Last week I went to my first Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts without knowing what it was about. Fortunately, another parishioner took me under her wing and guided me through the service. It’s not an ordinary liturgy; there are prostrations. Lots of them. Orthodox Christians don’t just kneel, they get down. All the way down, with a full-body bow. I’d read about it, but this was the first time I’d ever had to do it in public.
Here’s what was going on in my head while I tried to make prostrations: Shit. I hope no one is looking at me. Oh, wow, that was graceless and awkward. Oops, my shoe came off. How embarrassing. Here we go again. Maybe this one will be better. Nope. Wow, I’m really bad at this.
As the service continued, I got better at it. I also realized that no one was scrutinizing me, because I wasn’t watching anyone else. I mean, it’s hard to look at anyone when you’re face-down on the rug. The less self-conscious I became, the more I got into it and was able to focus on why I was prostrating myself and less on how I was doing it.
Making a prostration is bowing to God. In the West — but especially in America — we don’t bow to anyone. It’s not part of our culture to be deferential. I’ve been to Protestant churches where people occasionally get down on their knees, but this is usually a big deal: the people are crying at the altar, emotional music is playing, and there’s a general sense of petitioning or repentance. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But, you know, God made freaking Saturn. Maybe we should bow just because God is God, not because we’re sorry or because we want something.
One of the things I love about the Orthodox church is its physical expressiveness. In Orthodoxy, as I understand it, the body isn’t a sinful sack of shame, but a tool. This is why Orthodox worship fully engages the senses with colorful icons, incense, liturgical chanting, and bodily routines like making the sign of the cross or prostrations.
For me, these things serve as important spiritual anchors. When it comes to the numinous, we really don’t have anything to hang onto; conceptually, God is just too big. Thinking about God can be like walking around in a heavy fog. This is where it becomes tempting to rely on pronouns and jargon and hackneyed conceits: God as Police Chief, or Jolly Grandpa, or Uncle Sam. This is where, for me, the prostrations and icons and incense come in. They help me to concentrate, they help remind me of what I am doing and why. They are ballasts in the mystery.