An excerpt from the Book, Spirituality of the Rites of the Holy Liturgy, pp. 45-54
The Coptic Church, in its humble and meek spirit, teaches her children three types of prostration, or metanias (bowing). These are: prostrations of worship, repentance, and honor.
1. Prostrations of Worship
These are the prostrations offered to God during our individual or public worship, such as at the beginning of each of the hourly prayers when we say “Lord have mercy….”
St. Isaac said about such prostrations, “Bow at the beginning of your worship, asking God from your heart, with humiliation, to give you patience and control over your thoughts during prayers.”
St. John Cassian said about the monks in Egypt, “I saw them in prayer. When they have finished reciting the Psalm they do not prostrate themselves in a hurry, as if it is a duty they want to get out of the way, like many of us do. On the contrary, they stand for a while to raise a short prayer, then they prostrate themselves in awe and great devotion. After that, they get to their feet in a brisk manner, standing uprightly with all their thoughts absorbed in prayer.”
The Church’s Canon defines the number and arrangement of such prostrations by saying, “the worshipper starts his prayer either with one or three prostrations. He should kneel down after each psalm or praise, or whenever the words “kneeling down” are contained in the prayer.”
Believers (and in particular monks) who prostrate themselves as a daily routine during prayer follow these regulations. The aim of prostration is to offer thanks to the Lord for His great mercies, or for His help in a certain matter. These are known as thanksgiving prostrations. Another aim of prostrating in prayer is to implore the Lord to grant us certain virtues or to pray for other people, saying such things as,
+ “Thank You my Lord Jesus Christ, for You…”, or,
+ “Grant me, O Lord, the life of purity”, or,
+ “Grant me, O Lord, the life of patience and tolerance”, or,
+ “Grant me, O Lord, the life of complete love”, or focusing on any of the other virtues.
Also a person may devote a number of prostrations on behalf of those who have asked him to pray for them. He may be motivated to offer worships for them without their knowledge through his love for them and his awareness of their needs. One may also devote some prostrations to the Lord for the Church and its fathers, or for the safety of the world and its leaders, and so on.
On the topic of prostration in prayer, Mar Isaac said the following:
+ “Do not think that prostrating yourself before God is a light matter. None of all the good deeds equals persevering in completing prayers with prostrations.”
+ “Compel yourself to kneel down before God, for this invigorates the spirit of prayer.”
+ “Persistence in offering bows every now and then, will give the vigilant worshipper the ideal atmosphere for worshipping.”
+ “A love for continual prostration before God during prayer is an indication that the soul has died to the world and has realised the mystery of the new life.”
The Church does not allow prostration on Saturdays and Sundays or during the fifty days of Pentecost or after having Holy Communion.
2. Prostrations of Repentance
There are two types of these prostrations:
+ Offering metanias to God, asking Him to have mercy on us, to give us the life of repentance and to forgive us our sins. These prostrations may be given as a task from our father of confession for the repentance of a certain sin, either for practice or as a corrective measure.
+ Offered by a person to his brethren after a meeting of discussion or reconciliation. The other party should accept these metanias and offer a similar metania in return, then they should shake hands in love, reconciliation and forgiveness, as it is written in the Bible, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day and seven times a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).
The word “metanoia” is a Greek word which means repentance, that is, to change the mind from that which is wrong to that which is right. St. Paul says, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” ( Romans 12:2).
Prostrations offered from the heart are a powerful action in attempting to attain the forgiveness of those whom you have transgressed against. If sincere, they can wipe out all effects of insult or transgression, and refill the heart with a love greater than it felt before.
In “The Paradise of the Fathers” a famous spiritual book on the life and sayings of the desert fathers, there is a story about two brothers who were devout monks living in the wilderness of Sheheet. The devil became keen to drive a wedge between these two brothers. One day the younger brother lit a lamp and put it on its stand, but through Satan’s trickery, the lamp fell down and was extinguished. The older monk became very upset and hit his brother. At this, the younger brother bowed down and said, “Do not get upset my brother. Just be patient and I will light the lamp again”, repeating himself many times. When God saw how meek the younger brother was He tortured that devil until morning. The devil then went to the leader of demons, and told him what had happened. A priest of the idols who served the demons heard this story, and upon hearing it, left everything, believed, and joined the order of the monastic life. Right from the start of his monasticism, he practiced humility. He used to say, “Humility can overcome, dissolve and suppress all the power of the enemy.
He once said: “I once heard demons say to each other, ‘Every time we are found between monks, we see them offering metanias to each other, suppressing our powers’.”
Prostrations and repentance are signs of humility, a fear of God, and the following of the commandments by the worshipper. Such virtues cannot be tolerated by the devil, as it burns him.
3. Prostrations of Honor
There are two kinds of these prostrations: Metanias offered to the martyrs and saints, and those offered to the fathers of the church.
A. Metanias offered before the bodies of the martyrs and saints to honor their bodies because they endured devotion, hunger, thirst, tears and sweat on account of their great love for our Lord, Jesus Christ. Through this they became a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit. We honor them according to the promise of our Lord, Who said, “For those who honor Me, I will honor, and those who despise Me, shall be lightly esteemed” (1Sam.2:30).
With such prostrations we also honor God, Who worked in them and led them to the shores of eternal peace.
Through honoring the saints we also ask for their prayers and intercessions, as they reflect the Light of Christ. As the saints are a mirror image of the Light of Christ, this Light is then transmitted to us. power and blessing, working in favor of our salvation and spiritual well being. In heaven the saints fulfill the Lord’s Will by caring and supplicating for us. Here on earth, we too fulfill God’s will by honoring their commemorations and glorifying their relics and icons. We also ask them to envelope us with their love and prayers of intercession. There are no barriers between heaven and earth, but instead, a strong communication between us and the saints, based on supplication and prayers.
