Pavlov’s Catholic: Genuflecting


I was at a movie theater looking for a seat. I eyed some open chairs past a row of people.

As I approached the row of chairs, I felt this overwhelming urge to drop down to one knee and make the sign of the cross. Luckily, I stopped before embarrassing myself too much.

But it made me think.

It’s understandable to naturally do something that I’ve been doing my entire natural life. But have I become so conditioned as to do it without reflecting as to why I’m doing it?

Ivan Pavlov, who won the Nobel Prize in physiology in 1904, is probably most famous today for his experiments concerning conditional reflex. Basically, that with proper conditioning he could get a dog to begin salivating by using only familiar sounds (which the dog associated with food) without ever giving it actual food.

From that, the phrase “Pavlov’s dog” has emerged to describe somebody who has been conditioned to respond to certain stimuli without really using their reason or critical thinking in the situation.

To many of us Catholics this sounds a bit too familiar. Hence, we approach a row of chairs or a pew and we automatically genuflect.

But what are we genuflecting to?

No, not the back (or front) of the Church. No, not the altar or a crucifix either. And hopefully not to a movie screen!

We genuflect to the Eucharist – to God made present body, blood, soul and divinity.

Most of us and our parents grew up in churches where the Eucharist was still kept in a tabernacle behind the altar. So we rightfully genuflect (towards the Eucharist) as we enter and leave the pew.

Now-a-days, many churches have removed the tabernacle from behind the altar to another part of the church. But Pavlov’s Catholic just keeps right on genuflecting. Why though?

It’s actually very sad that in our Catholic culture we have become so conditioned that we have no idea why we are doing what we are doing. And, in my experience, I see it in 90% of people in parishes where the tabernacle has been moved from behind the altar.

Catholics mindlessly genuflecting…to what? It appears that they really don’t know.

Next time you go to a parish, don’t mindlessly genuflect to nothing. A bow towards the altar is appropriate if the tabernacle has been moved elsewhere. And then when you are walking past the tabernacle, wherever it may be in your church building, genuflect there if appropriate. For you are in the presence of God in the flesh.

But most of all, remember to reflect when you genuflect.

10 comments Add comment

Becky November 26, 2008 at 1:17 pm

Great point Matt. I’ve thought about this before too when it comes up on those “you know you’re Catholic when…” lists : )

As for me, I always do the sign of the cross when I go by a Catholic Church, and I sometimes get the urge to do it when I drive by other buildings that are important for whatever reason and am not really focused on what I’m doing. Very important to think about our sometimes mindless actions!

Maureen November 26, 2008 at 4:02 pm

Once I answered the phone, accidentally saying, “Amen? …Amen??” Definitely a “You know you’re Catholic when…” moment. But I don’t think it’s necessarily Pavlovian–we are supposed to pray always; genuflecting and spontaneously responding to life’s everyday experiences in a prayerful way is a good sign thay God’s grace is even working within our subconscious wills. That is a comfort to me. My mother died from Alzheimer’s disease and my father had suffered from a series of strokes; in the final months of his life, all he could babble was, “O Lord, Lord, Lord, Lord….” Now I pray “extra” Hail Mary’s and Glory Be’s…as a spiritual “savings” account in case I one day, am no longer able to pray.

Lori November 29, 2008 at 11:33 am

The Tabernacle should be returned to it’s rightful home–behind the altar. I wish you HADN’T caught yourself in the moment before nearly genuflecting at the movies. That would have been great. I’ve been guilty of “blessing” myself at the mall in the decorative fountain. Our gestures just gives passers-by the reminder that God is still present and should be FIRST no matter where we are. Your blogs are awesome by the way.

Patricia Prenosil January 14, 2009 at 1:35 pm

I have SO done this! Maybe it is a good sign. It means you enter a church more often than a movie theater–unlike some people. =) I agree though about not knowing what/who we genuflect to in the Church. I always make a point of telling the youth what to do and why when we go into the Church on retreat (or during youth ministry). Hopefully they remember.

Jessica February 9, 2009 at 12:19 pm

I’ve been trying to get this concept through my youth group students’ minds – sometimes it works, most times it doesn’t, simply because they follow what they see their parents and the rest of the parishioners doing.

btw, about the first part of your post – when my mom went back to school (college), every time she went into a classroom she looked for the holy water font to bless herself with!

Glen February 17, 2009 at 2:58 pm

I wish there were more Pavlovian dogs in my church. The majority of people don’t bother to genuflect at all. The “extrodinary ministers of communion” don’t even bother to bow their heads when the approach the sanctuary.

Danny McCay March 18, 2009 at 7:10 pm

I am a relatively new Catholic. I came into The Church Easter 2000. Maybe I have not had as much conditioning as some cradle Catholics. Gradually over the course of a few years I came to better understand what the genuflect was for and what it meant. I began a behavior that hopefully will one day become so engrained that I do it without thinking. I look at the tabernacle and then I look at the tabernacle candle to see if it’s lit. If it is, I genuflect, if not I don’t. Perhaps to some this would sound like a “duh” moment but for me it was a big deal. I have seen people come in during the week when the Blessed Sacrament is in the chapel and still genuflect when they enter the pew.I’ve done it by mistake myself so I’m no better. I think we all can be more attentive.

Bill Huber April 14, 2009 at 4:33 am

The habit of genuflecting toward the alter reflects the well conditioned inclination toward the proper placement of the tabernacle. When we find ourselves genuflecting in a church and then realize that the tabernacle is somewhere else, it is a good reminder for us to respectfully remind the parish priest to consider restoring the tabernacle to its proper place.

Terry Fenwick July 3, 2009 at 8:42 pm

I am older (77 this month) and use a cane plus carry a handbag – as I come in I have habits now as I come in slowly, looking toward the front, slowing down by my seat, putting down my cane and bag and then turning back to the focus of the altar and tabernacle, holding on the seat then genuflect. I often think people might even see me and laugh because of my pattern – “See that old lady, watch her, she’s a convert and funny!” However, I know the Angels and Saints are lovin’ on me – so glad to see a new Catholic at 70 who loves to Pavlov it right from the heart – and I do.

Marie October 1, 2009 at 11:13 pm

A dear friend and sister in Christ sent me the link to your web site….
Genuflecting in the presence of the Lord is very important to me…as are other reverent actions or postures…. both knees If He is exposed in the Monstrance….Someone mentioned that most do not genuflect in their parish…So sad…and just as sad are those Church’s where the kneelers have been removed…No Crucifix only the “risen” Christ…As mentioned tabernacles in another room…some in back which means the faithful’s backs are to our Lord….not to mention the hap hazzerd attitude of the extraordinary ministers ( Thank God some know the proper term and not call them Eucharistic Ministers , which we know are the Bishops , Priests and please correct me if I’m wrong…Deacons )
I pray one day we will be kneeling again at an alter rail when we receive our precious Lord…I pray we go back to receiving Him on our tongue…and patents used when we receive…I pray for silence in Church at all times…
You mentioned , as Catholics, we are programmed to do certain things…Your right…but I agree with the person who said it shows we are more in a Church then a movie theater…Amen to that :)
So , don’t be too hard on yourself for almost making the mistake of kneeling n a theater…. God knows our hearts…and all He asks of us is that they be sincere and contrite…besides…when you caughte yourself…you thought of Him , which is always a “good” thing :)

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