Bowing. I do not come from bowing stock. Neither my culture or my faith tradition asks for much bowing. Something within probably resists the humility and vulnerability that bowing requires. And so it seems an odd act to be reflecting on in these darkest of December days. But it is what I have been doing.
It started with attending an Advent evening prayer service at Our Lady of Presentation Chapel offered by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet. I arrived early in the beautiful candlelit sanctuary that, for years, has held the prayers of these kind and mighty women of faith who have given their lives to social justice, art and nurturing generations for the future. Finding a space in one of the pews facing the flickering lights near the altar, I settled in to be silent, quiet, at home in the darkened room. One by one people of all ages arrived. Those that captured my attention, however, were the nuns who clearly had a greater comfort level than others in this space. Their traditional habits a thing of the past, these women instead were clothed in jeans and sweatshirts, colorful sweaters and comfortable pants. Some walked with the help of cane or walker but most moved confidently into the room. And then they bowed. Toward the candles lining the altar. Toward the altar itself. Toward the barely visible crucifix at the front of the sanctuary. One or two forgot something and had to leave their seats, bowing before leaving. and bowing again upon their return.
I found myself wondering what these bowing women thought about when they bent knee or waist and head. I wondered if at this point of their lives they did this so automatically that no thought flew through their heads, only an inner impulse to bow. This ritual action had likely defined their days in ways that are completely foreign to me. And yet I was drawn to it, wanted some of whatever they had for myself.
The three letters of this tiny word create many definitions: bow…to bend the head, body, or knee in reverence, submission, or shame; to incline the head or body in salutation or assent; to cease from competition or resistance; to express by bending the head, body, or knee. And these are just the verbs. A small word with powerful meanings.
Reverence. Submission. Shame. Salutation. Assent. I have thought of what it is that might cause me to follow the example of the sisters and to begin a bowing life. And then I noticed the Sun streaming through my window on a cold, winter day. I bow to its beams warming the floorboards and my bare feet. I picked up the book I had been reading and I bowed to the author and all the authors whose words challenge, inspire, entertain and persuade. I bow to the children learning to read as they struggle with sounds and understanding and the desire to please the adults around them. I bow to artists whose eye for color and form grace my walls and bring me such joy. I bow to the musicians whose work wafts from speaker and concert hall, from sanctuary and street corner providing a respite of sound and sentiment. All these and so much more bring me to a place of reverence and call for bowing.
I found that once you begin to bow you don’t know where to stop. I bow to the mothers who cradle children everywhere but especially those who hold tightly to the children they have carried as they move toward the borders of our country in the hope of a better life. I bow to the fathers who have walked away from pride and purpose to bring children and family through danger hoping to offer a home where those they love can be more than they ever dreamed. I bow to the workers, the helpers, the pray-ers who hand out clothes and meals and try to make connections and something civil out of situations most of us could not imagine. This bowing is full of reverence and laced with shame.
All around the world there are caregivers standing at bedsides and in nursing homes and hospitals, holding hands, dispensing medicine, serving meals, offering smiles and the human touch. I bow to you. I bow to the teachers and the servers, the cooks and the bakers, to the sales clerks and the workers on factory lines whose work is used by most of us and whose names are never known. I bow to those who clean…our houses, our office buildings, our streets. I bow to the ones who know only loneliness at this time of year advertised to house cheer and human connection. I bow to the college students who are making sense of their lives and might be afraid to let their true heart be seen. I bow to all those who have too little and those who have too much and do not know how to share.
You see. Once you start bowing it becomes never ending. Maybe the nuns know that. Certainly the Sufi poet and wise one Rumi knew it. “If God said, ‘Rumi pay homage to everything that has helped you enter my arms,’ there would not be one experience of my life, not one thought, not one feeling, nor any act, I would not bow to.”
So I guess I have chosen to become one who bows. Perhaps it will start out only in my mind but who knows what form it will take as the practice unfolds? If you, too, are interested in the bowing life, please join me.