The Postures of Prayer

Prayer Tree by Janet Chui

I’m not generally an eye closer during prayers. Nor am I an arm folder. If I’m in a public space like church, I tend to slightly bow my head so as to not make any other non-eye closers too uncomfortable. Most of my personal prayers 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 three year old, I’m seeing my child being taught prayer postures 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 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.

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


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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19 Responses

  1. Deborah says:

    Fascinating! I was never much of a kneeler, but when I pray in the convent near my house, I find kneeling so . . . natural (helps to have a pew to lean against). And I’ve always been an eye-closer, but at the convent I tend to gaze at the stained-glass windows or monstrance or a statue of Mary and Jesus as I prayer.

    So my posture of prayer there is different than my posture of prayer at home. Different needs, perhaps? There is an intensity in staring at a focused spot during prayer and I find that my mind wanders less — the open-eyed, kneeling prayer often feels like meditation, like “here I am, Lord; this is all I have to offer.”

  2. EM says:

    Interesting. I remember growing up and being taught to close my eyes, fold my arms and bow my head by my parents when we had the occasional family prayer on Sundays, and would be slapped if I was caught with my eyes open. Needless to say as an adult and long out of the reaches of authority figures I open my eyes and watch the person praying. I like to look at peoples faces when they pray; their expressions tell me a lot. Having said that though, in my personal prayers, which by the way has always been difficult habit to develop because of the lack of regular prayer at home, I really have to focus by closing my eyes, but I do like to kneel as it signifies my desire to be humble. Kneeling before someone, like God, is a humbling exercise in and of it’s self. I have said my prayers in my bed but don’t feel I get the same results as if I were to kneel.

  3. Ann says:

    I am, well, quite relieved, honestly, after reading this. I’ve always wondered why I have had such a hard time kneeling to pray. I much prefer lying down on my back (before bed like you) or prostrate (lying on my belly with my forehead resting on my hands). After reading this I am excited to explore why I pray the way I do (I why I don’t pray the way I don’t), and to explore other forms of prayerful postures.

  4. Dane Laverty says:

    I remember attending scout camp as a youth. There were scout troops of many different faiths there. One of the camp prayers was given by a thin man with gray hair. When he prayed, he lifted both his arms out to his sides, palms upward, and spoke to the heavens. It was a remarkable scene for me. On rare occasions, I’ve used his posture in prayer as a way of marking a prayer that is especially distinctive to me in some way. I feel that exploring the postures of prayer gives us access to a greater variety of voices in prayer.

  5. Dane Laverty says:

    And let us not forget the poem of Sam Walter Foss:

    An Informal Prayer – The Prayer of Cyrus Brown

    “The proper way for a man to pray”
    said Deacon Lemuel Keyes,
    “and the only proper attitude
    is down upon his knees.”

    “Nay, I should say the way to pray,”
    said Reverend Dr. Wise
    “is standing straight with outstrecthed arms
    and rapt and upturned eyes.”

    “Oh, no, no, no.” said Elder Snow
    “Such posture is too proud
    A man should pray with eyes fast closed
    and head contritely bowed.”

    “It seems to his hands should be
    asturely clasped in front.
    With both thumbs a pointing toward the ground.”
    Said Reverend Hunt.”

    “las’ year I fell in Hodgkins well
    head first,” said Cyrus Brown,
    “With both my heels a-stikin’ up,
    my head a-p’inting down,
    An’ I made a prayer right there an’ then;
    Best prayer I ever said;
    The prayingest prayer I ever prayed,
    A-standin on my head.”

  6. Corktree says:

    What a comforting and eye-opening post! There have been times that I moved away from regular prayer precisely because I was uncomfortable with the model that I was taught, and somehow determined in some warped sense that it was disrespectful to pray otherwise…and if I couldn’t do it the right way, why bother?

