The Postures of Prayer by Caroline Kline


I’m not generally an eye closer during prayers. Nor am I an arm folder. If I’m in a public space like my Mormon church, I tend to slightly bow my head so as to not make any other non-eye closers uncomfortable. I’m not a very consistent personal prayer, but when they do happen, most of them occur as I lie in bed before I sleep. I’m not a kneeler, either.

I’ve not ever thought much about this before, but now that we have a five year old, I’m seeing my child being taught prayer postures by his Sunday School teachers that don’t resonate with me personally. It’s caused me to think a little more deeply about why I don’t conform to typical Mormon prayer posturing.

I found an article* about eye positioning during prayer helpful as I thought about this question. According to the author Thomas Ellis, members of Abrahamic religions tend to view deity as an “intra-tribal rank superior.” In other words, the same way these ancient people approached their social superiors with supplications, they approach their deity with supplication. This usually involves lowering the eyes and head in order to not appear challenging or demanding. Contemporary Mormonism seems to fall into this category.

Prayer Tree by Janet Chui

One exception to this generalization about Abrahamic religions is Marian worship. Catholic or Eastern Orthodox adherents tend to approach Mary with a direct gaze, seeking out visual reciprocity. They often look at icons and pray to her simultaneously. The submissive lowering of head and eyes is not present. Ellis postulates that this is because these adherents are approaching deity not as an “intra-tribal rank superior” but instead as an “attachment figure,” just as babies and young children approach with eyes open the loving mother or father.

Interesting. Does my lack of desire to close my eyes and bow my head mean that I think of deity more like Catholics think of Mary? Do I approach deity as loving parents**, rather than social superiors? Do I want to emphasize our similarities and talk to them as loving friends, rather than focus on the vast difference of our hierarchical positions?

Yes, I think I do.

*Natural Gazes, Non-Natural Agents: The Biology of Religion’s Ocular Behaviors” by Thomas B. Ellis in the book The Biology of Religious Behavior

**Mormons believe in both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother, though Mormons are instructed to not worship her or pray to her.



Categories: Christianity, Mormonism

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9 replies

  1. I certainly look into the Panagia’s eyes when I pray to her in Greece. (For me the Panagia She Who Is All Holy holds the place of Goddess.) I will have to take a good look to see if people close their eyes or bow when praying to Jesus or male saints. I do agree with you that bowing or prostrating myself is not something I feel inclined to do in relation to Goddess/God, nor do I shut my eyes.

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  2. Caroline, thank you for this beautiful post. Although I am a feminist and continually work to let go of images of God as dominant and male, as a result of my traditional Catholic upbringing I still sometimes say “he” and imagine a deity I am below (before I correct myself of course – old habits die hard). God as mother has been a very comforting image for me, but to think of God as a “loving friend” is a thought that has never entered my mind and I don’t know why.

    Also, I generally do pray with my eyes closed unless I am focusing on a particular image, shrine, etc. This being said, there is a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima near my home that I frequently stop to see. When I stand before her, I look her in the eye and speak to her. Although I haven’t verbalized it in the past, I suppose that I do see her as loving friend. I just didn’t realize it until I read your post. You’ve given me quite a bit to think about. Thank you!

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  3. Caroline,
    This is such a helpful post for me. I’m currently researching Mary not as Theotokos (Mother of God) but rather as God/ess based upon community praxis and understanding. Theologian Leonard Boff claims Mary is “hypostatically (absolutely and really) united to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity.” (“The Maternal Face of God: The Feminine and its Religious Expressions, 1989).

    When I reflect upon my own life and praxis, it has always been Mary who I have sought out in crises, joy or petition.

    Look at catacomb images of Priscilla in the early church and you will see the posture of prayer: lifted hands, palms up as well as the head. While not eye-to-eye, I find this posture reassuring, joyful and open instead of submissive and guilty.

    Again, great post and thanks for the resource.

    http://blog.christianhistory.net/upload/2009/01/orant%20catacomb%20priscilla3.JPG%5D

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  4. As a man who has been taught that God’s nature is first and foremost as a parent, this is where I approach God at. As a parent, I see God has embodying both masculine and feminine characteristics. God as father and mother. Interestingly, when I prayed once to understand the feminine aspect of God, I had a very motherly experience that has stayed to me this day.

    All of this is why I cannot embrace the notion of eternal damnation. I know of no earthly parent who could damn for eternity a child who did not “worship” them. And if I my love as a parent is greater than God’s, then there is a problem with that God…

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  5. Caroline, thanks for the blog on prayer, it took me down memory lane!

    Raised Catholic I was taught to bow my head, close my eyes, kneel, hold my hands together concluding each prayer sequence with the sign of the cross (“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”). My Mom explained that praying like this reminds me that I am a humble servant, here to serve God and of course she stressed to me that GOOD Catholics pray this way (this was in the70’s and 80’s)! I also prayed the same prayers repetitively (usually The Rosary, a devotional prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary). I was never clear about what I was praying for, but knew I should. After weekly Sunday confession (the Sacrament of Reconciliation to receive grace) the priest assigned me penance ( amends for sins committed, my priest assigned X number of Our Fathers, and X number of Hail Mary’s…depending on the amount and degree of sins I confessed for the week) which I performed kneeling at the altar.

