(This is Neil.) I am not sure how much experience most of my readers will have with prostrations, as opposed to simply kneeling. But Fr John Breck’s current “Life in Christ” column reminds us that prostrations continue to play an importance role in the spiritual lives of our Orthodox (and, presumably, Eastern Catholic) brothers and sisters. At the very least, his column can remind us that certain physical gestures and movements – not just words – can help us draw nearer to God. This is something that we often forget.
Please let me know in the comments if your spiritual life involves prostrations.
I also want to say that Fr Breck cautions us that prostrations are not ends in themselves – “they exist for the sole purpose of leading us to Christ, who alone heals our brokenness, forgives our sin, and draws us into eternal communion with God and with one another.” This means, for instance, that someone who spends a good deal of time considering the times and places for prostrations but seems largely unconcerned about justice is most probably (and sadly) missing the point.
Here, then, is a short excerpt from Fr Breck, asking “And why do we make prostrations?”
A fine answer to the question appears in the writings of the great hesychast bishop Theoliptos of Phildelphia (+1322). “Do not neglect prostration,” he admonishes his spiritual children. “It provides an image of man’s fall into sin and expresses the confession of our sinfulness. Getting up, on the other hand, signifies repentance and the promise to lead a life of virtue. Let each prostration be accompanied by a noetic invocation of Christ, so that by falling before the Lord in soul and body you may gain the grace of the God of souls and bodies.”
The importance of prostrations, from Theoliptos’ point of view, is far more spiritual than physical. In bending our knees we assume an attitude of humility before the God to whom we offer our prayer. Kneeling, then touching our forehead to the ground, we acknowledge our sinfulness; we create a living image of our fall into sin. Our very posture represents a confession of that state, a calling to mind of our spiritual poverty, of our susceptibility to passions of greed, lust, anger and malice. As we make our descent in body and in spirit, we confess as well the Name above every name, the Name that “upholds the universe,” as the Shepherd of Hermas expresses it, and upholds our personal world as well: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”
Then, as we rise to our feet, this confession both of Christ and of our sinfulness becomes a bodily symbol, a virtual promise, that change will occur in our life. We commit ourselves to repentance, to a turning from the old Adam to the new. The inner transformation signified by this gesture of course does not come about as a result of our prostrations, and not even as a result of our decision to repent. Like every aspect of our Christian life, this transformation – the power to act upon our commitment – is a gift of grace that comes down “from above, from the Father of lights.”