The genius of genuflection: considering embodied memory/belief

“Ah! Sainsbury’s! We stand on hallowed ground! We have to genuflect!” Thus spake the father, and both father and daughter knelt accordingly.

This actually happened. I was quite young, less than ten years old. I remember giggling, and being both simultaneously embarrassed (because who genuflects to the fruit stand at the entrance of the supermarket, I mean really) and proud that my father cared so little for other people’s opinions that he’d do this regardless, just to bring some levity to one of the most tedious of everyday activities. It also stands out in my memory as one small indication of the peculiar combination of acceptance and complete irreverence that has characterised my family’s approach to Roman Catholicism.

For those who are uninitiated (pun very much intended), genuflection is the combination of bending one knee and simultaneously making the sign of the cross when you enter a church, often having dipped your finger into the dish of sanctified water placed in the entrance specifically for this purpose. The genuflection is made to the light of Christ, symbolised (in Catholic churches at least) by a candle which remains lit all year round. The only days in the liturgical calendar when one does not genuflect are between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, during which time the candle is snuffed.

Protestants don’t genuflect. I don’t know exactly why, but I assume it’s one of the ritualised aspects of worship that got thrown out with the baby’s bathwater during the Reformation and the various upheavals which align with that event. I am not a theologian. Don’t come for me.

I still genuflect. I am a practising Catholic (or, as ‘practising’ as one can be during lockdown etc.) and the action is ingrained to the extent that I feel a sense of physical wrongness if I enter a church and fail to make any form of genuflection – regardless of the building’s denomination. I have observed that Catholics of all stripes are so similarly habituated to the action that they forget not to genuflect when they enter the church for services on Good Friday and Easter Saturday.

Despite all the practice, it’s still embarrassing, whether or not you’re in Sainsbury’s. So is walking back through town on Ash Wednesday with a weird misshapen smudge of ash on your forehead (it’s meant to be a cross). In a very unsubtle manner, the extent to which I am willing to make such outward expressions of my faith is directly correlated to how committed I am to my faith at any one point (this fluctuates, I am human) and how much I am channelling my father’s ‘devil may care’ attitude to the approbation or censure of others. I am always in awe of the level of personal commitment evinced by those of other faiths whose outward expressions are less optional and discrete.

That embarrassment is something that has always troubled me. It indicates to me that I am more concerned about what total strangers may think of my actions than whether I act in accordance with my own commitments. This is something that I, as someone who has battled chronic shyness and self-esteem issues, continue to wrestle with.

But lo! A ray of light. (metaphorically)

I have recently begun a more concerted effort to chip away at my reading pile. Of course, in the course of doing so, I inevitably add to the long list, as I discover exciting new works as referenced by far more distinguished thinkers than I could hope to be. One of those additions has been an edited volume outlining the contributions of various scholars to the field of cultural approaches to the study of religion. Today’s blog post is a direct result of reading about the work of Catherine M. Bell as described by Kevin Lewis O’Neill in chapter 4 of Bloesch, S. J. & Minister, M. (Eds.). (2019). Cultural Approaches to Studying Religion. An Introduction to Theory and Methods.

In this chapter on Bell’s work – the various books and articles of which I shall of course add to my never-ending reading list – O’Neill outlines how Bell was influenced by the sociologist of memory Paul Connerton (How Societies Remember, 1989). Connerton saw memory as being something inherently embodied, and which becomes ‘silted’ into “corporeal consciousness and praxis by way of bodily gestures” (O’Neill, p. 71).

“In the cultivation of habit,” he writes, “it is our body that understands.” (Connerton, 1989, 95).

Bell used Connerton’s threefold framework of memory (personal memory, cognitive memory, and habitual memory [embodied memory]) in connection with a Bourdieusian understanding of the social role of bodily comportment. This leads us to the revelation that “habits of memory reside in the body. They work through the body, and they contribute to the constitution of a body’s personhood” (O’Neill, 71).

Bell’s greatest contribution to field of religious studies was the realisation of ritual as strategic action which creates, perpetuates and constitutes the person within the social. O’Neill’s discussion of Bell’s reworking of Connerton’s work – into personal belief, cognitive belief and habitual belief – immediately put me in mind of the embarrassment of genuflection, and I realised that, in a very basic sense, that’s the point.

The point of the physical act of genuflection is to humble yourself before God – to remind you of your smallness in the face of all the world has to offer. The embodied practice is a shortcut to reminding oneself that there’s a lot of work to be done and that you are starting from so far down, and have so far to climb. Rising from the genuflection is a renewal – you feel refreshed and ready for a new start.

Now – how many times have you felt that someone ought to be reminded that they are a humble, fallible human and not, in fact, an omnipotent being? In our society, there are relatively few opportunities, woven so concretely into daily life, to be so forcefully reminded of your humanity. Unless one practices Mindfulness and sees every stubbed toe and subsequent curse as a sign of human physical and mental fragility. I am not that mindful. I just swear.

Overall, I guess the point of this rambling is merely to put a slight dent in all those overconfident assertions that religious ritual is all needless, superstitious mumbo jumbo. We could all do with a moment to remember our smallness, and to then begin again with renewed purpose. Genuflection does just that. It’s a small physical action that has consequences for the conception of self, of purpose, and of possibility. So, to an extent, I can know that feeling small and embarrassed is a function of my humanity, and presents an opportunity for overcoming.

One thought on “The genius of genuflection: considering embodied memory/belief

  1. I am reminded of the gates through which you pass when entering a Shinto temple. Physical rituals are are understood as prayers in action and yes, these actions become embedded in our longterm memory because they involve both the mind and the body simultaneously. This is something all good teachers understand well.
    I enjoyed reading this blog, thank you.


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