At The Foot of the Altar – Reverend Ronald Knox


A very beautiful meditation about the Mass, the first part of the Mass, at the Foot of the Altar. Father Knox apologizes because of the form in which it is written…to school age girls. I say, “Hurrah! Then I can understand it!” 🙂


Introduction from Msgr. Knox: If I have a public, this book, I fear, will be a severe test of its patience. That a priest should put on record his private thoughts about the Mass – there is nothing extravagant in that.

But mine were put on record in a highly specialized art-form, that of sermons to school-girls; and this form they still impenitently wear. There are films which a child can frequent only by pretending to be an adult. Here are pages which an adult can enjoy only by pretending to be a child..

The sermons were preached to the convent school of the Assumption Sisters, which was “ evacuated “ during the late war from Kensington to Aldenham Park in Shropshire.

From The Mass in Slow Motion by Rev. Ronald Knox, 1948

 I will go up to the altar of God, the giver of youth and happiness. Ps.xlii.

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, years ago, wrote rather an interesting thing -you will find it in his Papers of a Parish-in which he suggested that the Mass is really a kind of religious dance, a symbolic dance.

Of course that sounds nonsense to you, because what you  mean by a dance is the wireless in the hall playing revolting stuff and you lounging round in pairs and feeling all gooey.

But dancing when it first started meant something, and nearly always something religious.

So Hugh Benson’s idea was that the Christian faith has a religious dance of its own; all the twisting and turning, and bobbing and bowing, and lifting and parting and rejoining his hands, which the priest goes through in the course of the Mass, really add up to a kind of dance, meant to express a religious idea to you, the spectators.

Of course, as I’m always telling you, if you find it difficult or if you find it dull trying to follow the Mass, you are much better employed in simply kneeling there and saying your prayers, with a book or without a book, while Mass is going on.

The Church doesn’t oblige you to follow Mass; she only obliges you, now and again, to be there.

But if you are going to try and follow the Mass, it’s a good thing to try and understand what the words are ABOUT, not just get accustomed to them as a kind of pious rigmarole; and it’s a good thing to see the gestures which the priest makes as the proper accompaniment of those words, illustrating and expressing them, instead of vaguely imagining that he is waving his arms about for no particular reason.

Well, this afternoon we’ll just take the part which the priest says at the foot of the altar, which is quite enough for one go.

I don’t know if you have ever wondered why the remark which the priest makes at the very start is “I will go unto the altar of God “ when he is there already.

The explanation of that is that originally the Mass began with the Introit (that’s what the priest says a few moments later, at the Epistle side of the altar), and ended with the Ite missa est; the rest is really trimmings.

This psalm and the Confiteor the priest used originally to say in the sacristy; it’s only since Pius V’s time that it has really been part of the Mass.

If we were living in the time of King Henry VIII, I should be saying the psalm and the Confiteor while you were looking for your berets.

But don’t, for that reason, think that this first part of the Mass doesn’t matter, and it’s a good opportunity for having a look round to see that the lay sisters are all there.

It’s part of the Mass, now. And all the Mass belongs to you, and you to it, if you are really going to follow it.

The action of the Mass is polarized, is focused in the priest, that’s all. Those are rather long words; let me explain a bit. If you have a burning-glass, and are concentrating its rays on a single point, a bit of touchwood, to make the touchwood light, or the back of another girl’s hand, to make her jump, the light comes to a point, and that red-hot point is the priest; but all the part in between the burning-glass and that red-hot point is comfortably warm-that is you, the congregation.

You are meant to be basking in that heat which ought to be making the priest, the the focus-point of it all, melt away with love.

So start straight away, with the priest; square your shoulders with him and cross yourself, thinking to yourself, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”; here we are, let’s get on with it.

What is this psalm the priest says? Unfortunately, we don’t know much for certain about the psalms and the occasions on which they were first written. Some people think this one was written by King David when he fled from Absalom.

I don’t know if you all know that story; but Absalom was a son of King David’s who revolted against him and got made king instead, and then there was a battle in which David’s men got the better of the revolutionaries; but whether he really wrote this psalm I don’t know.

It talks about “the God who gives me the gladness of youth“; King David at the time of Absalom’s revolt was getting on for sixty, and you don’t feel much joy of youth when you are getting on for sixty.

So some people think that the author of the psalm, or at any rate the imaginary hero of the psalm, was a young priest or a young Levite exiled from his native country, we don’t know when or why, who was simply longing to get his sentence of exile reversed, and get back to the Temple and the altar of God, where he had been so happy.

Now let us just go through the psalm; I’ll give it you, if you don’t mind, in my own translation. “O God, sustain my cause; give me redress against a race that knows no piety; save me from a treacherous foe and cruel. Thou, 0 God, art all my strength, why hast thou cast me off? Why do I go mourning, with enemies pressing me hard? The light of thy favor, the fulfillment of thy promise, let these be my escort, bringing me safe to thy holy mountain, to the tabernacle where Thou dwellest.

There I will go up to the altar of God, the giver of youth and happiness; Thou art my God, with the harp I will hymn Thy praise.

Soul, why art thou downcast, why art thou all lament? Wait for God’s help; I will not cease to cry out in thankfulness, my Champion and my God.”

I’ve used that word “champion“,  rather spoiled by the way in which we use it nowadays, to express what I think the psalm means when it says, “the savior of my face.” ….The man who saves your face, the man who makes it possible for you to appear in public without looking a fool.

