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Praying With Your Eyes Open

So one Sunday, while leaving church, a father scolded his son. “Your eyes were open during prayer.” To which the son replied, “How did you know?”

When it comes to prayer, everyone has their habits and traditions. Closing our eyes is one of them. For some reason when it’s time to pray we automatically fold our hands, bow our head, and close our eyes. Why is this? Really, it’s just one of many postures of prayer developed over time.

This site, sponsored by the United Methodists, describes some of them, from “nature prayers,” to “breath prayers,” to “movement prayers,” to “labyrinth prayers.” The various “positions” employed during said prayers are also described. Take this exercise, which follows Psalm 100 and illustrates “Praying with Words and Movement”:

Starting position: Stand facing front with hands at sides. Step forward on R. foot – at same time focus eyes upward – raise both arms, palms facing body – L. hand overlapping R. hand – pass hands close to mouth, lift arms high and than open them to denote “all the lands.”

Half kneel, R. foot forward – lower arms – outstretch hands in position of giving -focus still upward. Be glad.

Not to be irreverent, but this sounds like line dancing.

Wikipedia has an extensive catalog of prayer traditions — Jewish prayers, Islamic prayers, Neo-pagan prayers, Hindu prayers, etc. The Urantians, who believe Christ was an extra-terrestrial, offer their own unique interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer, such as these lines:

Our creative Parent, who is in the center of the universe,
Loyal would we be to your divine nature.
Give us this day the vivifying forces of light,
And let us not stray into the evil bypaths of our imagination.
Inspire us with the divine consciousness of
The presence and guidance of the seraphic hosts.
Deliver us from inertia, evil, and all sinful transgression.
Crown us with celestial diadems of fruitful service,
And we shall glorify the Father, the Son, and the Holy Influence.
Even so, throughout a universe without end.
Hmm. I think I have plumbed the “evil bypaths of [my] imagination” and been thwacked by a “celestial diadem” or two. And I definitely need delivered from “intertia.”

But at this point, I’m feeling overwhelmed. Between the breathing prayers, the labyrinth prayers, and the line dancing, my head is spinning. So I’ll simplify.

There are two great mystical traditions that have emerged concerning prayer: kataphatic prayer and apophatic prayer. Kataphatic prayer is very visual; it employs symbols, rituals, icons, incense, robes, etc. Apophatic prayer is internal; it involves emptying the mind of images, ideas, and sensations and moving towards a simplicity of being. In a way, the two modes of praying are polar opposites. One employs stimuli for transcendence, the other eschews it. One seeks God by looking at the world, the other seeks God by blocking the world out.

Lengthy theological articles exist on the subject and examples of who prayed which way. (Warning: If you’re a heresy hunter, you’ll have a field day with this.) Eugene Peterson distills these massive amounts of info into this simple definition: Kataphatic prayer is praying with the eyes open, apophatic prayer is praying with the eyes closed. Now this I can understand.

I grew up as an apophatic pray-er: eyes closed, hands folded, silent, blocking out the noise and distraction and trying to transcend the world in general. Most of us are apophatic pray-ers: we pray with our eyes shut. The minister says, “Let us pray,” and we reflexively close our eyes and bow our head. And this is cool. Nothing wrong with it. But lately, I’ve turned kataphatic. I think it started when we went to Yosemite Valley years ago.

I’ll never forget the moment, actually. It was one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. Our family was hiking Tuolumne Meadows on the Eastern slopes of the park. Snow had been abundant that year and left the brooks and rivers singing. Wildflowers were profuse and their fragrance laced the cool air.  Beholding those lush meadows and spectacular vistas was as humbling and exultant as any worship experience I’d ever had. This may sound stupid, but I started weeping. Hiking and crying. Lisa approached me and asked what was wrong. I said, “It’s so beautiful.” No cathedral, prayer session, or choir could ever simulate the awe invoked by that terrain.

And I didn’t even have to close my eyes.

King Solomon wrote in Proverbs 25:2:

It is the glory of God
to conceal a matter,
But the glory of Kings
is to search out a matter.

Like a divine game of hide-n-seek, God conceals Himself in the world, in the mundane, in the everyday — and challenges us to find Him. This is “the glory of Kings,” to count to ten, open our eyes and start the search; to look for Him in our homes and workplaces, in our routines and interruptions; to explore the ordinary. He’s there, just hidden. Hidden in nature. Hidden in people. Hidden in the everyday. Concealed by newsprint and neon lights. Awaiting discovery.

