Point Pleasant on the Jersey coast was a frequent summer destination when I was a kid. I had an aunt and uncle there, and cousins, and heading down to the shore was a way of connecting with family while taking advantage of the nearby beach. It may be a frosty time, but don’t forget that summer is just around the corner.
So it is that the ocean looms large in my childhood memories. Even now, landlocked in the Midwest, and decades since I’ve visited a coastline, I can close my eyes and see the surf, smell the Coppertone, hear the gulls, and taste the saltwater taffy.
And I can feel the sand—the hot sand burning my feet as I bolt from the station wagon toward the water, heedless of my mother’s admonition to put on sandals. I wanted to feel that heat and that grittiness. It was what I looked forward to as much as the Atlantic itself. The sand presaged an encounter, an event, and it was always eagerly anticipated—the hotter, the better! And if we chose an access point that was more boardwalk than beach? Somehow, the ocean was diminished when we got there—smaller somehow, less majestic.
Kneeling is like that I think, and it’s the best part of getting to Mass early. With seven kids in tow, making it to Sunday Mass before the Gospel reading can itself be a stretch, so getting there on time is a treat, let alone arriving early. But when it does happen—like for the “Big Liturgies,” requiring early arrival to reserve seats, or when I’m on my own during the week—kneeling before Mass is like feeling that sand push up through my toes. It announces, “Get ready. Something huge is ahead. Like an ocean.”
My affection for kneeling goes back to my first encounters as a Presbyterian with Catholic liturgy, and the revelation that kneeling could be—ought to be—incorporated into the very act of worship itself. Real Presence and Transubstantiation were both mind-boggling and appealing, but my first infatuation with the Mass was its incorporation of posture into public prayer. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess,” St. Paul declares. The confessing part I knew as a born-again Christian. The knee-bowing thing? In church, for real, and not just in the abstract? That was a revelation.
It was also a revelation that the call to kneel, while explicit in Scripture and the rubrics, was profoundly implicit in the solemnity and sacredness of the liturgy itself. The incense and candles, the vessels and vestments, the choreographed movements and the Canon—it was all overwhelming in its numinous opacity, and kneeling came as a relief. As a young Catholic-wannabe, I became utterly convinced that if any of it was true, and God really was making an appearance there, then I was glad for the invitation and permission to kneel—if not to fall prostrate.
So, unlike many post-conciliar churches that abandoned kneelers and kneeling, I can’t get enough of it. This is all the more important as I age and grow in my awareness of the luxury of kneeling—at least on the knees God gave me. I’m a nursing instructor, and my students and I care for plenty of folks following their total knee replacements. Consequently, I’m regularly reminded of how transient kneeling on our own joints can be.
Given that, I’ve even taken to skipping the padded kneelers altogether whenever convenient. Instead, I like to kneel directly on the floor—whether carpeted, wood, or stone. I saw a friend of mine do this once, and the thought of direct knee-to-ground contact appealed to me. Yet I was reluctant to follow his example for a long time out of fear of appearing overly pious—like a Pharisee broadening his phylacteries for all to see.
But then I remembered the beach, and the pleasure of direct contact with that gritty heat and its accompanying shiver of anticipation as the waves beckoned. Give me the floor, I say, as long as I’m able. And I can’t even count it as a small gesture of penance or self-denial for the suffering souls. It’s too enjoyable to be a real sacrifice—I look forward to it with relish every day.
God is an ocean of mercy, and the Mass, our Sacramental shoreline. Kneeling, then, is like a stretch of sand. While we are able, let’s kick off the sandals and run!