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The Sacred Art of Bowing
When I was living in Tokyo – I was there for 17 years - a joke among foreigners was: “You know you’ve been living in Japan too long when you start bowing while you’re speaking on the telephone.”
Actually, it wasn’t such a joke. I think I’d probably been living in Melbourne for several months before I stopped bowing during phone conversations.
A friend – a long-term Tokyo resident - once told me how he went back to America one Christmas, and during Christmas dinner with his family the phone kept ringing, with old friends calling to say hello. He said he suddenly realised that all through these phone conversations his entire family were watching in utter amazement, as he bowed repeatedly while he spoke.
I’ve been thinking about bowing, thanks to a new book, The Sacred Art of Bowing, by Andi Young, who recently wrote in her blog about my comments on Buddhism.
According to the publisher:
The Sacred Art of Bowing serves as a welcoming introduction to the whys and ways of bowing. This ancient tradition - so often mistakenly tagged as only part of Asian cultures - has roots in nearly every religion around the world. In different forms in different faiths, people bow as a physical expression of their spiritual aspirations, humility, gratitude, and respect.
I haven’t seen the book, so can’t comment on it. But I wish Andi and the book well. I feel that Christians need more bowing.
I recall when I took a course in mediaeval Christian spirituality, some years ago at Yarra Theological Union. Our instructor, a Carmelite priest, spoke with irony of how, when he entered the monastery, huge amounts of ritual bowing took place during all periods of prayer and worship. Then the church decided to modernise, and most of the bowing was abandoned, just at the time when, in the secular world, young people were discovering the ancient traditions of the East, which included much bowing.
I used to visit my instructor’s Carmelite monastery (now the Coptic Orthodox Church headquarters) regularly for its Friday-evening Taize worship service. This always began with a ritual bow and the lighting of a candle, engendering a powerful sense of the holy.
(By contrast, my own church often begins its Sunday worship with the “Am I on?” ritual – the pastor or worship leader banging the microphone on his or her chest and shouting to the sound engineer, “Am I on? Am I on?”, engendering a sense of “Why do I keep coming here?”)
A friend now helps lead a church which strives to recover ancient worship traditions. Apparently this includes much bowing. But the congregation is small. I don’t know how well this would work at large churches.
But I do wish we had more ritual. A little bowing. And a lot more holiness.
November 25th, 2003