Observations: On Bended Knee—Awe and Mystery in the Mass

Once upon a time, in the dim days beyond recall prior to the Council, the Catholic Church, copied by the Anglicans, was known as a kneeling church. It was also known as a church of “bells and smells.” Protestants or the unchurched who chanced to come to a Mass were simultaneously put off and drawn by a church devoutly kneeling. Despite their prejudices they were often secretly awed by a sense of holiness and mystery. For some indeed it was the first step towards conversion.

Today the critics of the New Mass are legion. Not only is it criticized for wooden English (happily the Commission on English in the liturgy hopes to correct that); but, more gravely, the Mass is criticized for having lost its sense of mystery and transcendence since the Latin Mass was abandoned. A liturgy in a language nobody knows might, to be sure, seem a bit mysterious, but that is not what the critics mean. What has been lost, they feel, is the sense of the awesome Mystery of Almighty God stooping to us in love and becoming one of us. The Mass seems no longer to be pervaded by that Mystery and holiness.

Will better English restore the awe and Mystery? I am somewhat doubtful, yet I am by no means proposing a return to the Tridentine Mass or to Latin. I never knew the old Mass, having come to the Church from Anglicanism and the beautiful English of the Book of Common Prayer; but, since becoming Catholic less than ten years ago, I have thought much about what’s wanting in the Mass and wish to suggest what might be called a psychological solution. I am not, though, a psychologist—or theologian or liturgist; I am, rather, an historian. And the genesis of my thought is a remark in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, a senior devil in the Lowerarchy.of Hell, is writing to the junior tempter, Wormwood, about human nature—something that our liturgists might well attend to—and the relationship between body and soul, in particular the relationship between prayer and the “bended knee.” Screwtape writes:

At the very least, they [the human beings] can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you [Wormwood] must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.

We feel it right to leap to our feet to salute, to cheer, to sing, to proclaim our faith and allegiance in the Creeds. We used to feel that it was very right and our bounden duty to kneel humbly to pray, to confess our sins, and to express our awe at the Holy Mystery. But now, though we still have the grace to kneel at the Consecration, we stand to pray; we stand, even in Lent, to confess our sins in the General Confession; and incredibly we must stand at the holy moment of eating Christ’s Body and drinking His Blood, instead of devoutly kneeling at the altar rail. How can we be expected while standing to feel the awesome and holy thing we are doing? Christ Himself in his agony of prayer at Gethsemane flung himself to the ground and, Luke says, knelt.

Although it is distinctly undemocratic, man seems always to have had an instinct to kneel or prostrate himself before the great gods, excepting the all-too-human Greek gods; but in the Church there was an effort, perhaps from the very first, to make us stand, especially on Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. But Tertullian in the third century complained that people were still kneeling. The Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, acknowledging that folk still knelt, mandated standing. The Eastern Byzantine Church—whether because Nicaea was in its backyard or because in a theocratic empire the people were more obedient—became a standing church. But the Latin Church of the West, despite Nicaea, somehow became a kneeling church. Why? No Council commanded it. Was it that standing for prayer to the Most High was, as I think, contrary to human nature? Was it a message from God? Was it simply that the People of God sensed that kneeling was the way to respond to the holy, the ineffable, the transcendent, the Mystery? Whatever the explanation, we knelt.

Could there be a connection between the criticism that the Church “has lost its sense of mystery and transcendence” and the near abandonment of kneeling? As C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape said of mankind, “whatever their bodies do affects their souls.”

We do not kneel, it is said, because Christ is our brother as well as our leader. Something tells me that if, by the grace of God, I hereafter meet Christ the King face to face, I shall not be giving Him a brotherly slap on the back or a democratic handshake: I shall fall upon my knees. It was the Apostle Thomas, who first in all the history of the world perceived precisely what the Resurrection meant. No longer was it simply the brotherly leader or even Messiah. “My Lord and my God,” he said. “At the name of Jesus,” St. Paul said, “every knee shall bend” (Philippians 2:10).

Awe and mystery are not brotherly feelings, are they? I think we are going to have to choose. Kneeling is prayerful and both expresses and induces a sense of awe and mystery; standing does neither.

A kneeling Church, and a Church of “bells and smells”: is there a connection? If C.S. Lewis is right that what our bodies do affects our souls—that is, when we kneel we become more prayerful—then it would seem to follow that whatever affects our bodies through the senses also affects our souls, especially if there is a strong association. Thus the smell of incense can become—indeed already is—the smell of holiness. The odor of the sacred. Why not incense at all masses? And the asperges—the reminder and renewal of our baptism?

And what of the bells of the “bells and smells”? Long years ago at Oxford I used to go sometimes to the ancient church of Saint-Michael’s-by-the-Northgate. The bell ringer under the tower could see the altar. At the elevation of the Host, he pulled his rope once; and from the high tower—or possibly from heaven—a single, silvery note floated down. Once again at the elevation of the Chalice. The sound of the sacred, the holy. I’ve never forgotten it across the years. Sometimes on a weekday, walking along the busy street, I would hear those bell notes from a weekday Mass; and I’d see some of the people on the street pause and cross themselves.—No, not necessary, but so very wise in the understanding of human nature. What affects our bodies—our noses, our ears—affects our souls. Many of our churches could contrive a clear, beautiful bell note (not a buzzer) at the holy moment, emphasizing the sacred in still another way. Not lessening but adding to the awe and mystery.

Our Lord said: “Worship in spirit and in truth.” And the truth is, we are not pure spirits but bodies too. Therefore our bodies should also worship. Let us understand that truth and help the liturgists to understand it—to understand what C.S. Lewis understood about mankind: our very souls are affected by what our bodies do and what our senses receive. Not just simple medieval peasants but sophisticated twenty-first-century citizens. I suggest that with devout kneeling and the sacramentals the New Mass, too, can be charged with awe and mystery. And our worship will not lose its soul.


  • Sheldon Vanauken

    Sheldon Vanauken (1914 — 1996) is an American author, best known for his autobiographical book A Severe Mercy (1977), which recounts his and his wife's friendship with C. S. Lewis, their conversion to Christianity and dealing with tragedy. He published a sequel, Under the Mercy in 1985.

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