The Judeo-Christian tradition recognizes the individual, apart from the mob. That individual is invited to meet and talk, face to face and utterly spontaneously, with God, without interruption from any earthly authority. That encounter is the life spark of Western Civilization.
We define, and recognize, by contrasts. I learn much about Christian prayer and Christian monasticism by comparing them with their opposites. I think of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” and what it says about my faith – specifically, what it says about the Judeo-Christian concept of God, of man, and of prayer. I think of how that artwork and its implications contrast with other belief systems: modern Atheism, ancient Paganism, and Islam.
Between 1508 and 1512, on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo depicted the spark of life in the fingertip-to-fingertip, eye-contact encounter between one, loving, creator God and one human being – not a teeming mass – just one person. In Michelangelo’s fresco, we see Adam’s full naked form, from head to toe. God looks like Adam, and Adam looks like God. They are the same size. Every detail here matters – that Adam is just one man, that he is naked, that he is anatomically detailed, that he is the same size as God, that God and Adam are fundamentally structured the same, that Adam is making eye contact with God, that God looks upon Adam with fiercely attentive love – every detail here has an impact on the life anyone can live in a Judeo-Christian society.
Organized Christophobes and anti-Semites have targeted Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” for attack. They call themselves “The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” They blather, “Oh, you Christians and Jews are so stupid; you think God is an old man in the sky with a long, white beard.” They insist that it doesn’t matter what story a society tells itself about its origins. They say that the Judeo-Christian God may as well be a monster made of spaghetti. They are ignorant and childish enough to believe that if we told ourselves that story, we’d be able to have the same society that we have now. They are wrong on every count.
“God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them”: Sofers, ancient Jewish scribes, committed these words to print in the book of Genesis thousands of years ago. Each individual person is the image of a loving God – “tzelem elohim” in Hebrew, “imago dei” in Latin. Michelangelo used the language at which he was fluent – his gift for accurately depicting anatomy and physiology – to communicate the essence of the relationship between the Judeo-Christian God and each individual person.
Adam and God meet face to face, eye to eye, in the Sistine Chapel fresco. Exodus 33:11 tells us that “The Lord spoke with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend.” Deuteronomy 5:4 tells us that “the Lord spoke to his people Israel” face to face as well. In Numbers 6:25, God blesses thus “The Lord let his face shine upon you.” The Bible repeatedly adjures us to seek God’s face. “When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek” Psalm 27:8. “Face to face:” this metonym has meant intimate connection – human and spiritual – for the past four thousand years. “To face” means “to meet.” The sixth amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the right to face one’s accuser. “Face” often means “dignity,” e.g. “To save face.” This is true not just of English, but of many languages. In Medieval Slavic languages, “without face” means “shame.” In China and other Asian cultures, face is reputation, honor, and dignity.
Adam is an individual, apart from a mob. The Talmud teaches that God created only one Adam, rather than a group of men at once, to emphasize the value of each, individual life. One man, in himself, is an entire universe. The Bible teaches: you matter. Not some ideal you. Not you as a cog in a big machine. You who you are, right now. You matter. The God who created the universe wants contact with you. Bring your moment-by-moment concerns to God. Suffering? Pray. Rejoicing? Pray. Sick? Pray. Worried about someone else? Pray. Anxious for yourself? Pray. (James 5 13-18, Philippians 4:6). David, Mary, and Jesus model candid, spontaneous prayer. David nags God in the Psalms, Mary spikes the ball in the Magnificat, and Jesus on the cross holds back nothing. No prayers are as poignant as the prayers of desperate women. Hannah is reprimanded for the intensity of her prayer – “Lady, are you drunk?” – and the woman with a hemorrhage prays her tentative, tiny prayer silently, “If only I can touch the hem of his garment.”
In the Bible, men and women pray in a variety of postures: standing, sitting, kneeling, laying down, and, rarely, prostrate. The signature Jewish posture for prayer, though, is standing. The Amidah is the central prayer of Jewish liturgy. “Amidah” in English means “standing,” and it is prayed while one is standing. Standing in prayer imitates the posture of the angels. In the Jewish Bible, angels stand in Ezekial 1:7; in Christian scripture, angels stand before God in Revelation 8:2.
Christians, similarly, may stand, sit, or kneel when praying. Prostration is rare. I’ve heard that priests and nuns perform a prostration when taking final vows, but prostration is something I have never done myself nor seen any Catholic do.
It’s interesting to me how often in the Bible Jesus tells people to stand up. “Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk!'” John 5:8. Lazarus, come out of your tomb! John 11:43. “Little girl, get up!” Mark 5:41. Most significantly, Jesus re-establishes collegiality with his disciples after they have seen him certified as the Son of God. In Matthew 17, God’s voice emerges from a heavenly cloud and states, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” It’s only natural that Jesus’ disciples “fall prostrate.” It’s what Jesus does next that is remarkable. He touches his prostrate friends and says, “Rise, and do not be afraid.”
The example set by Jesus, their role model, is not lost on the disciples. After Jesus’ death, an angel of God visited Cornelius, a Roman centurion. In a vision, the angel told Cornelius to summon Peter to hear about Jesus. Cornelius did so. As soon as he saw Peter, Cornelius fell down prostrate at Peter’s feet; what else would Cornelius do? But Peter raised Cornelius up, and said, “Get up. I myself am also a human being.”
There is an entity who demands that worshippers fall down on their faces and worship him. The entity that demands worship from prostrate humans who have fallen on their faces is Satan (Matthew 4:9).
What was going on in the rest of the world when the sofers were recording the story of Genesis? In one of the most influential civilizations on earth, Egyptians were worshipping ibises, crocodiles, and dung beetles. In Egypt, no one looked at man as in the image and likeness of one loving, creator God. Gods and man were very different. This difference is reflected in the care shown to real, live people. During the First Dynasty, when a pharaoh died, his retainers were killed so that they could be placed in his tomb with him to serve him in the afterlife. The tens of thousands of Egyptian workers who erected the pyramids were not mummified. Mummification was required for a good afterlife. Egyptian Pagans mummified perhaps seventy million animals. Ibises were mummified in their millions. Ibises received attention, care and the promise of a fine afterlife that was denied to human workers because ibises have curved beaks, and Egyptians took that curvature as a sign that these birds were magically connected to the Moon. Thoth, the Egyptian moon god, is depicted with the head of an ibis. The Moon was sacred because the Moon provided light at night and a way to measure time. Non-royal humans, those pyramid builders, were not sacred.
In one funerary papyrus, an Egyptian noblewoman prostrates herself – she lays down on her face in worship – before a crocodile. Crocodiles lived in the Nile. The Nile flooded. Floods fertilized Egyptian soil. Therefore: crocodiles are Sobek, god of fertility. In an ancient Egyptian pyramid text, Sobek says, “I copulate with my penis. I am lord of semen who takes women from their husbands to the place I like according to my mind’s fancy.” And so an Egyptian woman prostrates herself before a crocodile.
Dung beetles roll mammal poop into a ball and drag it under ground. Female dung beetles lay their eggs in the poop balls. Egyptians thought the poop balls themselves were actually the eggs and they thought the dung beetles didn’t require females to reproduce. They associated dung beetles with their god Khepri, who fertilized himself by swallowing his own semen. Egyptians wore scarab jewelry in the shape of dung beetles to ensure their own immortality. And Egyptians buried their dead in underground chambers with vertical shafts and horizontal passageways not unlike the poop ball burrows dung beetles made for their eggs.
And of course Egyptians worshipped other humans. In a 3,300 year-old letter, Yapahu, a mayor from ancient Egypt, mentions prostrating himself seven times on the front and seven times on the back before he may speak to his god-king pharaoh. In Egyptian art, in papyrus scrolls, in carvings, statues, and paintings, in aesthetic standards that go back at least to the Palette of Narmer and that lasted for three thousand years – until Egypt became Christian – “important” figures are depicted as being large, and “unimportant” figures are depicted as being small. Gods are depicted as being larger than humans. Pharaohs are depicted as being larger than everyone else. Males are larger than females. Parents are larger than children. Again, in the Sistine Chapel, God, Adam and Eve are the same size. This is … well, it’s huge.
In ancient Persia, commoners had to cover their mouths when speaking to the monarch so as not to pollute him with their breath. Zoroastrian priests held veils in front of their faces so that their breath did not defile the sacred fire. It is possible that the Magi who visited Jesus, if following their own custom, covered their mouths in his presence. In Michelangelo’s fresco, Adam and Eve require no such face masking when addressing the Judeo-Christian God.
Genesis gave us a God who created us in his image, who invited us to address him with our most intimate concerns, who chatted with us as we stood, not as we prostrated ourselves on the ground. This is all a very big deal.
One of the most frightening sights is thousands of humans all assuming the same posture, all telegraphing that they are thinking the same thought – and the thought they are thinking is one they have been fed by earthly authority. W. H. Auden invokes this in “The Shield of Achilles.”
“A plain without a feature, bare and brown, No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood, Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood An unintelligible multitude, A million eyes, a million boots in line, Without expression, waiting for a sign.”
We saw that “unintelligible multitude” in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl filmed the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, Germany. Hitler walks calmly through 150,000 men in formation and at attention. All those young Germans have had their human essence replaced with Nazi ideology. They are no longer individuals. Hitler Youth scheduled mandatory meetings on Sunday mornings to prevent church attendance. Hitler was their new god; Nazism their new religion. Frank Capra, the director who gave us It’s a Wonderful Life, said of Triumph of the Will, it “fired no gun, dropped no bombs, but as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal.”
Visually, one can’t help but compare the ranks in Triumph of the Will with images of row upon row of Muslim men prostrate in prayer. They all assume the exact same regimented poses at the exact same time. They kneel and then conspicuously elevate the one part of human anatomy universally associated, through idiom and metaphor, with lower bodily functions. We speak of “stupid ass” in English and “dupa” in Polish and “esser un culo” in Italian and “Du hast wohl den Arsch offen” in German. In Chinese one “flatters,” “talks nonsense” “is scared witless” or “grovels” with the buttocks. In Arabic, “His buttocks missed the hole in the ground” – he is a failure. “Histoires des fesses” in French is “dirty jokes.” In Hinduism, the buttocks are represented by the Muladhara, or root chakra. It is the chakra associated with basic instincts, raw survival, our animal nature, greed for material things, and fight or flight.
“If you knew how powerful the sujood is, you would never lift your head off the ground,” Mohammed promised. Sujood: the posture of complete prostration, the forehead touching down; the face tucked under. Devout Muslims develop a zebibah, a permanent discoloration on the forehead, from repeatedly hitting the ground with the face. “You would never lift your head off the ground”: what kind of god would want never to see a human face?
The face, the anatomical feature most associated with emotion, thought, vision, awareness, communication, intimacy and expressiveness, the brow, the eyes, the lips, the nostrils, the mouth – the features we monitor to recognize, empathize with, heal, love, and know one another – is lowered to the very ground. The face, the one true map of human individuality, our unique anatomical signature, is denigrated as low as it can go. In Muslim prayer, and where women wear the veil, the face is eradicated. The face breathes dirt.