    What a waste of energy and thought. It makes so much more sense to pray in a way that fits how you relate to God and how you best focus so that it actually becomes a healing meditation. If it’s uncomfortable and makes no sense to your situation or needs, where is the benefit?

    I can see how certain postures increase humility, but what if humility is not what you need from a particular session of communication? This is fascinating to consider. And I was taught that by closing our eyes it helps to focus and prevent our minds from wandering, but I find the exact opposite to be true for me!

    I guess I’ve never even given it much thought, but just by thinking this right now, I feel freedom from something that I think was quite unnecessarily holding me back in my ability to connect to God in any meaningful way currently. Thanks for posing the question.

    (And I would love to be able to have a place to go pray like Deborah. I grew up near a monastery on a hill, and I wish I had something like that where I am now.)

  7. Aaron R. says:

    I agree with Dane’s final comment that exploring the postures of prayer will help us find more prayer voices. In fact it might a useful exercise to explore the prayer we are about to offer and consider a posture that best fits that prayer. I would suggest that this should be reflected in our rheotical approach as well. Sometimes thee and thine might feel appropriate while at other times you and your might suit our purposes better.

  8. Caroline says:

    I too am jealous that you have a convent nearby. I just love all the visual interest in Catholic churches.

    Slapped? Yikes. Your family really did take that idea of closing one’s eyes seriously. And I like what you said about looking at people’s faces as they pray. I’ll try to do that sometime.

    I’m glad this was interesting to you!

    You might already know this, but Joseph Smith would apparently pray with his arms raised upon occasion. And I love what you said here: “I feel that exploring the postures of prayer gives us access to a greater variety of voices in prayer.” I should probably give different postures a try. And thanks for the poem! Very appropriate to the discussion.


    “It makes so much more sense to pray in a way that fits how you relate to God and how you best focus so that it actually becomes a healing meditation” That’s exactly how I feel.

    I too have felt reluctant to pray for periods of my life because I just didn’t feel comfortable with the prayer postures I thought I was required to do. I’m trying to leave those thoughts behind these days and just go ahead and commune with God in ways that work for me.

    Aaron R,
    Great point about the rhetorical approach. I feel more comfortable with you and your, rather than thee and thine, so that’s how I tend to pray. I have a feeling that God doesn’t mind a bit.

  9. Keri Brooks says:

    I love this post. I normally do pray in the typical kneeling and arms folded posture, but sometimes I’ll pray while walking or while standing in nature.

    The one thing I do differently is that for my personal prayers, I never pray aloud. I’ve been told that I’m “supposed to”, whatever that means, but every time I’ve tried, I feel self-conscious, as if someone will be eavesdropping on my private communications with God. By praying silently, I’m able to have a more open and honest conversation, and it works for me. I’ve had some amazing experiences, so I know that God hears my prayers even when they’re not spoken out loud.

  10. Jessawhy says:

    Thanks for this post. I don’t usually close my eyes during prayer, in fact I usually stare, zoned out, while others are praying.

    My favorite prayer posture has been yoga-style meditation, sitting on the floor with my legs crossed and hands upward facing on my knees.

  11. Corktree says:

    Caroline – I’m curious if this is something that you are teaching your child directly or not? I had only thought about how it affects my own relation to prayer, but tonight as we prayed as a family (not very formally, but still very traditional) I got to thinking just what it is that I should communicate to my daughters. Do I follow the model they are taught in church so that we don’t have any disruptions or confusion, or do I allow them to choose what’s comfortable for them, even at an early age, as long as it’s within reason and they can understand why?

    Do you think it’s something that can wait until later to give them information that adjusts their perspective? Or is it worthwhile to give them tools now that prevent the same subjections and false understanding that we as parents were exposed to and have to choose to move away from?

    (I’m not putting pressure on you to have all the answers, just curious if it’s something you’ve dealt with yet in this area) 🙂

  12. I loved your thoughtful post, Caroline. As I listen to my evangelical son pray, I’m impressed that he talks to God as he would to a personal friend.
    I think some of the rigid formality Mormons insist upon for prayer–bowed heads, folded arms, “thee” and “thou” language–sets up a barrier between the supplicant and God.