His Grace Bishop Gregorious, Bishop of Higher Studies and Research, was asked, “Would your Grace shed some light on the church’s teachings regarding honoring the saints’ relics?”, to which he answered, “The relics of the saints have engravings on them, telling their life stories; of their strife and their virtues. Didn’t the Apostle Paul say, ‘I bear on my body the marks of Lord Jesus’? (Gal.6:17)
Every strain that was felt by St. Paul left a mark on his body. This happens to everyone. When an autopsy is performed on someone’s skull, they find that his knowledge, his feelings and sensations, and his spiritual, mental and carnal experiences have all left marks on his brain. These marks are known as wrinkles. Affected also are most of the body’s organs.”
The struggles of life leave marks not only on the outside of the body, but also on every cell inside the body. This is why the same body that slept will rise in resurrection; whatever one sews he will reap. Each body therefore differs from every other body. In resurrection, the molecules of one body will not be mixed with those of other bodies, despite decomposition. In other words, there will be no mix up between bodies because each individual body will have the marks of his own life, and that will distinguish it from all the others. For this reason we honor the relics of the saints. We realize and we believe that those relics were the dwellings of the saints, and on every part of these relics are the marks of their lives. Every bone of St. Athanasius, for example, bears the qualities of St. Athanasius. Every molecule of his organs or his bones summarize his whole life.
B. Metanias offered to the fathers of the Church, the Patriarch or bishops, are the second type of Prostrations of Honor in which we honor them as a sign of our love and obedience as they are ambassadors for Christ and successors of the Apostles in the holy Church. We also prostrate in worship to the Holy Spirit which dwells in them, through which they consecrate altars and ordain priests and deacons. The Holy Bible is full of evidence that Prostrations of Honor to the clergy are proper. Here are just four examples taken from many.
+ Firstly, Joshua bowed to the commander of the Lord’s army (Joshua 5:14).
+ Secondly, the man who came to inform David about the death of both Saul and Jonathan bowed before him (2 Sam 1:2).
+ Thirdly, the third captain of fifty men fell on his knees before Elijah (2 Kings 1:13).
+ Finally, King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face before Daniel (Dan.2:46).
In the New Testament a rich young man, when he saw Jesus, thought he was one of the good Jewish teachers and ran and knelt before Him, asking Him, “O Good teacher, what should I do to inherit the eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). His kneeling to Christ was therefore not to worship Him, as he did not know of His Divinity, but rather for honoring as he was used to doing with his Jewish teachers. There was also a woman who, upon approaching Christ, “…came and fell at His feet and…kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter” (Mark 7:25-26).
Once again a prostration of honor and not of worship. The father of the epileptic boy bowed to Jesus to honor Him, as the man knew nothing about His Divinity, “and when they came to the crowd, a man came up to Him and kneeling before Him said, “Lord, have mercy on my son” (Matt. 17:14-15). Honoring the fathers of the Church is a holy obligation. St. Paul the Apostle teaches us this, saying, “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who Labor in the word and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17).
As for the kneeling of Cornelius (the centurion in the Roman army) before Peter (Acts 10:26), it seemed that the pagan Roman officer bowed in worship as he had been accustomed to do before the Roman emperors, who considered themselves divine. Furthermore, Cornelius heard about St. Peter from a holy Angel in a divine vision. The Angel said nothing to Cornelius concerning his salvation; he left that to St. Peter, saying, “Simon Peter will tell you what to do.” Cornelius over-reacted and exaggerated in his honor for St. Peter, who stopped him before he went too far. The Apostles Paul and Barnabas did a similar thing in Lystra when the priest of Zeus brought oxen and wreaths to their gates and wanted to offer sacrifices with the people, saying, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:13).
History also tells us that Abba Antony the Great, father of all monks, used to honor the clergymen. Apostolic St. Athanasius, wrote in his famous book, ‘The Life of St. Antony’, “…moreover, he was docile and meek with a humble spirit. Although he had reached very high standards himself, he still strictly observed the Church Canon and tended to honor all clergymen more than himself. He never shunned away from bowing before Bishops of priests.”
In the biography of St. Athanasius the Apostolic, the twentieth Pope of Alexandria, we read, “When Abba Macedonius, Bishop of Phyla Island in Nuba, slept in the Lord, the people chose priest Mark, one of his disciples to take his place. A deputation of the people accompanied priest Mark, the Bishop Designate, to Alexandria to see Pope Athanasius regarding the consecration. When they arrived in Alexandria and asked for the Pope, he was nowhere to be found in the Patriarchate or in the church as he was known to have loved seclusion and calmness. Someone told the delegation that the Pope had been hiding in a small monastery west of Alexandria and he volunteered to take them there. As the delegation approached the monastery, a deacon came out to meet them and they told him of the delegation’s mission. The deacon went back inside the monastery and told the Pope. The delegation went inside and fell down on their knees to the ground at the sight of the Pope. The Holy Spirit had already revealed to the Pope the reason for the delegation’s mission and of the selection of Marcus as successor to Abba Macedonius before they had even arrived.”
In the Sinaxarium (20th Toot) is the story of St. Theopesta, who, although her husband had died while she was still in the prime of her life, she pledged to wear the robe of monks. She went to see Abba Makari, Bishop of Nicea (in the province of Menoufia, Egypt) and knelt down before him. After receiving his blessings she asked him to pray over her and dress her in the robe of monks. These examples show us that Prostrations of Honor before the Patriarchs and the Bishops is an old and established tradition in the holy church.