses of intense beauty.  Need I say that such churches are rare today?  

Peter famously kneels before Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish and says that the Lord should leave him because he is a sinful man. The penitent woman did not simply kiss the feet of Jesus but even anointed them with her tears because her sins were forgiven. But I don’t know of anyone who, when he kneels in a confessional, is thinking that he is kneeling in adoration to Jesus in the priest, an ipse Christus, who has the power to forgive his sins.

We are in very bad shape when it comes to adoration. If adoration must include truthful movements, which express the purpose to humble oneself and show honor before a worthy and higher object—then, on any objective assessment, we must conclude that we are a thoroughly irreverent people. We are not even decent pagans. It is as if a blight has run through us, leaving us wasted and sterile. We have almost no bases of adoration which can infuse “Eucharistic Adoration” with meaning.  

I see no alternative but to plant new seeds, beginning with Eucharistic Adoration. The Eucharist famously is described as “the source and summit of the Christian life.” I have been arguing that it cannot be, for us, the summit of our practices of adoration because we do not have any. But it can be a source for restoring and reviving. 

Yes, Eucharistic Revival can be a matter, too, of reviving love of babies, and courtship, and love of beauty, and reviving adoration of priests, and holy fear, and holy joy for the forgiveness of sins. Something can exist, too, virtually in the imagination and in hope and in what we want to pass on to a next generation. We might devote ourselves to Eucharistic revival and “go to Adoration” for all these good purposes too.


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