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.

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