Why do we bow our heads when we pray?
Ever thought about that? Everyone does it, across denominational lines. When it comes time to pray we all bow our heads and close our eyes. Children mock the process by keeping one eye open, watching their siblings and making claims that their sister “had her eyes open,” as if somehow that breaks the spell of our prayers.
Catholics and Episcopalians frequently kneel during services; Methodists kneel to receive the sacrament. I’ve been to a Taizé service where a cross is laid out at the foot of the altar, worshippers come and lay on it, face down, arms outstretched, it looked painful, maybe that’s the point? It seemed a little showy to this dour Presbyterian.
I went to an evangelical service once and the pastor raised his hands during prayer, then went down on one knee, arms still raised, head bowed, eyes shut tight. I had my eyes open, I wondered how he was able to balance, he seemed so intent. I hope I didn’t ruin it for him by staring, silly heathen that I am.
I’m not sure why people raise their hands in prayer or in praise. Maybe they’re trying to catch something, a holy baseball? I’ve tried it a couple of times. I felt a bit self-conscious, especially when my wife gave me a, “What on earth are you doing?” look. It just didn’t feel natural.
In the Old Testament people stood in prayer, arms outstretched head up with eyes open. It’s called the orans position. I’ve never tried it, but I suspect they’d have felt just as awkward if the rabbi called out, “Every head bowed, every eye closed.”
I’ve tried kneeling in prayer at home, but it hurts so much I can’t think of anything but the pain, so I sit. It feels right, I’m used to sitting, though my head is not always bowed, nor my eyes always closed. My mind wanders in prayer as does my head and my eyes, but the Lord doesn’t seem to mind. He knows I am made of dust.
I think our physical posture is less important than the posture of our heart. I was reading Psalm 86 this morning, “Hear O Lord and answer, I am poor and needy.” There’s a song with those same words that keeps going through my head, even now.
We are poor and needy, wretched, pitiable, blind and naked when we come to the Lord and we can’t make it any better by closing our eyes or bowing our heads or kneeling or lying on the ground or standing on one leg, rubbing our bellies and patting our heads at the same time. We’re still poor and needy, still blind and naked.
But, in prayer we are clothed with His righteousness, a robe placed over our shoulders. We are given the wealth of heaven. Our chins are raised, our heads anointed with oil, our feet washed, and His countenance is lifted upon us.
It’s a miracle really, that God doesn’t cast us away from His presence, a miracle that he doesn’t smite us dead on arrival. Prayer is an entry to the holy of holies. It is a sitting (or standing or kneeling) before a Being whose being is as different from ours as ours is from a rock. There are no points of comparison and we are foolish to think so and vain to imagine that our physical posture has anything whatsoever to do with it.
Prayer is ultimately a gift, a returning of His Spirit, deep calling to deep. It is a holy mystery. We enter at our own risk, and leave changed, though imperceptibly.
So be encouraged, you’re not doing it wrong. You can sit or kneel or lie down or leap and jump; you can stand on your feet or on your head; you can speak in a tongue or say nothing, raise your hands or sit on them. It really doesn’t matter.
What matters is that you come, and when you do you will find His welcome.