  13. Olive says:

    Maybe they don’t bow in supplication to Mary because she’s a woman and not a man like God & Christ. At least Catholics recognize female deities and worship and pray to them though. They are more progressive, at least in that area.

  14. Caroline says:

    I’m with you when it comes to praying aloud. I’m much more comfortable doing it inside my head.

    I really need to try to get into yoga. I know so many people who have been enriched spiritually because of it.

    Great question. I generally just model my type of prayer for my 3 year old. I don’t cross my arms, I don’t close my eyes, though I do look down usually. (Maybe that is my concession to standard Mormon prayer practice.) And I always address my prayers to God rather than Heavenly Father, because I define God as both the Mother and the Father.

    So far this hasn’t distressed him. Sometimes he prays to God, sometimes to Heavenly Father. Sometimes he crosses his arms, sometimes not. I think this kind of flexibility is a good thing.

    I favor showing my young children this type of diversity in prayer practice now, but I imagine having a conversation with a child about it when they are older might work as well.

    Course Correction,
    I too have been struck by the conversational nature of prayer in other traditions. I really like that. I especially like the use of ‘you’ and ‘your’

    I’ve also been impressed with the beauty and poetry of prayer in other traditions. Mormon prayer phrases sound so utilitarian to me. (Maybe this is just because I’m so used to them.)

    I wondered about the male/female dynamic too. I do think there are some traditions – like Hinduism – that do encourage a gaze toward a male god. But I’ll have to check up on that.

  15. Ziff says:

    I really enjoyed your thoughts, Caroline. And I agree with others that Dane makes a great point about exploring different postures of prayer.

    Course Correction:
    “As I listen to my evangelical son pray, I’m impressed that he talks to God as he would to a personal friend.
    I think some of the rigid formality Mormons insist upon for prayer–bowed heads, folded arms, “thee” and “thou” language–sets up a barrier between the supplicant and God.”

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I like the more casual, more intimate way that so many other Christians pray much more than the standoffish way we Mormons tend to (at least in public). (Of course maybe this is a “grass is always greener” situation, and other Christians want to hear more formal praying.)

  16. Dora says:

    “If I were going to pray, I’d go into the middle of a field, look up into the sky, and just feel a prayer.” ~ or something along those lines.

    I find that my most effective prayers are actually just conversations I have with deity as I drive in my car. I converse with them. Not generally vocalizing aloud. But mentally conversing with my heavenly parents. Bringing them up to date on the important things … what I’m worried/happy/anxious about. And then I have time to just be still and listen, as I manuever through the other cars. Of course, it works best when there’s either no traffic, or too much …

  17. Lashley says:

    Thank you for the post. This is a great discussion to have. I have always enjoyed experiencing different prayer postures when visiting other religious services.
    I’ve taught yoga for 10 years and I believe it is the one thing that is missing from LDS worship. Yoga was created to prepare practitioners to be able to sit and meditate/pray all day. This requires physical strength and so the postures, breathing, and mindfulness of yoga prepare you for this kind of devotional worship.
    I live in a Muslim country and if you have seen Muslim prayer, they do postures that are very similar to some yoga postures during their prayers. This has both a symbolic effect- prostrating yourself to show humility- and a physical benefit, which keeps people young and old active and thus healthier when they pray 5 times a day.
    I find prayer after a yoga practice feels very natural and I am better prepared to converse with my Heavenly Father.

  18. TDJ says:

    Without wishing to antagonize, I must point out this: it’s not “diety” but “deity” unless you speaking of a “diet”.

    (In the Wikipedia, “diety” redirects to “Deity” as it should).

    I point it out because if you fail to spell it right, the reader may think that in general you don’t know He Whom you are talking about, and that shoots down the rest of the post.


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