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I have been a Christian since my youth, but I have never received a satisfactory answer to this question.

Why must a Christian close their eyes during prayer?

In large services in the west, (I am not familiar with other traditions) believers bow their heads and close their eyes while being led in prayer, often speaking internally to God or self reflecting. Bowing one's head, or prostrating themselves is itself a form of worship.

Personally, in moments of personal prayer I do not close my eyes because I find it more distracting. But in my family and church I grew up in this would be seen as very offensive if someone might walk in and see me praying with my eyes open.

I'm mostly interested in the scriptural basis for closing one's eyes while praying. Not so much the historical reason for the tradition developing, although I recognize it might be difficult to separate the two.

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    "Must"? There is no such "must" AFAIK. There may be reasons why one should, but I doubt you can find any biblical prescription to do so. Possibly, though, it just comes from basic social politeness; you look at the person with whom you're speaking. Since you can't physically see God/Christ/THS, closing your eyes is an acceptable substitute, since the alternative is to be looking at something else which may distract from the conversation.
    – Matthew
    May 2 at 16:28
  • @Matthew you make a fair point. It may be impossible to find a "must".
    – WnGatRC456
    May 3 at 0:28
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It should be noted the current-day posture differs from the early Christian one: The traditional posture of prayer in medieval Europe is kneeling or supine with clasped hands, in antiquity more typically with raised hands. The early Christian prayer posture was standing, looking up to heaven, with outspread arms and bare head. This is the pre-Christian, pagan prayer posture (except for the bare head, which was prescribed for males in Corinthians 11:4, in Roman paganism, the head had to be covered in prayer).

As to the modern posture, closing the eyes during prayer, recitation or meditation is not unique to Christianity or the Abrahamic religions. It is well documented in older religions or traditions. The Pyramid Texts (2400 BCE) for example state in "charms and utterances":

429b. (with) face on the road, eye of (name of charmed person), look not at him.

In Buddhist practice (predating Christianity by about 600 years) it is prescribed to close the eyes entirely or almost completely (as illustrated by countless statues of the Buddha). The Buddhist canon probably has the most elaborate explanation for this action: closing the eyes help to turn the focus of the mind inward. This is called Vipassanā, a Pali word derived from the older prefix "vi-" meaning "special", and the verbal root "-passanā" meaning "seeing". It is often translated as "insight".

I was requested to provide some Buddhist canonical verses that illustrate closing the eyes (almost) completely was the common prescribed practice. As for the statues, you should keep in mind that in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, closed eyes symbolize looking inward towards the self.

In one of the oldest texts of the Tripitaka, the Vitakkasaṇṭhānasutta there is the direct instruction from the historical Buddha to his students:

As they do so, those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end. Their mind becomes stilled internally; it settles, unifies, and becomes immersed in samādhi. Suppose there was a person with good eyesight, and some undesirable sights came into their range of vision. They’d just close their eyes or look away. In the same way, a mendicant … those bad thoughts are given up and come to an end …

(a mendicant (lit. "beggar") is a term for an early follower of the Buddha, who has given up all worldly possessions)

In the Sōtō Zen tradition of Dōgen, who brought Chan Buddhism to Japan, meditation is called zazen. In Japanese za means “sitting” and zen means “meditation”.

There are three important points of practice in sitting meditation. The first one is harmonizing the body, the second is harmonizing the breath, and the third is harmonizing the mind. Body, breath, and mind are the three most important points of practice in meditation. Posture is the key to practice. As for the eyes: you are to direct your vision about three feet in front of your body, and your eyes will naturally come to rest in position that is not completely closed (to prevent sleepiness).

In Shōbōgenzō: On Wanshi’s ‘Kindly Advice for Doing Seated Meditation’ Dōgen writes:

Do not esteem what is far off, and do not belittle what is far off; just acquaint yourself with what is far off. Do not belittle what is near at hand, and do not esteem what is near at hand; just acquaint yourself with what is near at hand. Do not treat your eyes lightly, and do not attach great importance to your eyes. And do not attach great importance to your ears, and do not treat your ears lightly. Just make your ears and your eyes sharp and clear...

The expression "make your ears and your eyes sharp and clear" means to not try to block out the senses, but just let them pass, without contemplating them or attaching words and meaning to them. This is why in most Zen schools, novices sit facing the wall with the eyes almost closed. Note that for advanced practitioners and walking meditation (practiced mostly in the Mahayana schools) the closed eyes prescription does not apply: once you have mastered turning the focus of the mind on itself, the senses will no longer distract your focus.

