Kiss stole

Pope Francis kisses his stole

Let me come clean with you: I kiss my stole, the altar, the Gospel Book; I cross myself; I bow towards the altar; I cross mind, lips, and heart at the Gospel; I pray with hands raised; I bow at the Name of Jesus; I genuflect for the Reserved Sacrament; I stand to pray; I process; I kneel; I lay on hands to pray for others; I shake hands and hug; I sing… I am not some disembodied spirit. I am enfleshed. And I pray with my body – not in spite of it, nor ignoring it. Prayer, for me, is not just stringing together endless words…

I guess some time I must have started doing these things. I can’t remember the first time I did any of these things. They are habits. If you don’t use your body in prayer (and of course your body is doing something when you pray…) try it. Don’t be embarrassed.

Friends pointed to Lutheran pastor, Benjamin Dueholm’s post “Why I kiss my stole“. He says:

…The importance of habit for religion, morality, and social harmony is taken for granted in most of the ancient religious and philosophical thought I’ve encountered. Jesus complicated things. He carried on the prophetic tradition of criticizing received habit and ritual formalism, criticizing, for instance, the custom of washing hands and vessels before eating. Pure intentions and just relationships can be obscured by adherence to such customs. But the power of meaning embedded in endlessly, reliably repeated actions is stronger than any one critique…

Jesus says

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.

Sure, there’s a serious problem if we do only the outward things and neglect or negate their point, their meaning… “these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others”. Sure, if kissing your spouse is a mere formalism without any inner content, and the relationship is one of neglect and abuse – then “Woe to you!” But I cannot share the stark anti-bodily-expression perspective within the Christian spectrum that would, effectively, never kiss one’s spouse because that is merely “external ritual”…

Ritual actions, the scholars of religion tell us, are generally older and less liable to change than the words that accompany them, the stories that explain them, or the meanings we glean from them. …

There is great resilience in equivocal habits such as these. Ritual actions that sustain multiple meanings can linger, even as the movement of will that we call “belief” fades in and out. If there is indeed a renewal of high-liturgical worship among American Christians, I would guess that this is why. A worship experience rich in stable symbolism and repeated gesture can speak to us when the bare demand for assent and enthusiasm expressed by minimal liturgy does not.

I started kissing my stole when I was still awed to be wearing it and to be inhabiting the office it represents. I do it now as a sign of reverence for a task that must be faithfully and lovingly done whether or not I feel awed by it at a given moment.

I can’t make any great claim for the efficacy of such gestures. If I could, this efficacy would quickly substitute itself for the real meanings of the habit. But these meanings have silently connected hundreds of forgotten liturgies, hundreds of fellow humans journeying to healing or death, thousands of unremarkable family meals and bedtimes into a whole that is much bigger than any given moment. They are tiny soundings dropped from the little bark of consciousness into the ocean of life below….

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