The postures of devotion vary greatly from sanctuary to sanctuary
By KRISTEN CAMPBELL Religion Reporter
a) Stand, hands folded, eyes closed
b) Kneel, hands folded, eyes closed
c) Stand, arms raised, eyes open
d) Wash hands, mouth, face and feet; prostrate yourself
e) Sit very still, possibly on a meditation cushion, eyes closed
f) None of the above
g) All of the above
In the United States, the correct answer is "g," plus a few more variations.
The nation is one in which Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Jews, Buddhists and Bahai's live side by side - and sometimes share worship spaces. For all that, many believers are often at a loss as to what goes on inside their neighbors' sanctuaries, not to mention what motivates their actions.
"The remarkable thing is that theologically the groups may be very close to one another," says Donald K. Berry, professor of religion at the University of Mobile. "Worship styles may be more divisive than theology in some respects."
Hence, a Christian accustomed to worshipping in a "high church" setting in which members sit, stand and kneel as one, may be unsettled by services in which members clap, shout and stand as they see fit. The uneasiness might exist though both communities express similar doctrine and indeed, would be articulating similar ideas through their disparate actions.
"The different postures are often related to particular kinds of cultural expressions," said the Rev. Christopher J. Viscardi, chairman of the theology department at Spring Hill College in Mobile.
For example, he says, in Italy, kissing a hand was a sign of respect to parents or others. Likewise, he says, genuflecting, or bending the knee, is a gesture that dates back to the medieval era, when individuals would bow before those of a higher rank.
Today, many Catholics genuflect before they are seated at Mass, thereby paying homage to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Some might also kiss the ring of a bishop to show their respect, Viscardi notes.
Other postures believers might assume during services are rooted in Scripture. The psalms denote kneeling as a form of praise or adoration, as well as a sign of submission, Viscardi says, and became "enshrined" in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church.
Even so, there are exceptions.
"In the Easter liturgy, in the Easter spirit of Resurrection, instead of kneeling, there are certain times when we stand to underline the Easter theme of rising again in resurrection," Viscardi says.
To an outsider, the sit-stand-kneel regimen of some liturgical worship services, as well as the movements common within Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim communities, may seem like religious calisthenics. To the member, the movements alone offer a visible prayer, a physical reflection of the joy, submission and repentance that may permeate some prayers.
"There's biblical precedents for everything...from standing in worship to kneeling to sitting to falling prostrate on the floor," says John Chisum, worship pastor at Christ Episcopal Church. "Our bodies worship just like our spirits worship. God does not separate the two. Often we do in our own Christian cultures; we decide what is culturally acceptable within our church traditions."
At Christ Episcopal Church, Chisum says he assumes a variety of postures as he worships, from kneeling to standing with hands raised. When kneeling, he says, he is humbling himself publicly before God. In standing with arms outstretched, he's surrendering to God. Says Chisum: "It's almost like lifting my arms up to my father, like Daddy, Abba. Reaching up for him to pick me up and hold me close, like a child."
While most religious communities encourage corporate worship, individuals will bring their own theology to the experience, Berry says.
"Each person can commune with God in his own way," Berry says. "You don't have to be in total agreement with everything that goes on in a worship service to commune with God, to have that encounter with God that worship presumes."
Mary Filben, a member of Holy Family Catholic Church in Mobile, has that encounter when she worships with Mobile's Jewish congregations.
"When I go to the temple or to the synagogue, I love going to the services there," she says. "For me as a Christian, I know who I am and what I choose to be. The worship services at the temple and the synagogue - I come away from there feeling at peace and renewed. So the temple and synagogue services simply add to my love for Christianity."
For some, Filben says, the experience would be one to be avoided, or confronted with trepidation.
"The idea still exists that Christianity superseded the first covenant and Judaism, and those people who feel that way might be a little uncomfortable," she says.
But some who avail themselves of opportunities to worship with their neighbors of other faiths may find themselves surprisingly at home. Filben remembers a nun who attended a Shabbat service several years ago; after worship, Filben says, the nun commented on the beauty of the service and said, "This would be the way that Jesus worshipped."
Says Filben: "She felt good."
Indeed, Berry notes that believers' perspectives can be enhanced by worshipping in religious communities different from their own.
A member of First Baptist Church of Mobile, Berry says he enjoys worship with the Greek Orthodox community in Malbis, as well as with Episcopalian and Jewish communities along the Gulf Coast.
"Worship is the way that we make our way to God," Berry says. "Our minds are always free. We can always relate to God in our own way."
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