Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Flectamus Genua, &c.

A cyber friend, Jonathan, poses an excellent question regarding the nature and purpose of the rubric "Flectamus genua," immediately followed as it is by "Levate." Many of us are familiar with the rubric. Some of you have at least seen it in my latest post. It is what I have translated as "Let us kneel," and "Let us rise." The Paschal Vigil is not the only time it is heard in the Church. It also shows up, eg. on some of the Ember Days. It's meaning and significance is not immediately or naturally clear to modern sensibilities. So it is worth taking a close look at it. And I'm glad the question was raised, for it is a topic I have pondered for some time, and it is, in my view, worthy of its own entry here.

Isn't it a bit odd to have the congregation kneel only to have them immediately stand back up? What could be the purpose?

In this regard, it might be good to first point out that differences in interpretation sometimes result from different ways of translating the Latin. Many naturally conclude when looking at the phrase "flectamus genua," that it's normal translation would be "Let us genuflect," or something to that effect. Now it is true (and too often not appreciated) that "genuflect" can have several different meanings in terms of actual bodily posture. Therefore, it is not necessarily incorrect to translate it as a direction to genuflect, except that because genuflect, in different texts, has meant different things, I would say that a more precise and clear translation should be used, unless this were a rubric to genuflect in the specific and narrow sense that this word has come to take on in the Western liturgy.

So what is meant by this flectamus genua? Of course literally it is to flex the knees, to bend the knees. A genuflection, in the proper liturgical sense, is to have only the right knee touch the ground, and to rise again immediately. We do this at the end of the pew if we are in the presence of the venerable Sacrament; we do this during the Credo in the Mass; etc. And when one genuflects, he has no need of someone to tell him to get back up (eg., Levate), since a genuflection, by definition, means that once the knee has touched the floor, one stands erect again.

As you see above, I have translated these words to mean that we should kneel down, ie., to lower oneself to both knees. The reason is embedded in the nature of the ritual of the vigils of the ancient church, and even helps us underastand, I think, why we call collects "collects." Let me explain.

The Flectamus genua is related to the very character of the early church's vigils, its services of prayer and watching, which featured both a plentitude of scripture on the one hand, and extended periods of prayer on the other, both individual and corporate, both private and collective. The early church knew a beautiful and healthy rhythm of receiving the Word and then meditating upon it, and then praying to God, which in its essence is a breathing back to our Beloved Lord the Word that He first gives to us.

So when the bishop or local pastor announces that it is time to pray, the deacon directs the people to kneel down. And though the rubrics in our books have nothing between this and the subdeacon directing the people to stand, we need not infer that this Levate must come immediately after. When the people kneel, the ideal is that they take a moment to ponder what they have just heard, to meditate, to pray. It is advisable, in my opinion, to let this kneeling last about as long as it takes to pray an Our Father. That's really not very long, and we need to train ourselves not to be so worried about the passage of time when we are at prayer. We must face our lack of discipline and say, as Father William Weedon puts it, "Stop looking at your watch, let the Word swirl around you and sink into you and do its job, and be amazed at the great things our God has done, and still does and will do FOR YOU!"

I am also reminded of something Romano Guardini wrote in the last century. In his book of reflections on the Mass titled, Meditations Before Mass, published by Newman Press in 1955, he holds forth at length on the value of training ourselves in the spiritual value of such things as stillness and composure. Let me quote just a brief portion or two from his discussion:

Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life; the quiet at the depths of its hidden stream. It is a collective, total presence, a being "all there," receptive, alert, ready. There is nothing inert or oppressive about it.

Attentiveness-that is the clue to the stillness in question, the stillness before God.

And further on he writes,

Only the composed person is really someone. Only he can be seriously addressed as one capable of replying. Only he is genuinely affected by what life brings him, for he alone is awake, aware. And not only is he wide awake in the superficial sense of being quick to see and grab his advantage-this is a watchfulness shared also by birds and ants. What we mean is true awareness: that inner knowledge of the essential; that ability to make responsible decisions; sensitivity, readiness, and joie de vivre.

Once composure has been established, the liturgy is possible. Not before. It is not much use to discuss Holy Scripture, the deep significance of symbols, and the vitality of the liturgical renewal if the prerequisite of earnestness is lacking. Without it, even the liturgy deteriorates to something "interesting," a passing vogue. To participate in the liturgy seriously we must be mentally composed. But, like silence, composure does not create itself; it must be willed and practiced.

And so we kneel there, for just a brief, but potentially rich moment. Then, when the subdeacon announces, Levate, the priest, who stands for both the people in one sense, and for Christ in another, now sums up all the concerns and prayers of the Christian community, even those known only in our hearts; he collects them into a concise prayer, which he prays aloud. The People make it theirs by their Amen.

As a footnote, let me point out that the fact that this rubric shows up on certain Ember Days is a clue, along with the multiple lessons, that these are remnants of what once were also true vigils. And the fact that the people would keep vigil in this way, in preparation for the rite of Holy Ordination which would be administered on the candidates for the diaconate and the priesthood at the end of the Ember week, shows the great faith of the Christians of former days, and the extent to which they honored and venerated the Ministry of the Word.

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