The eyes are then associated with clearly seeing the way things are, whereas the ears are associated with accurately understanding what things truly are. This is what Dōgen means further in the same text:

... Do not doubt your eyes and do not trust your ears

(allegorical for: do not doubt your direct experience of It and do not rely on your understanding of how someone else has described It.)

In the Tibetan Nyingma school, the instructions are a bit different, but with the same underlying goal:

keep the eyes open but not stare-open - don't strain to keep them half-closed either, relax the muscles around the eyes, so called soft-eyes, do not focus the eyes on anything in particular, allow them go a little out of focus but don't force it, if your eyes wander from object to object a bit, that's totally fine - as long as the objects are not too engaging. You don't have to literally sit in front of the wall but you want your scene to be rather generic.

As to the question on textual sources for Roman Pagan prayer posture and attire, Plutarch wrote the following on the matter:

“… they thus worshipped the Gods, either humbling themselves by concealing the head, or rather by pulling the toga over their ears as a precaution lest any ill-omened and baleful sound from without should reach them while they were praying...Or, as Castor states when he is trying to bring Roman customs into relation with Pythagorean doctrines: the Spirit within us entreats and supplicates the Gods without, and thus he symbolizes by the covering of the head the covering and concealment of the soul by the body - Plutarch, Roman Questions.”

As for the posture, this is often referred to as the orans position, which is Latin for “one who is praying.”

enter image description here

This was a common way of praying in the ancient world, not reserved to Christianity. In fact, most pagans prayed in the same way and pagan deities were visually represented standing or sitting in the orans position.

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  • Interesting that this is prescribed in Buddhism. Can you support that concept in your post other than simply stating it as can be illustrated by countless Buddhist statues of Buddha?
    – Ken Graham
    May 3 at 15:36
  • @Codosaur would you be able to provide references for the posture of prayer and the head covering? I think this is probably the closest I'm going to get to an answer to the original intent of my question.
    – WnGatRC456
    May 4 at 2:12
  • Added detail for both your questions
    – Codosaur
    May 4 at 12:55
  • Thanks for the sources.
    – Ken Graham
    May 5 at 3:01
  • @Codosaur Thank you for the sources. I think your answer and Kyle's are the closest to my original question.
    – WnGatRC456
    May 5 at 4:17
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Closing the eyes in prayer is for the same reason as one may fast in association with prayer.

It is to detach oneself from the things of this world, from the things of the flesh and from the things that can be seen.

But, like fasting, it is purely voluntary. There are no 'instructions' as to when to pray, or how often to pray anywhere in the bible (only examples to follow, if one wishes).

Nor are there 'instructions' about fasting. It is purely voluntary, though it is encouraged in scripture and, again, there are examples to follow.

Likewise there are examples to follow, round about us, as to closing the eyes. Every congregation I have ever worshiped with, has done so.

And so do I, personally, every time I 'shut my closet door' and pray to the Father in secret, where none else can see me.

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  • I'm afraid this does not address the heart of my question. If you're saying there's no biblical instructions on how to pray, which is not an accurate statement in my estimation, then why does the Christian tradition exist?
    – WnGatRC456
    May 2 at 16:21
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    Could you quote me the biblical instructions that you are aware of regarding instructions to pray ? I would be interested to see them. I am aware of many examples, but not of explicit instructions telling me when and how often to engage in prayer, myself. I have given you my reasons for the tradition in my two opening sentences .Feel totally free to disagree, however.
    – Nigel J
    May 2 at 16:26
  • Nigel, you yourself mentioned one such instruction; that to pray in secret. To @WnGatRC456, however, I expect much of this is largely a matter of social convention. There may well be some "absolutist" meaning to prostrating one's self (e.g. it would be harder to defend against an attack; basically, why are animal submission postures what they are?), but ultimately it's more a matter of wishing to be respectful. (I consider a discussion of what constitutes "respectful" to be out of scope.)
    – Matthew
    May 2 at 16:33
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    @Matthew Jesus says 'when ye pray'. He does not say how often or for how long. He leaves it entirely to the hearer. What he exhorts against is hypocrisy. And he does so, only when prompted by the disciples saying 'teach us to pray', who did so, when they observed (first) his example. It was not Jesus' initiative to talk about praying. And I would be reluctant to give even the point about inferring 'daily' ( 'give us .. our daily bread') since it could be prayed weekly, ahead of the seven days.
    – Nigel J
    May 2 at 16:42
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Scientists say that we receive 90 percent of the material of perception through the eyes. Closing of the eyes means we are allowing the other senses, like hearing, to work better. When one wants to concentrate on what is already inside one's brain say, spiritual thoughts, the closing of all senses to the external world of perception does tremendous help.

