Go to your local Benedictine Abbey as I did last week and you’ll observe an oddity. In the evening, monks walk into the sanctuary for worship together, side by side, two by two. As they approach the center of the choir, the pairs bow in unison twice, first forward to God, second side to side to one another. What’s all this business of bowing? Monastic life never did appear sensible to busy people.
The first bow I understand completely. After all, they’re monks. Isn’t the monastic life a total surrender of one’s life to God? Monks bow with their possessions, their time, their careers, with their whole lives, declaring in that gesture, “It’s not about me. It’s about God.” When you go into the sacred place next time, give it a try. Take a bow. A few years back, I started doing that little bend at the waist when I entered a sacred place. Strangely, something inside my soul brightened. It was like opening the window blinds and seeing the light of morning for the first time. God is already here. That slight bend of the waist simply acknowledged the wonder-filled presence of the Creator of the universe. One little bend of the waist and out flows all that spiritual stuff which gives our spines the shivers of wonder and reminds us what the wise sages have told us all along, that the chief end of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The Gospel of St. Matthew records that the first thing the Magi did before presenting their extravagant gifts, was to bow in worship before this baby (Matthew 2:11).
That second bow of the monks though is a bit more troubling. I’d prefer my sacred encounter to be just between me and God. We’re into private practice of faith. We’re American. Just me and God. Don’t ask me to walk in together with a stranger. Don’t ask me to bow to the man in the black robe. I hardly even know the guy.
That’s the whole point. Acknowledge the presence of God in the face of a stranger. You’ll find this same expression in the customary greeting in India, “Namaste”. As two people meet, they bow and offer that greeting, which literally translates, “the sacred center of my soul recognizes the presence of God in the sacred center of your soul.” My life is connected with your life. My soul is a sacred space I open to you. I welcome you as a fellow faith pilgrim. Let’s walk together, worship together, learn to love one another. That’s what the second bow is all about.
After that second bow, the monks file quietly into the choir stalls, take their seats and the service begins. Most of what transpires during “the divine office”, as monks call their daily times of worship, most of what happens is antiphonal chanting of the Psalms. They face each other, reciting in simple song the words of ancient prayers, back and forth, line by line, alternating from one side to the next.
Do you see the genius of this arrangement? At the end of a day, monks goes to a sacred place together with other monks, bowing to God and to one another. Of course, they are monks and go to that same sacred place five times daily. During those services lasting around thirty minutes each, they worship in intentional community, with God and with one another, like an ancient dance, but with words, voice and soul. Daily they encounter God in the face of the person in black sitting across the choir simply because they’ve been willing lay down their souls out of love for God love for neighbor as they bow twice.
Art image: Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) “Adoration of the Magi”