“Why bow so often? This is a temple, not a gym!” Neophyte Christians are sometimes indignant when they come to services of Great Lent.
The most important quality of bowing is formulated in the Typicon, regarding the practice of making bows an expression of humility and reverence to God and introducing it into religious worship since ancient times. The number of bows was regulated with time, making them more common on some days (such as Great Lent) and generally cancelling them on others, such as Sundays, holidays and in the period from Easter to Pentecost. For example, the rules of the First and Sixth Ecumenical Councils emphasize that full earth-low bows are not required on Sundays. Despite this, people kneeling or bowing to the ground on Sunday are considered a matter of course. Paradoxically, people, not bowing during Lent, are often condemned.
Not All Bows Are the Same
It is important for a person making bows to understand what he is actually doing. In the Holy Scriptures, people also knelt before the Lord when He was put to trial, but this was a mockery, and not a manifestation of reverence and humility. And then we see completely different bows made by those who needed His healing and help. Let us remember that the Lord Himself knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed to God the Father. The Savior showed us by example that kneeling is not only permissible, but also necessary. The subtleties of this seemingly simple action are explained to us by the holy fathers. They teach the importance of understanding the significance of this practice, so as not to turn bows into some kind of physical exercise. On the other hand, we cannot use our weakness as a general excuse to refuse to bow to the ground.
Weaknesses and How to Treat Them
Let us admit that we are different from people of the 19th and 20th centuries in many ways, including our physical condition. Today standing and bowing appears difficult not only for the elderly, but also for young people. Sometimes we see an old babushka making bows with ease next to a young man, not capable of doing more than two. What to do in this case? We can train slowly, but if an illness or injury makes that impossible, we can still pray while standing.
This moment is important for both the pastor and the parishioner, and both sides should try to enter into dialogue. It is definitely inappropriate to condemn or shame anyone. St Paisios of the Holy Mountain has a wonderful story about how one elder was very fond of bowing to the ground and always recommended this practice to his spiritual children. However, there was a young man among them who was unable to bow due to his illness. That young man used to say that the elder never spoke about bowing either to him or even when he was present, knowing about his weakness and sparing his feelings. As time passed, the young man got stronger, and then the elder began to slowly explain the spiritual meaning of bows to him.
A neophyte who is only beginning to attend church services should not be compelled to make bows. It is best to pray to the Lord and the Mother of God for him so that they soften his heart, and then enter into a dialogue with him and try to find out the reasons preventing him from making bows. It may well be some kind of weakness, or he may be embarrassed or simply unaware of this practice. Then you can have a friendly chat with him.
What should a person do if, for some reason, he cannot bow down to earth?
Clearly, it is difficult for such a person to approach the priest and share his problems or ask him how to do it correctly. Many people, especially neophytes, feel embarrassment in the temple. It seems to them that everyone is looking at them, and if they don’t bow, they generally feel like heretics. Don’t be embarrassed! It’s okay if you can’t bow down. In this regard, I recall a letter from Saint Ambrose of Optina, in which he wrote: “If you cannot bow to the ground, make belt-low bows; if that is also too difficult, say the Jesus Prayer with your lips. <…> This is allowed due to weakness or illness.”
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds