At The Altar Rail

I was tired. We’d been walking through the city all morning over rough, cobblestone streets. The church seemed like a good place to take a break. On this cool fall day, the other tourists were few and far between. As we opened one of the large front doors to slip inside, we left behind the noise of the streets for the quiet darkness of this beautiful old church. Begun in 1652, the Church of St. Agnes was erected on the site where the Saint met her death. Agnes was a beautiful young girl whose loveliness had attracted the attention of a Roman judge. But Agnes wasn’t interested in him or anyone else. She was a Christian and had renounced marriage in favor of a life dedicated to God. Her attitude angered the judge and he had Agnes arrested and dragged naked through the streets to a brothel, where he and his friends planned to rape her. Agnes prayed and as she did, her long hair grew miraculously longer and thicker so as to cover her nakedness and preserve her modesty. In the end, she was burned at the stake and beheaded. Her death on January 31, 304 A.D. had taken place on the very spot where her church now stands.
Built in the Baroque style, St. Agnes’ Church is filled with marble and frescoes. Large Corinthian columns of red marble flank the long center aisle to the altar rail and sanctuary. It’s as if the columns invite visitors to come inside and walk down the aisle. So we did. The other few people inside were quietly examining the frescoes on the side walls or were seated in the pews at prayer. We could smell incense from an earlier Mass still lingering in the cool air. The marble floor was a work of art in itself–delicate inlaid patterns of crosses and medallions of flowers made of different kinds and colors of marble. As we approached the altar, I was struck by the beauty of the altar rails. Missing now from most Catholic churches, for centuries people would kneel at railings like these to receive Holy Communion. Here the rails were still in place just in front of the raised altar platform. So we knelt down to pray.
The moment my knees touched the marble kneeler, I noticed something unusual. Rather than feeling a straight, flat piece of stone, my knees settled into a marble “valley” or trough. I looked down in surprise and I could actually see it running the length of each altar rail. And then I realized what it was. It was where thousands of pairs of knees over hundreds of years had worn the marble away. It took my breath. Kneeling there in front of the tabernacle, I knew I was in the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. I imagined generation upon generation of other believers kneeling there like me, believing the same truth. I remembered the words of St. Paul: “…at the name of Jesus, ever knee should bend..”(Phillipians 2:22). On my knees in this holy place, I knelt in front of Love. I thanked God for my many blessings and for leading us into this beautiful old church. I prayed to have the faith of St. Agnes, who loved Christ with all her heart and soul. I asked St. Agnes to pray for me, too, just as I would ask a friend on earth to pray for me. I prayed for all those souls who had knelt in this same place over the centuries and for all those who would come after me, their knees on this same piece of worn marble. I imagined the angels in Heaven with Jesus, kneeling around Him and His holy throne. Like us, they were kneeling before their Creator in praise and thanksgiving. On my knees there, the communion of the Saints felt very close and very very real. Sometimes God reveals Himself to us in amazing ways, like the witness of a holy Saint willing to die for her faith in Christ. And sometimes His great love is felt in the cool smoothness of a simple marble kneeler. May our hearts always be open to his presence in our lives, however He shows Himself. Amen.
“Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.”
—Psalm 95:6

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Juan R. Velez
    Oct 14, 2012 @ 19:13:44

    How God speaks to us in the beauty of a church, its altar railing, columns or stained glass windows, and even more in the beauty of the lives of the saints whose lives are honored in these churches. The saints teach us to love Christ and to become his disciples.


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