The Koran mentions the face. It’s remarkable how many Koranic verses that do mention the face describe Allah disfiguring human faces as part of punishment in Hell, or faces showing despair when they encounter such punishment. Faces turn “black” in the Koran. If you disbelieve, your face will turn black as punishment. Allah can also turn a face around to the back as a form of punishment. Angels will hit unbelievers in the face. In one disturbingly unique punishment, unbelievers’ “faces will be covered, as it were, with pieces from the depth of the darkness of night.” Who thinks up such a punishment? Such total obliteration of a human face? Again and again, angels or others say to unbelievers’ faces, “Taste the punishment.” In Hell, unbelievers’ garments will be made “of liquid pitch, and their faces covered with fire.” Thus both darkness and light will be used to destroy human faces. Thirsty unbelievers will be given drinks of molten brass that will scald their faces. On Judgment Day, Allah will gather unbelievers together, throw them down on their faces, and blind and deafen them. People hear the Koran and fall on their faces, weeping and humbled. Unbelievers are dragged on their faces into Hell. Unbelievers’ faces will be stained with dust. Parents’ faces become black with wrath when a daughter is born, instead of a son. A woman is hit in the face for being old and barren. (3:106, 4:47, 8:50, 10:26, 10:27, 14:50, 16:58, 17:97, 17:109, 18:29, 51:29, 54:48, 80:40 and many more verses not cited here.) Allah also reminds Muslims to wash their faces before they pray (4.43, 5:6).
The emphasis on the face as a place of punishment, torture, and humiliation is representational of the Koran as a whole. Author Don Richardson points out that in the Koran there is a threat of Hell in every 7.9 verses. In comparison, Hell is mentioned 31 times in the New Testament – once for every 774 verses.
Of the five world religions, Islam is the most emphatically opposed to solitary withdrawal for spiritual purposes. Islam is the most insistent on man’s relationship with God being carried out in public, in a large group of others all behaving in exactly the same way, using highly choreographed scripts and rituals that do not allow for spontaneity or individuality. As Al- Islam.org puts it, “Islam has vehemently denounced” monasticism. A “well-known tradition” in Islam states, “There is no monasticism in Islam.” “Man is an entity that has been created for a life within a society, and his material and spiritual development can only be achieved within a social life.” Mohammed, in one hadith, declares that the only “monasticism” available to Muslims is “jihad.”
A Muslim might live his entire religious life as a cog in the midst of others, whose every prayer is a rigidly systematized routine, commanding rote physical movements and rote words performed in public and monitored for conformity. Muslims and even non-Muslims can be whipped or jailed for possessing alcohol, revealing too much flesh, or being raped, which is a crime, because it involves sex outside of marriage. Christians who eat during Ramadan have had their lips burned by the authorities. Even prayer within a Muslim’s own room is publicly commanded by a muezzin. A Muslim woman once told me that when her daughter was ill, she recited Koranic verses. This woman did not speak a word of Arabic; she recited sounds from memory. She voiced no spontaneous words about her dying daughter to God. The idea of God as a father who was interested in what she had to say was scandalous to her.
A Muslim friend expressed to me her inner turmoil about wearing fingernail polish. Water must touch fingernails before Allah will hear Muslims’ prayers. A Polish chemist, Wojciech Inglot, invented porous nail polish. Allah is satisfied, as is my friend. An online Muslim prayer guide stipulates that during prayer, “Your left leg should be bent. Outside of left femur should also be on the floor and your inside of your left tibia and foot should be protruding underneath the front of your right tibia. Also the right foot can be placed upright with the toes pointing towards the qiblah or it can be placed on the ground.” Of course a Muslim woman cannot pray when menstruating. If a woman, a dog, or a donkey passes before a Muslim man as he prays, his prayer is annulled. Canonical Islamic guides to prayer, such as Reliance of the Traveler, go on for over a hundred pages detailing Islamic criteria for prayer.
Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was allowed spiritual retreat. Mohammed founded Islam after retreating, alone, to a cave, and speaking with an angel. For all other Muslims, relating to God must be public, monitored, collective, and rote.
The Pact of Umar is a seventh-century Islamic document that outlines how Muslims can continue to ensure Christians’ “humiliation, degradation and disgrace.” The Pact lists many requirements: Christians can’t show crosses in public; they can’t ride on saddles or wear belts; they can’t refer to Jesus as the son of God; they must house and feed Muslims; they must surrender any seat they occupy to a Muslim on demand. The first item in the Pact of Umar is very telling. Christians, to be allowed to live, must agree never to build monasteries or convents, or even a single room for a monk or a nun.
Islam did whatever it could to silence, for Muslims and for Christians living under Muslim control, the “still, small voice.”