The Monastic Bow

There is a small part of monastic ceremonial outsiders often find ‘incredibly cute’ or ‘delightfully quaint’ — the monastic bow. We have three kinds. There is the low bow from the waist, the so-called profound bow, which we make to the altar, during the first half of the Gloria Patri and certain other prayers, when making satisfaction for coming late to choir, and to the body of a deceased person, in recognition of its having been the Temple of the Holy Spirit; the bow of head and shoulders which we make to the Crucifix, to one another in procession before going to our choir places, when receiving a blessing or praying grace; and the bow of the head which we make when naming Jesus, to one another when we pass by, or to say ‘thank you’ or acknowledge some instruction or courtesy. Cute? Quaint? Not at all. The monastic bow is a form of body language which those who speak it know transforms how they see the world — quite literally.

When we bow, our gaze is lowered, our perspective altered. We have to shift our position, so to say, to see what grounds us, maybe confront our own feet of clay. We have to acknowledge the existence of the other, whether that other be God or one in whom God dwells. We move from centre stage and are reminded that our true dignity rests on something we all share equally, our common humanity. It is a way of allowing the grace of humility to inform our being. And while that may seem a small thing, I have never yet heard of a truly humble person starting a war, tricking or defrauding another, or treating anyone with contempt.

I am not suggesting that we should all adopt the monastic bow, but surely it would be worthwhile thinking what rituals in everyday life help to reinforce our Christian values. We are now in Passiontide, when our thoughts turn towards Calvary and that greatest bow of all, when God in Christ bowed his head on the Cross and redeemed the world. Somethng to ponder there, I think.

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9 thoughts on “The Monastic Bow”

  1. I now use the profound bow rather than genuflecting, as not only do I think it looks more respectful, but it is much easier on the knees and avoids having to hold on to something whilst attempting to rise from the genuflection – one of the perils of later middle age.

  2. Yes, Yes and Yes.

    Bowing appropriately has meaning, and I’ve tried to give meaning to when and how that I do things from habit, with no real understanding, apart from bowing being a mark of respect.

    I now have a theological response and explanation, thanks to your kind, informative post.

    Thank you.

  3. Remembering humility is physical as well as mental, bowing reminds me of this. I now instinctively bow my head at the name of Jesus, and for the Gloria do a profound bow because I have done it so much. It is not for looks so much as a reminder to be humble before God and respectful.

  4. It is a sign of humility and respect. I use the genuflection as a sign of deep humility and respect and love when acknowledging our Lord and the Sacrament and am finding it hard as my arthritic condition increases — but what is that to what Christ suffered for us. I am just grateful for a prop to help me. It is a sign of love to Him Who has called me to be His handmaiden

  5. At the Eucharist we take the body of Christ therefore using our own bodies in worship surely is central to Christianity.I always cross myself upon receipt of a blessing,when receiving communion and at the end of the creed.I also genuflect when going up to receive communion.During prayer I don’t kneel but I always make sure I have a good,relaxed posture.

  6. I’m not a a fan of “look-at-me” ritualism, as I’m sure no one else here is, but am aware of how we lose that use of the body in liturgy and private prayer at our peril. We are bodies, after all.

  7. When I was a Benedictine novice, I had my doubts about these “quaint” practices, and felt some rebellion about them. I was taught then that we are whole beings, body, mind, soul, and spirit, and that we involve our entire selves in all aspects of our lives in God. Being in processions, genuflecting (those were the days!), bowing to each other and to all the holy things in the church and monastery, the small head bow that acknowledges the very real presence of Christ within those we are passing: all these are steps of a divine dance we create with each other and with Christ as our partner. We have faith in these things, but we can make them more present in ourselves and in the world.

    As we we are learning more and more from neuroscience, the more of entire selves we use in learning or doing something, the more quickly and thoroughly we learn it. We know now that if we write or take notes by hand, we learn faster and retain the information longer than if we type on a computer or a smartphone, because writing by hand involves more senses. I recently heard of a study comparing reading a real, old-fashioned book with reading on an e-reader. Again, we learn that when we engage with a physical book, turning pages, remembering what side of the page something is on, etc. we learn faster, and retain more. We figure out “who done it” more easily and quickly!

    In our techno-culture, it’s very easy to become “neck-up” beings. But we are not neck-up beings at all. We honor and praise God, the holy truths, and each other as we dance the cosmic and sacred dances, involve our entire bodies and souls, and know that we absolutely do not dance alone!

  8. When I was living in a monastic community, I used to think of the monastic bow as a form of ‘dance’.
    Yes the movement was simple, sparse, slow, not very flashy or technical, perhaps stately, dignified, as well as humble.
    All in all it felt an appropriate way for the monastic to ‘dance’ before God. The Office then became a dance as well as a song, using our whole body as well as our voice, eyes and ears.

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