This article was written for a Covering Religion class, taught by Ari Goldman. The assignment was to capture a ritual moment in our beat. As I covered women’s religious orders, I decided to go to mass with the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary.
To kneel is to know
By Anne Cohen
Inside a small chapel on West 124th Street in Manhattan, the candles cast a warm glow on the Franciscan Handmaids of Mary as they prepare for morning mass by reciting their daily prayers. The lighted interior offers a stark contrast with the darkness just outside its doors. It is 6:45 in the morning and the sun has not yet risen.
Sister Roselyn, of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus (an affiliated order) closes her eyes as she prays. With the last words of the “Our Father,” Sister Roselyn begins to kneel for the next prayer.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with you.
As she lowers herself from the blue upholstered chair, Sister Roselyn bends first her left knee, then her right, her black leather clogs lodged neatly under her seat. Her spine is rigid as she adjusts to the new position.
Blessed are you among women,
And blessed is the fruit of your womb,
Sister Roselyn’s grey and black speckled wool skirt drapes over the kneeler. She closes her eyes and her face is serene; only her lips move, her reedy yet gentle voice blending with the chorus of prayer.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners,
Out of the 15 sisters attending the service, only 11 are kneeling. The four eldest sisters remain seated, unable to keep up with the constant up and down dance. In the 1960s, there were more than 80 members. Now, they are down to 21. Their average age is 72.
Sister Roselyn clasps her hands as she kneels, her fingers massaging each other as her programs for the morning service hangs limply from the tips of her fingers.
Now and at the hour of our death.
The doorbell suddenly rings. It is the chaplain, come to say morning mass. Sister Roselyn pushes up on the chair in front of her, and stiffly rises, lifting first one knee, then the other. She then heads towards the door, her feet shuffling on the carpet.
The Oxford dictionary definition of the verb “genuflect” is: “to move your body into a lower position by bending one or both knees, as a sign of respect during worship in a Church.” The act of kneeling, or genuflecting, is so tied to the Christian service that the very word has taken on religious meaning. In the modern era , religion may be the only reason left to kneel; embellished bows to monarchs are a thing of the past. Bending one’s knee signifies reverence before God.
Though the practice of kneeling is mentioned in the Old and New Testaments, it was not always a part of traditional prayer. In fact, Jews, and early Christians, prayed standing up. Kneeling was gradually introduced during in the West during the Middle Ages as a standard practice of prayer and was generally adopted.
Sister Roselyn, originally from Nigeria, has been a Handmaid of the Blessed Child Jesus for 26 years, 11 of which have been spent in New York. For her, kneeling is more than just a ritual; it means showing her devotion to her Lord. “It’s like the Reverend God humbles you,” she says. “To kneel is like saying to God: ‘I am your humble servant.’”