I have no idea how or why we were taught to close our eyes for prayer. Does anyone know the history of it? I tried Google-ing it but only a few things with substance came up besides 1) to block out distractions, and 2) to follow suit with the people around you. I did come across this blog’s description:
Quoting I Kings 8: “And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. Then Solomon said, The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.”
Those who practice Centering Prayer know that teachers like Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington make it a point to recommend that we sit comfortably “with eyes closed” when introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
To close one’s eyes is one way we allow God’s darkening glory to come upon us. Jesus himself recommended such environmental darkness for prayer when giving us guidelines, he recommended that we into our closet, shut the door, and pray to our Father who sees in secret (Matthew 6). As I have said elsewhere, inasmuch as first-century Jewish homes had no closets as we know them, it likely that Jesus is suggesting that go off somewhere alone, pull a prayer shawl over our heads or at least pull down our eyelids so that we enter a personal darkness to be with God–or better said, that God may be with us.
Unfortunately though this is compelling, and I think, very true and necessary – the imperative to embrace the darkness and quiet because of its being conducive to God’s presence…it’s just not feasible anymore. One of four things happen when I close my eyes, particuarly for prayer:
1) I start snoring.
2) I start daydreaming.
3) I start writing lists.
4) The babies run away and/or fall off a pew (namely, in church on Sundays).
So I stopped closing my eyes. Actually, I stopped a while ago. Mostly because of #2 and #3. But, I also thought opening my eyes would help me feel more connected to the people around me, as well as to God. Because I found that sometimes in the midst of prayer when my eyes were closed it felt like the people praying with me were far away – the sounds of voices seemed small and distant. Opening my eyes and looking around began to anchor me to the shared moment once I could let go of feeling sneaky or like I was breaking rules. Still, Andy doesn’t totally like it especially whenever he catches me staring at him after he’s finished praying for a meal.
Now, in worship though when I’m juggling the babies, it’s an absolute necessity to keep my eyes. Wide. Open. While they toddle around the sanctuary. While they flap their hands and wave bulletin inserts loudly like pom poms in the air. While they laugh and shriek and call out for daddy in his flowing black robe in the front. While they lean on the backs of the pews to poke the people in their faces. Yes, certainly it’s distracting. Not just to me, either, and one might wonder how in the world I could possibly be present?
But, I think that this season of faith, including the experience of prayer and worship – it’s meant to be a different feeling. Worshiping as a parent…It requires a different energy and a more deliberate posture in worship. It’s definitely much more exhausting in a way, and yet, at the same time, I find it’s more tangible. To be present in that moment, in that community, as my children occupy the space, it feels like a faithfulness – the kind that’s really associated with worship. And when I look around and see the community around me – and surrounding all the children – I can’t help but feel grateful. Joyful. Hopeful. Worshipful. And mindful of my desperately needful ways. Desperately needing to work towards the good of God’s kingdom. I really believe this urgency comes from the connection experienced in prayer. And I’m discovering it in new ways, and discovering the ways it’s changing me.
Prayer is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine. ― Kathleen Norris
I’ve heard this said in so many ways, but I do like Kathleen’s words here. It’s a reminder that ultimately I’m always asking to be changed in ways that are beyond the horizons of my vision. The babies remind me of this…the ways they are constantly changing before my eyes.
And yes, I actually do close my eyes every once in a while.