“And on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
For many Christians, prostration is a forgotten posture of prayer.
To prostrate oneself is to lie flat on one’s face, or to bow low and touch one’s face to the ground. It is the ultimate gesture of submission and worship. Our bodies speak outwardly the act of surrender we are choosing with our will.
We are probably more familiar with the prostrations of Muslim or Buddhist prayer, or the acts of groveling that courtiers made toward their rulers in ancient pagan cultures. But prostration also has deep Jewish and Christian roots.
If you google “prostration in the bible,” you might be amazed at how often this posture is utilized in both the Old and New Testament. Whether Moses in the meeting tent or the twenty-four elders around the heavenly throne of the Apocalypse, prostration is a fitting response to the glory of the living God.
Catholics regularly engage in a modified form of prostration by genuflecting in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus or by kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. Let’s face it, we often just go through the motions and don’t really think about the spiritual significance! We would do well to be mindful and intentional each time we engage in it.
Full-blown prostration also occurs in Catholic liturgy, but rarely. On Good Friday the priest and deacon enter in silence, reverence the altar, and then lay on their faces in prostration. The congregation accompanies them by kneeling in silence. The Latin instructions for the Missal use the verb prosternunt for both gestures (lying on one’s face vs. kneeling). Both are acts of humbling oneself and submitting to the living God.
For us priests, perhaps our most vivid memory of prostration is from our ordination day, when we lay face-down on the floor of the cathedral for several minutes. Meanwhile, everyone in attendance knelt down and chanted the Litany of the Saints, imploring all of heaven to pray for us so that God would bless and consecrate us in the ministry we were about to receive. I felt so blessed and loved and connected and supported in that humble moment. All was gift.
All is still gift, but I easily forget that truth. During the last year, I have found myself occasionally returning to that posture of prostration, and receiving much fruit from God.
This past June, as I entered into five days of silence for my annual retreat, I found myself under spiritual attack. It happens. Certainly we shouldn’t try to see “the devil under every rock” or over-spiritualize daily life. Often the devil need not attack us because we are doing a perfectly good job of self-sabotage!
But the devil sometimes does attack– usually in the dark shadows of our heart, trying to get us to believe his subtle lies. Sometimes he ambushes us outright. The words of Paul are certainly true: “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12).
I found myself paralyzed by fear and anxiety and hopelessness – and without any obvious explanation of why this was coming over me so strongly and so suddenly. I struggled to go to the chapel and struggled to pray. I began reading Galatians and the call to live by faith in Jesus Christ rather than by our own efforts. I recognized that I was being paralyzed by my pride and self-reliance, that I was resisting a total surrender to God. I recognized that I was being oppressed by a spirit of fear and anxiety – indeed by that very spirit who is the evil master of this present age (cf. Galatians 1:4). Feeling the call to surrender to Jesus in faith, I followed a prompting of the Holy Spirit and prostrated myself, then and there. I renounced pride and self-reliance and begged Jesus to deliver me. It was liberating; the change was dramatic and lasting. The remaining five days of the retreat were a time of deep serenity and fruitfulness. Even months later, I find myself still reaping the fruits.
Since then, I have often returned to that posture of prostration – especially when I find my own will getting in the way or find myself struggling to trust and surrender. Mind you, I always look around to make sure that no one is watching. I am still way too insecure and self-conscious. Even if I don’t physically prostrate myself, I sometimes do so spiritually.
Trusting God as a loving Father has been hard for me. My wounds of fear and shame get in the way; lies about who I am and who God is get in the way. But above all else, my pride and self-reliance get in the way. Jesus alone can deliver me from these lies and proclaim his truth in my heart.
There is nothing magical about the gesture of prostration. But we are a unity of body, mind, and spirit. God made the whole person, not just our souls. It makes so much sense to worship him with our whole self. Yes, we Catholics have much to learn from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. But on this point of bodily worship, I think we Catholics have much to teach (if only we can appreciate it ourselves!).
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Whether we prostrate ourselves physically or spiritually or both, let us all, like the Magi at Bethlehem, submit ourselves to the King of kings and allow his wisdom to reign in our heart.