But then, the eyes are the instruments of perception other than taste, which one can conveniently block. One cannot close both ears without being noticed. Mind that such closing of eyes happens even on other occasions. You never find an ad in which the model enjoys the ice cream or chocolate with eyes wide open.

To sum up, our genetic blueprint, and not our spirituality or religious upbringing, has a role in prompting us to close our eyes whenever we want to concentrate on something--prayer, swimming, expressing anger, enjoying good food, all included.

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    Often lifting one's eyes up is for the purpose of being reminded of God's greatness as reflected in creation. Psalm 121, Isaiah 40:26-28, for example. Eye closing may be an inward self-focus that should not always be fully embraced. May 4 at 11:59
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    Yes, I like this answer, the origin is natural law, not something we have to be told to do.
    – Peter Turner
    May 4 at 13:26
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The closest thing I have seen to a biblical basis for this tradition is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:

13 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner! I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The common, ancient tradition is to pray with he hands up, ala 1 Timothy 2:8, "Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or dissension." And you have Jesus' example of passionate, repentant prayer, with the head down.

The more direct basis for head down and eyes closed is the evangelistic revival of the 19th century. You tell everyone to close their eyes in order to make it easier to get someone to be unembarrassed about raising their hand and coming forward.

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Origin of closing one's eyes during prayer

The origins of closing one’s eye during prayer are unknown.

No one is obliged to close their eyes during prayer.

It is not so much a tradition as much as it is a religious custom.

In the Bible, there are descriptions of prayers made standing, sitting, kneeling or with arms raised, yet there aren't any verses that insist the eyelids shut during prayer. There are, however, a number of verses that describe people praying in private, which may offer a clue. For many, prayer is a private matter, an intercession between a person and God or another higher power. Closing your eyes as you do it is a way to block out distractions and focus on the conversation. Instead of using your eyes to communicate with others, you shut them and turn your thoughts inward.

I enjoy the phrase of lifting one’s eyes to heaven while in prayer.

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying: “I pray not only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” - John 17:20–21

In Catholicism, we often see people praying with their eyes closed. For myself, I find it easier to pray with my eyes open and my head bowed. I brought this point to my spiritual director some years ago, a man of deep prayer himself, and he hold me that one is not obliged to close one’s eyes while praying. Many do, but some do not.

During Catholic liturgies, we are occasionally asked to bow our heads for the blessing, but not to close our eyes, which most will do out of reverence.

Closing one’s eyes during prayer is a popular custom, while for us in the Catholic Church, bowing our heads in prayer is a recognized tradition.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) explains, “A bow signifies reverence and honor shown to the persons themselves or to the signs that represent them. There are two kinds of bows: a bow of the head and a bow of the body [also known as a profound bow].”

The GIRM then lays out several moments during the Mass when those present should bow.

  1. During the Creed – “The Creed is sung or recited by the priest together with the people (cf. no. 68) with everyone standing. At the words et incarnatus est (by the power of the Holy Spirit . . . and became man) all make a profound bow; but on the solemnities of the Annunciation and of the Nativity of the Lord, all genuflect” (GIRM 137).

  2. After the consecration (if you are not kneeling) – “In the dioceses of the United States of America, [the faithful] should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration” (GIRM 43).

  3. Before receiving the Holy Eucharist at Communion – “When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister” (GIRM 160).

  4. During a solemn blessing at the end of Mass – “If a prayer over the people or a solemn formula for the blessing is used, the deacon says, Inclinate vos ad benedictionem (Bow your heads and pray for God’s blessing)” (GIRM 185).

  5. When hearing the name of God or specific saints – “A bow of the head is made when the three Divine Persons are named together and at the names of Jesus, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and of the Saint in whose honor Mass is being celebrated” (GIRM 275). - When do we bow our heads at Mass?

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    "It is not so much a tradition as much as it is a religious custom." What's the difference? Other parts of your answer seem to imply that there is one, but (perhaps not being RC) I have no idea what it would be.
    – Matthew
    May 3 at 14:28
  • @Matthew Traditions are usually based on some historical idea and are generally documented; customs not so much. Customs tend to be more localized to a particular region or area.
    – Ken Graham
    May 3 at 14:37
  • It is not just human beings who close their eyes for concentration; animals also show such a tendency. Watch a cat which steals something from the kitchen .It keeps the eyes closed, perhaps with the purpose of focussing on the food through sense of smell. May 5 at 15:55
  • @KadalikattJosephSibichan Animals are irrational creatures and do not possess the powers of intelligence, so concentrating on something is not possible in the sense that the animal’s mind is engaged in some subject.
    – Ken Graham
    May 5 at 17:58
  • Thanks , I stand corrected. But I suggest you watch a cat lying in wait for its catch. May 6 at 4:03

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