Whether it’s through breathing prayers, line dancing prayers or labyrinth prayers, we must seek “the vivifying forces of light.” This is our glory: to wake each morning and whisper, “Ready or not, here I come.” To open kataphatic eyes. To rise from our knees, and pray.

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Cassandra Frear August 19, 2010, 6:36 AM

    Prayer is meant to be a vast and expansive landscape. I’ve really enjoyed Richard Foster’s book on prayer which describes many ways to pray and types of prayer experiences. And I nearly always pray with my eyes open.

  • Nicole August 19, 2010, 11:41 AM

    Forgive me, too, if my comment seems irreverent because I am NOT irreverent toward our Lord. But, if I need the traditions of men to tell me how to pray, I can’t help but wonder what my objective(s) might be.

    And to actually “label” types and positions of prayer? Good grief. How ’bout a line-dancing, room-pacing, face-on-floor, head-on-knees, eyes-wide-open, eyes-tight-shut, hands-reaching-toward-heaven, hands-clasped/folded, out-loud, silence-driven, pray-er?

    Sorry if that’s too cynical, Mike.

    • Jessica Thomas August 19, 2010, 1:30 PM

      I think I’m with you Nicole. Jesus gave us an example of how to pray and it’s quite simple. I take that to mean he doesn’t require us to get too fancy.

      As for the various forms of prayer, discernment has to come into play. There are forms of meditation/”prayer” that can be dangerous, particularly if our main intent is to empty ourselves. I think a better way to look at it as, when we pray we are filling ourselves up with God. We don’t become empty vessels. Our worldly self is crowded out by Him.

  • Mark H. August 20, 2010, 5:57 AM

    If only we could all focus less on the eyes and more on praying with the right heart.

  • Scott Fillmer August 20, 2010, 6:15 AM

    I still run into people at church today that question why “a few” people pray with their eyes open, as if it is a disgrace to God some how. When we focus on the how, it seems we rarely see the Who.

  • Michelle Pendergrass August 20, 2010, 6:26 AM

    Love this post. I’ve been doing what I call Visual Prayer lately…even opened a website and have been leading workshops. http://visualprayer.com

    It is so freeing.

  • Lindsey August 20, 2010, 6:29 AM

    Nicole and Jessica, I think you missed Mike’s point. the issue is meeting with God. Do we need to criticize various traditions? Some people find Him in nature. others in a cathedrel. People pray and worship different. If some people do that through with their eyes open or closed, who are we to judge?

    • Jessica Thomas August 20, 2010, 7:02 AM

      It’s not that I’m judging, it’s like Nicole alluded to. I tend to be leary of man’s constructs. If that’s what others want to do, it’s on them. But for me, in all realms of my life, the KISS method seems to work best.

      Last night during our vocal team prayer, I bowed my head and kept my eyes open. (And I lived to tell about it.) 😉

  • Nicole August 20, 2010, 9:59 AM

    That’s just it, Lindsey. Don’t tell me how I “should” pray or where I “should” worship my Lord. And I won’t tell anyone else what “should” be done to reach the Lord. He knows the heart. Those who worship must worship “in Spirit and in Truth”. That says it all for me.

  • Mike Duran August 21, 2010, 5:20 AM

    I personally don’t have a problem with prayer traditions. Getting “bound” by a tradition IS a problem. I think that’s what Jesus was addressing in the Sermon on the Mount when He taught His disciples to pray. However, if we’re not careful, Jesus’ template for prayer can itself become formulaic. So just saying we do it the “biblical way” and eschew the “traditions of men” does not let us off the hook. This post was intended to be a sort of meditation on that, why we need to “open our eyes” to God and not allow various habits or traditions to lock us into one mode of praying. It was also meant to share what remains one of the most deeply spiritual experiences of my life.

    • Jessica Thomas August 21, 2010, 6:14 AM

      And I appreciate you sharing it Mike. I know it’s a risk to share personal information on a public blog. I used to have experiences like that a lot as a kid…or much much more often than I do now. Then I started working 40 hours a week. :(. So cultivating an attitude that allows us to still experience awe is quite important (and difficult at times depending on circumstance.)

  • Nicole August 21, 2010, 10:28 AM

    “The traditions of men” isn’t my term. It came from Jesus.

    Your life/prayer-changing experience at Yosemite captures the essence of worship. It’s all about Him. When we see Him in all His wonder, we are changed. I think your experience typifies the glory of truly “seeing” Him and the results of such a profound experience.

  • BobbieJo February 25, 2013, 6:14 PM

    I think everyone needs to stop saying what’s right and wrong and this and that. And truly start following the Lord in truth and that is through his word. Search the scriptures for your answers, not man made doctrines!!!

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