Dance of prayer and praise: kneel or stand?

July 9, 2009

I must admit to a certain level of annoyance when, a few years ago, the recommendation came saying that what we had been doing in the church was (again) to be undone. Now we were to stand while praying.

I joined the Episcopal Church when all was consistent and clear: sit for instruction, kneel for prayer and stand for praise. I loved the kneeling – I was meant to be on my knees, arising from a lively sense of guilt of what I have done and left undone. What's more, this seemed beyond a mild suggestion, it was a bold request that one stand during all prayers, especially during the 50 days of Easter.

So I resisted, annoyed when I sneaked a look at those standing. (See C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, where the tempter doesn't go for huge evil acts, but suggests one bring the victim to the right state of disobedience by focusing on the annoying quirks and foibles of the nearby people in the pews.)

At St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Atlanta, the Wednesday morning Bible study is able to explore any subject with our resident theologian, the Rev. John Westerhoff. It took John two tries – a year apart – to get the reasons for the suggested change through my thick and resisting theological head.

After the first explanation in 2007, only because of my respect for John, I made a decision to try. During the 50 days, I reluctantly stood for prayers and found that I had to grasp the pew in front of me as my knees, with a mind of their own, tried to buckle. I was grim-faced – "I will stand!" I found I survived, barely.

Then, one Wednesday morning, John eloquently spoke of the dance we are called to in our church: the liturgy as the music; the church seasons playing the major themes, underpinning all; our bodily position a mirror of the themes, if you will, initiating emotions, a dance amongst the physical, emotional and intellectual parts of self – to the tune of the liturgy.

And then came the clincher. During the penitential season of Lent, we recognize our sinfulness. Confession abounds, we kneel, the music and liturgy change – reflecting the sinful human condition.

But with Easter we become an Easter People for whom Christ died. We are worthy, we are beloved, redeemed, and we (literally) stand as new beings in front of the God who loves us. The liturgy and music change; there is no confession.

Thus, during the 50 days from Easter to Pentecost, we claim a redeemed nature, reflecting it in our bodily posture, standing and facing God. To kneel would be to deny Good Friday and Easter and what they accomplished. To kneel would be an insult to what God did for the world.

In this fashion, my personal change came. I found a delight in standing, claiming the gift of Easter with my whole being: head high, back straight, both during prayers and when receiving Communion. The post-Communion prayer, which always has meant a great deal to me because it sends me forth with a renewed sense of hope, now took on even more meaning. John said that if we stood for only one prayer, this was the one.

I am struck with the second line of that prayer, "you have graciously accepted us as living members." It is a mysterious phrase to me, with some enormously important secret meaning that some day will be clear, but now is just out of reach. The best I can say, inadequately, is that it came to mean that God blessed our human condition; all that "living" implies was tenderly accepted by God.

God joins in and participates fully in our struggle. With my new understanding, I found that "graciously accepted as living members" became a summation in one sentence of what God did and is doing, from the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the empty tomb to now. I think, "Let me cling to this gracious acceptance by God of us and our stumbling, and live life abundantly." I stand to signify this.

When the Easter season (where I stood for all prayers and Communion) was over, I made a decision. I would kneel as I had done before, because I need to kneel and I want to kneel. But when it came to that last prayer, I would stand, even after Easter. I would stand no matter what my week had been, no matter what my life was like or the grief or guilt or worries I had experienced, no matter the tumult. I would stand.

I would claim that, in Christmas, Good Friday and Easter and every day, God graciously accepts and participates in my living, repeatedly. Standing recognizes the gift of God's loving acceptance of humanity, and my standing response during the last prayer of dismissal makes a statement of faith to myself. When the cross goes by, I turn – another movement in the dance – following the cross into the world, a dance to be repeated in an act of Christian faith. Dancing, I am keeping the feast.

-- Pat Royalty is a parishioner at St. Anne's Church, Atlanta.

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