Eyes Open?

A principal claim of the atheists during the discussion in which I participated last week is that Christians believe in God for subjective reasons. Mostly, this means that we just ‘have a feeling’ that God exists since there is no external evidence (supposedly).

I don’t doubt that many Christians do exactly this, and it was with some bemusement that I observed the following on Sunday. I needed to get someone’s attention during the second reading, but when I looked across the choir, all six brothers were sitting with their eyes closed.

Now this is, today, a very typical sign of prayer. What got me thinking afterward is the fact that I know of no traditional iconography in which someone praying is depicted with eyes closed. In fact, in the Byzantine tradition, icons of saints are frequently written in such a way as to exaggerate the size of the open eyes, to symbolize the contemplation of God. Eyes open clearly indicates an external deity, not one to be confused with ourselves or any internal movement of our emotions.

In Catholic liturgy itself, this lesson is reinforced, though some of the liturgical reforms have weakened this sense. A clear example is the rubric that has us turn and face the ambo (lectern) during the proclamation of the gospel.

I’m not ready to forbid the closing of the eyes during the liturgy. Clearly, this reflects a deep desire to take responsibility for what is being read, but it is worth asking if it does not also subtly shift the locus of truth in the reading to our own appropriation or even corroboration of it with our ‘hearts’ (alas, often understood as emotions). One can imagine the effect in a university class if, as soon as the professor began to speak, every student closed his or her eyes. We are disciples in an analogous way when God teaches us through His Word. There is external evidence of this, but we may, by habits bred in the emotivist present, be at cross purposes with ourselves in realizing this.


  • Bob says:

    Fr. Peter,

    I’ve been reading some of the early church fathers (Justin and Athanasius) and am struck by how immediate their awareness was of the risen Christ. The resurrection seems to have much more of a palpable impact on their belief and practice than it has today. Often manifesting in an unhesitating acceptance of death itself.

    This idea of praying (or living) with our eyes open rather than closed as we “connect” with God has me intrigued. It brings us out of ourselves and into the new creation that surrounds us.

    Given that, how did you (or would you) respond to the atheists who claim that any experience of God is subjective?

  • detectivetom says:

    An interesting question on the closing of eyes during the liturgy. I sometimes close my eyes during Vigils, during the second reading, to concentrate more intently on the thoughts of the saint or Pope being read. I sometimes try to place myself in the context they write. What would I do at that time and place.

    You raise an interesting question though. Thank you.

  • admin says:

    Bob, Great question. I’ve just suffered through an experience of trying to convince atheists that our experiences of God are not subjective. I will try to generate a summary of my response for a future post.

  • Bob says:

    “just suffered through an experience”. LOL! This ought to be good. I hope your conversation didn’t devolve into a bunch of philosophical mumbo-jumbo about how we can’t really know anything objectively since all experience is necessarily subject to the one experiencing it.

    Looking forward to the post. I think it is a question one should take seriously.