Haven’t you ever wondered why we close our eyes in prayer? I haven’t.
If you’re like me, that’s how you learned to pray as a child. And, probably like me, you never questioned it since. I grew up evangelical Protestant but becoming Catholic didn’t fundamentally change this habit for me. Yes, at some points in the Mass, when reading from a prayer book, or contemplating a visual aid such as an icon, my eyes might be open. But the default setting for me is still eyes closed, as it is for many other Catholics.
It wasn’t until I stumbled across a Protestant blog post on divine immensity — another term for omnipresence — that I even considered that it could be otherwise. The author claims that the traditional practice is aimed at preventing children from distraction. But because God is everywhere adults should open their eyes while praying, so the argument goes.
As a philosophical conservative and as a Catholic, I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to tradition. If it isn’t broken, no need to innovate.
But tradition is strengthened by understanding it, engaging with it, and entering into a dialogue with it. What is it trying to teach us?
A review of the available historical sources does not yield much. One online encyclopedia says the practice can be traced back to what the proper decorum was for being in the presence of a king in the ancient world. One pastor elaborates, saying that closing one’s eyes would be custom of a prisoner of war brought before a king. He doesn’t offer specifics, but certainly this connection makes sense: in prayer we approach Christ the King as supplicants, as those who have been freed from the prison of sin, or perhaps as prisoners seeking to be delivered from evil.
I also checked two books on the history of prayer, Prayer: A History and A History of Prayer: The First to the Fifteenth Century. They do not seem to examine the origins of such practice in any significant way.
The historical path does not throw much light on the question. As far as Scripture goes, we encounter silence there as well. Many Protestant sources make a point of noting that the Bible does not actually say to close our eyes. Jesus’ explicit teaching on prayer in Matthew 6 and Luke 11 certainly makes no mention of closing one’s eyes. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a theological basis for the practice. That might come in Matthew 6:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you (vv. 5-6).
Here, the instruction on closing the door and withdrawing to the inner room could be taken literally, morally, and allegorically. Literally, Jesus is commending the practice of private prayer. Morally, his command could be read as a call to block out the distractions and temptations of this world. On an allegorical level, Jesus could be telling us to go into the inner room of our souls. For it is with the ‘eyes of the soul,’ as St. Teresa of Avila put it, not the eyes of the body, that we ‘see’ God. Such an act naturally leads one to close his eyes.
Church Fathers like St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom likewise do not explicitly counsel the closing of the penitent’s eyes, but their theology of prayer provides a foundation for the practice. For example, listen to how St. John Chrysostom talks about prayer:
As our bodily eyes are illuminated by seeing the light, so in contemplating God our soul is illuminated by him. …
Prayer is the light of the soul, giving us true knowledge of God. It is a link mediating between God and man. By prayer the soul is borne up to heaven and in a marvelous way embraces the Lord. This meeting is like that of an infant crying on its mother, and seeking the best of milk. The soul longs for its own needs and what it receives is better than anything to be seen in the world (Homily 6 on Prayer).
St. Augustine, in his instructions on prayer in Letter 30, also emphasizes prayer as a sort of sight of the soul. But also he draws a contrast between this interior light and a sort of exterior darkness: “In the darkness, then, of this world, in which we are pilgrims absent from the Lord as long as we walk by faith and not by sight, the Christian soul ought to feel itself desolate, and continue in prayer, and learn to fix the eye of faith on the word of the divine sacred Scriptures.” From an Augustinian perspective, then, shutting one’s eyes symbolizes our trust in God amid the darkness of this world.
In the Middle Ages, the great spiritual writers are more explicit about the mechanics of prayer. And many of them recommend closing one’s eyes. St. Ignatius of Loyola includes it in his instructions for the second method of prayer in Spiritual Exercises (see the chapter on the “Three Methods of Prayer”). For him, the practice seems intended simply to focus our attention on the words of our prayer.
Whereas St. Ignatius is practical, St. Teresa of Avila has a decidedly more spiritual take on the subject. She follows the lead of St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine by seeing it as conducive to prayer as a spiritual communion of the soul with the God who is pure spirit. And, moreover, at least at some point in one’s spiritual journey, the experience is so intense that the shutting of the eyelids happens unconsciously:
There is no occasion to retire nor to shut the eyes, nor does it depend on anything exterior; involuntarily the eyes suddenly close and solitude is found. Without any labor of one’s own, the temple of which I spoke is reared for the soul in which to pray: the senses and exterior surroundings appear to lose their hold, while the spirit gradually regains its lost sovereignty (The Interior Castle, The Fourth Mansions, Chapter 3).
St. Francis de Sales does not explicitly mention the eyes but his general instructions on prayer almost making closing them inevitable:
A blind man when in the presence of his prince will preserve a reverential demeanor if told that the king is there, although unable to see him; but practically, what men do not see they easily forget, and so readily lapse into carelessness and irreverence. Just so, my child, we do not see our God, and although faith warns us that He is present, not beholding Him with our mortal eyes, we are too apt to forget Him, and act as though He were afar: for, while knowing perfectly that He is everywhere, if we do not think about it, it is much as though we knew it not. And therefore, before beginning to pray, it is needful always to rouse the soul to a steadfast remembrance and thought of the Presence of God (Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 2, Chapter 2).
The above passage occurs in a section about the preparation for prayer. The first step is to put oneself in the presence of God. There are, according to St. Francis, four ways to do this: through an awareness of His universal presence, by remembering that God is ‘specially present’ in the ‘heart and mind,’ by thinking of God who looks down on us, and by employing the natural powers of our imagination to contemplate Christ in His Sacred Humanity. Closing your eyes aids in all four approaches.
One additional reason is mystical. The immediate effect of closing our eyes is darkness. This is a physical reminder of the special sort of spiritual darkness that has long been recognized as the condition in which the most profound encounters with God occur. Gregory of Nyssa called it the ‘dazzling darkness.’ St. John of the Cross described it of the ‘dark night of the soul.’ And Thomas Merton also spoke of darkness in prayer (see here, here, and here).
One account of this darkness is that it really is brightness, but one so bright that it overpowers our ability to perceive it, so becomes like darkness to us. We have another term for this in the context of natural realities: ‘blinding light.’ By closing our eyes we partake in one small way this profound mystical experience.
Drawing upon Scripture, the Fathers, and the saints we can identify at least six spiritual benefits to closing one’s eyes during prayer.
- First, it closes us off to the distractions and temptations of the world.
- Second, it symbolizes the reality that we see God through the spiritual eyes of faith.
- Third, it reminds us that we encounter God in the ‘inner room’ of our souls.
- Fourth, it allows us to contemplate Christ in His humanity in the absence of an icon or statue.
- Fifth, it draws us to contemplate God Himself in His transcendent invisibility.
- Six, it draws us closer to a mystical encounter with God that the saints enjoy.
Based on the wisdom of the saints, closing one’s eyes seems to be a salutary practice. But next time you find yourself praying this way, don’t do it automatically. Do it—but do it consciously. Make it a part of the prayer itself. I, for one, certainly intend to.