Kneeling at Prayer: Some Historical and Spiritual Musings
One of the most difficult cultural boundaries for Westerners of any liturgical background — and of no liturgical background — to cross when attending the Eastern Rite is the posture of prayer. Even the most non-liturgical Christian can recall how "I drop to my knees by her bed at night." Since many of us, both Eastern and Western Rite, kneel at prayer most Sundays, I thought I'd pass on these thoughts about this traditional Western prayer position. Some present standing as the only acceptable position for prayer, but most Orthodox recognize a variety of postures, even within their own tradition. Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, insightful on so many matters, discusses the long and venerable history of kneeling, dating to Biblical times:
[P]rayer on bended knee is a very special posture of love and supplication to Christ. [Sts.] Peter (Acts 9:40) and Paul (20:36) preferred to pray that way, and we know that Stephan died on his knees in the presence of Christ (7:60).The Catholic Encyclopedia fills in some historical background, from the Old Testament Church to the patristic era. (The full article is worth reading, though it is naturally written from an overly Western point of view.) It notes Jews often prayed standing:
But when the occasion was one of special solemnity, or the petition very urgent, or the prayer made with exceptional fervour, the Jewish suppliant knelt. Besides the many pictorial representations of kneeling prisoners, and the like, left us by ancient art, Gen., xli, 43 and Esth., iii, 2 may be quoted to show how universally in the East kneeling was accepted as the proper attitude of suppliants and dependents. Thus Solomon dedicating his temple "kneeling down in the presence of all the multitude of Israel, and lifting up his hands towards Heaven", etc. (2 Chronicles 6:13; cf. 1 Kings 8:54). Esdras too: "I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands to the Lord my God" (Ezra 9:5); and Daniel: "opening the windows in his upper chamber towards Jerusalem, he knelt down three times a day, and adored, and gave thanks before his God, as he had been accustomed to do before" (Dan., vi, 10), illustrate this practice. Of Christ's great prayer for His disciples and for His Church we are only told that "lifting up his eyes to heaven, he said", etc. (John 17:1); but of His Agony in the Garden of Gethsemani: "kneeling down, he prayed" (Luke 22:41). The lepers, beseeching the Saviour to have mercy on them, kneel (Mark 1:40; cf. 10:17). Coming to the first Christians, of St. Stephen we read: "And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying", etc. (Acts 7:59); of the Prince of the Apostles: "Peter kneeling down prayed" (Acts 9:40); of St. Paul: "kneeling down, he prayed with them all" (Acts 20:36; cf. 21:5). It would seem that the kneeling posture for prayer speedily became habitual among the faithful. Of St. James, the brother of the Lord, tradition relates that from his continual kneeling his knees had become callous as those of a camel (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., II, xxiii; Brev. Rom., 1 May). For St. Paul the expressions "to pray" and "to bow the knee" to God are complementary (cf. Philippians 2:10; Ephesians 3:14, etc.). Tertullian (Ad Scap., iv) treats kneeling and praying as practically synonymous. And when forgiveness of offences has to be besought, Origen (De Orat., 31) goes so far as to maintain that a kneeling posture is necessary...An Eastern Orthodox priest, Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews, discusses the most important aspect of prayer his article about Pentecost in the Byzantine tradition, "Why We Kneel Before God": the spiritual one:
Eusebius (Vita Constant., IV, xxii) declares kneeling to have been the customary posture of the Emperor Constantine when at his devotions in his oratory. At the end of the century, St. Augustine tells us: "They who pray do with the members of their body that which befits suppliants; they fix their knees, stretch forth their hands, or even prostrate themselves on the ground" (De curâ pro mortuis, v). Even for the Ante-Nicene period, the conclusion arrived at by Warren is probably substantially correct: —"The recognized attitude for prayer, liturgically speaking, was standing, but kneeling was early introduced for penitential and perhaps ordinary ferial seasons, and was frequently, though not necessarily, adopted in private prayer" (Liturgy of the ante-Nicene Church, 145). It is noteworthy that, early in the sixth century, St. Benedict (Reg., c. l) enjoins upon his monks that when absent from choir, and therefore compelled to recite the Divine Office as a private prayer, they should not stand as when in choir, but kneel throughout.
We also express our submission and obedience to God by bending our knees or kneeling. At every Divine Liturgy, during the Small Entrance of the Gospel, we sing "Come let us bow down to Christ and worship Him the Son of God ... " It comes directly from Psalm 95:6-7 "Oh come let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His Hand." [This Psalm, the Venite, is the first Psalm or "Invitatory" of Matins in the Western Rite. - BJ.]If an Orthodox Christian of either rite, convert or cradle, feels especially moved to prayer on his or her knees, there is ample Orthodox precedent for the practice. With the understanding that one should discuss all matters with one's spiritual father, do not quench the Spirit. Conversi ad Dominum! Flectamus genua!