Monday, January 27, 2014

On one's knees

A phrase from a collection of essays I am reading: "It reduced and assuaged the powerful desire to kneel."

I want to address that powerful desire. But first, what is the source of the phrase? I won't say. But –- and this is the miracle of the internet –- you can Google the exact phrase (in quotes) and find the source in the whole semi-infinite world of published words.

Yes, OK. We are talking about Claudia Roth Pierpont's essay on the South African writer Olive Schreiner, daughter of Christian missionaries who was herself agnostic, originally published in New Yorker, and subsequently collected in a book called Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World.

I'm not interested here in Schreiner. It's that "powerful desire to kneel" that interests me. What is it? Where does it come from? Is it something we need reduce and assuage?

That it exists is undeniable. The vast majority of people in the world spend a significant part of their lives on their knees. I spent a goodly part of my own young life on my knees. Perhaps you did too. Some sort of urge to say "Gee," "Wow," "Thanks" seems part of the human condition.

And no need to deny it. I think of the poet Mary Oliver:
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into he grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed…
The problem comes, I think, when kneeling become subservience. When attention surrenders to obedience. When thankfulness becomes apology.

To kneel before wonder is human. To grovel is perhaps human too, but we need not embrace every urge with which nature has endowed us.