I think our hero is laboring somehow under unjust suspicion, cast upon  him by his enemies, and so he wants God to sustain his cause, establish his innocence; to save his face, to make it possible for him to reappear at Jerusalem, and in the Temple, without a stain on his character. And that is partly why it is such a good psalm to begin the Mass with; because inevitably the priest feels rather a fool having to stand up there and look good, when he is really a sinful man like his fellow men; and he wants a champion to come and keep him in countenance, keep him in face, as we say. . . . I wonder whether all that comes home to you?

It depends on whether you are shy; some of you are, some aren’t. If you are at all shy, you can imagine how appalling it would be if your mamma told you quite suddenly one morning that you were going to be presented at Court.

If she went on to say that unfortunately there was no time to get any special clothes, and you would have to go just as you were, that would put the lid on your misery, wouldn’t it?

And that is how a priest feels or ought to feel when he goes to the altar. He is presenting himself at the Court of Heaven, before the throne of the King of Kings, among crowds and crowds of angels and saints, and he is all just anyhow, quite unfit for such company. He can’t face the prospect at all unless our Blessed Lord will be kind enough to take him by the hand and lead him in and say, “This is a friend of Mine “.

That is why he says the psalm Judica me Deus. And you ought to be keeping step with the priest in this first movement, as it were, of the religious dance.

The priest is standing there with his arms in front of him staring up at the crucifix over the altar; an attitude of appeal. And that ought to be the attitude of your mind to start with; you oughtn’t ever to go to Mass, and still more obviously you oughtn’t ever to go to Communion, without this sense of shyness, this sense of butting in somewhere where you aren’t wanted.

We’re terribly in danger all the time of taking God’s goodness too much for granted; of bouncing up to Communion as if it were the most natural thing in the world, instead of being a supernatural thing belonging to another world.

So first we must be shy about it; then we must observe that the priest’s attitude, though it is one of appeal, is also one of confident appeal. “Soul, why art thou downcast? “ he says, “Why art thou all lament? “

And the server chimes in “Wait for God’s help“- it’s all right really, He will see us through; He is our champion, will stand at our side and make everything all right for us. So it is that the priest, at the end of the psalm, says, “I will go up to the altar of God, after all“; crosses himself, to give him extra courage, and reminds himself, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth“.

Yes, it’s all right, He will see us through.

But meanwhile you look up and find that there has been a sudden change in the movement of the dance. The priest, who was standing so erect, is all doubled up now. It is the Confiteor.

Catching sight of himself out of the corner of his eye standing up there and telling himself  he is sure our Lord will make it all right, he gets a kind of sudden scruple – his sins!

Even sins committed since he last said Mass, right in the foreground of memory; the man who lost his temper so idiotically only yesterday, the man who only yesterday said that unkind thing, calculated to hurt and meant to hurt the person he was talking to – what right has he to expect any divine favors, to ask that he may have God’s light and God’s truth for his escort, to lead him up to the altar?

So he grovels, accuses himself of his sins in the sight of Heaven. And not only in the sight of Heaven, in the sight of earth too.

Every sin you or I commit is letting down the whole Christian community, isn’t it? Just as you apologize to your partner when you’ve made a perfectly rotten stroke at tennis, so when you have sinned you want to apologize to your fellow-Christians; you have let them all down.

And then there is that splendid bit of spiritual by-play, the priest asking the servers to pray for him, and the servers turning round to explain that they are just as bad. It’s a sort of open confession all round.

When there are priests in choir, you know, they are supposed to mumble all this part of the Mass to one another while the priest is getting through it at the altar. We are all making a clean breast of it, putting our cards on the table.

That means that if you are trying to follow the Mass you mustn’t regard the Confiteor as a private affair of the priest’s, and imagine it would be more tactful of you to pretend not to notice. You mustn’t listen to the server’s mumbled apologies in a spirit of detachment.

No, it is your sins that he is confessing, quite as much as his own. Or rather perhaps not so much your sins as your sinfulness; it isn’t so much this and that spiteful or greedy or careless action we ought to be remembering at this point in the Mass, rather the general low level of spirituality in us which is always making us do spiteful or greedy or careless things. We’re a rotten crowd, all of us, that’s the point.

And when the priest beats his breast three times, or when the server does it, you ought to be echoing the sentiment; we are doing a grovel all round.

And now the priest strikes a fresh attitude, a fresh figure in the dance; he is no longer bent double, but he is bowing slightly, as he says the remaining four versicles before going up to the altar. He is tantalizing himself, as it were, by not looking up to the Cross, not looking up to the altar, just yet; that is a treat he is saving up for himself.

Yes, my God, you will put life into us, dead things as we are, and we, this whole plebs, this whole vulgar crowd of people, will boast of your protection.

You will shew us Your mercy, Your power to aid. You will listen to our prayers; this silly noise we are making will reach You, right up in the courts of Heaven. And then, just to make sure that he is carrying the congregation with him, he says, “The Lord be with you“. And the server answers, “And with you likewise” (that is all “And with thy spirit“ means).

Priest and people are going about this great business of theirs shoulder to shoulder. Then at last the priest lifts his eyes, and makes that sort of scooping gesture with his hands, as if to gather up any stray strands of grace that may be floating down to him. And he says, “Let us pray“. Good idea; Let’s.




“If the wife makes the first effort at reconciliation, her humility will make it difficult for the husband to nurse his pride. Pride cannot face up to humility. It is shamed out of existence.: – Fr. Leo Kinsella



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