Recently, I was blessed to hear some spiritual reflections from a priest who was not born in this country. Unlike folks like me, this dear father was not inundated with the caricatures of religiosity which are testified to in many religious halls that decry religion. His comments on coming to the US, as they relate to a habit that I am still breaking, opened my heart more fully to the highest goal that we all share-living a life of peace and repentance, joined to the Holy Trinity and all people through theosis and love.
Father shared that upon moving from Barcelona to New York City in the early ’80s, the water cooler topic du jour was that of prayer in schools. One of the myriads of political cartoons from that period happened to feature a boy, being carried off from his class by two security guards. While watching the drama and “justice in action”, two teachers remarked to one another, “Poor Johnny, he was only sleeping in class.”
This poor European explant priest couldn’t grasp the humor of this political cartoon because he could not see the connection between sleeping in class and prayer. Why? Because, as he put it, Our Tradition knows nothing of bowing one’s head and closing one’s eyes (to pray, at least).
Now, as a cantor, I understand the complexity of liturgical services, and I understand how leading them can lead makes it impossible to pray with one’s eyes closed. Definitely, closing one’s eyes is to be discouraged on a mere practical level in that case, because there are so many words to be sung. But this dear priest’s spiritual reflections extended far beyond practical matters such as those.
He spoke so matter of factly that praying with one’s eyes closed was not part of the entire spiritual life that he had lived as a cradle Catholic. It was so against my own understanding of prayer, which I received as a former Evangelical Christian.
Why does praying with one’s eyes closed speak against our notion of what is true? As Father explained, the sacramental perspective can see God everywhere, in all of life. To close our eyes is, then, a fleeing from reality. My friend who bothers me disappears as I close my eyes. My wife and children can fade into oblivion while the “real” presence of God floods my closed eyes as I think of Him. But this would miss the presence of God, who is everywhere present and filling all things.
Praying with open eyes is, therefore, a testament to the fact that we see God in the created world, just as much as is our acceptance of the 7th Ecumenical Council, which upheld the use of icons in worship.
The matter of keeping one’s eyes open is, then, not a matter of kneeling vs. not kneeling. It is a matter of saying that the world is not separate from the reality of God. The highest reality is here and now, just as much as it is in the life of the world to come.
I come to God in my liturgical worship, but I also see Him in the simplest things of life. And so, as my eyes are open in day to day life, they are open as I pray to Him, because all of my existence echoes the refrain, that God is with us.
As this video proclaims:
God is with us!
Understand all you Nations!
Submit Yourselves, for God is with us!
Excellent post! Thank you for the reminder.
One of the questions I asked my sponsor, prior to becoming Catholic, was why Catholics pray with their eyes open. She said without hesitation, “Because where two or three are gathered, Christ is in our midst. How can we ignore Jesus, and how can we ignore the beauty of creation by keeping our eyes shut?”
My eyes were opened that day!
Love your blog my friend – keep it up. You’ve got some great thoughts going on here.
Jason @ Ascending Mount Carmel
Thanks for the encouragement, Jason.
May God guide us to be an online presence of love and truth in Christ.
Wow, that’s amazing.
G. K. Chesterton did write in Orthodoxy that the difference between Catholic saints and Buddhist saints when depicted in statues or paintings was that Buddhist saints usually have closed eyes while Catholic saints have them opened even amidst the gallows. The faith is beautiful.
Joseph-thanks for your feedback. It is so true, that even as we go to our deaths, if we see the world with divine eyes we can see God in the midst of our persecutors. God grant us such eyes to pray and love that way!
This article reminded me of a chapter from the book “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton. The chapter is entitled “The Romance of Orthodoxy”.
“The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.” -G.K. Chesterton
It appears you’ve provided the quote from G.K. Chesterton that Joseph mentions above. I think this brings up the fact that I didn’t mean to write disparagingly of closing one’s eyes in prayer. At time a focus is needed because distractions overwhelm. But that this is our default positions as Christians who see God in all of the world, that is what I’m writing against. And I think that’s what G.K. saw in the contrast between Buddhist prayer and Christian prayer/iconography.