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.