    When I attended church with a childhood friend, a Calvary church, I was surprised at the casual prayer stances, some standing, some sitting, some of everything and no rote praying at all, it seemed disrespectful to be so casual, not a surprising response given what I was taught! Years later, seeking to renew my relationship with Jesus, I attended a nondenominational church and was encouraged to pray conversationally. Initially, I was so uncomfortable, not know what to say… I finally asked a friend to teach me to pray, she did and it quickly became second nature to me. Now I pray with open eyes, closed eyes, standing, driving, kneeling, anytime and anywhere. I pray prayers and conversationally. As a child it was a good introduction to learn to pray formally and on a regular basis – a great start that I still appreciate.

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  6. Hi Caroline – Interesting blog. As a Unitarian Universalist, I don’t pray to, well, I don’t pray to necessarily the same things you might… And it is an interesting discussion because as I struggle to gain prayer, ritual, connection with the Divine, prayer is a good way in for me. I’ve actually been reading a great book on this topic: “Bringing Prayer to Life” by Kate Braestrup, a UU chaplain. She offers her readers a way to think about prayers in many ways that I’ve never previously considered. Specifically, she raises the question of whether we are praying to or for something. If I thought I was praying to some bearded man in the sky, I’d be pretty unlikely to assume a position of submission. But if instead, I’m praying to the divine power, the love that connects us, I can humbly accept any and all positions of prayer. Thanks for raising up this topic.

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  7. Thank you for all the comments!

    Carol, yes, it would be so interesting to know about exceptions to this framework — people who use direct gazes to connect to Jesus, etc.

    Gina, I’m so glad this resonated with you! If you are interested in giving your daughter a more inclusive experience with god images and metaphors, I highly recommend Sandy Sasso’s board book called ‘What is God’s Name?” It’s this beautiful little narrative about people calling God all sorts of names (Mother, Father, Friend, Healer, etc.) and how all those are wonderful and meaningful names and make God happy.

    Cynthie, I love that idea that Mary is connected to the third person in the trinity. Many Mormon feminists suggest that the Holy Spirit is in fact Heavenly Mother. And I too am attracted to those images of people praying with hands/heads up in some way. It does seem more joyful to me too.

    Chris, thank you for sharing your experience with the feminine aspect of God. I know many people who have likewise had very powerful experiences with that. As for eternal damnation, one of the things I kind of like about the Mormon take is that Mormons generally believe that God is so loving that even the lowest level of heaven (hell) is so awesome that we would kill ourselves to get there.

    Sharon, I loved hearing about your experience with prayer. interestingly, I come from a tradition of more informal type prayers. But I got tired of hearing/thinking in these stock phrases every Mormon uses that I began to look at formal prayers written by others in other traditions and found them so beautiful and meaningful. Makes me wonder if people who are seekers are often naturally interested in practices that are different than what they grew up with. I think it’s great that you’ve incorporated both formal and informal into your prayer practice.

    Lara, I need to check out that book! Sounds fantastic. Yes, Mormons generally envision praying to an actual personage, rather than a force or a power. For years I’ve had a hard time praying to god the father. It just didn’t seem right considering that I also believe in/ hope for god the mother. I like your point about how the positions don’t matter as much when one thinks of the divine as a connecting love or power.

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  8. Caroline – it’s incredible how reflective one can be when observing our children’s behavior! My almost 4-year old believes that certain elements MUST be present in a prayer – everyone holds hands, we close our eyes, the prayer begins with “Dear God,” there is a thanking of many people and things, and then we all collectively end with an “Amen.” He will even comment on whether folks say Ay-men vs. Ah-men…

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  9. When I was a child, I never understood why the protocol for praying entailed closed eyes and bowed heads. To me, praying with my eyes open and my head tilted up – usually looking out a window – made much better sense if I were supposed to be talking to an entity that existed in a realm beyond the inside of a church or the insides of my eyelids. Indeed, I used to think to myself: “Why not gaze out at the trees and sky, at nature, at the wonders created by this entity rather than at the insides of my own eyelids or the burgundy rug beneath my feet?” neither of which I found very holy or prayer-inspiring.

    As I always say, to each her own. My own, when it came to finding a resting place for my eyes during prayers in church, was outside. Perhaps this preference represents part of the reason my husband and I were married outside rather than in a church. “We’re getting married in God’s cathedral,” I would say to my Irish Catholic grandmother in an attempt to make her feel better about my husband’s and my decision to have only the sky above us when saying our “I do’s.” Granted, I don’t believe in God in the same way she does… I wouldn’t even call what I believe “God”… but I always feel closer to Whateveritis when I’m outside in nature. When I’m hiking in the woods or sharing a picnic with a friend in the grass or getting married to my honey overlooking the palisades of New York, I feel in it, surrounded by it, beneath and above and a part and in commune with it. This idea of Whateveritis clearly does not allow for a hierarchical relationship, but rather bespeaks of an awesome interconnectedness. Humans are a part of nature, too, so when we’re in it (nature), it is also in us.

    So, when I pray or think or whatever you want to call it, I always seek a vision of nature, of outdoors, of a piece of the world not created by humans, but of which humans are a part. I do not seek a vision (ie. head down, eyes closed) that is a product of the historically hierarchical idea of Whateveritis. Burgundy rugs are great. So are eyelids. But for me their purposes are not conducive to spiritual thoughts. And if I can’t see outside because of the resplendent stained glass windows garnishing the stone walls, then I enjoy the colors, the refracted light flooding the church, as I pray and am grateful for those colors.

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