To my surprise and delight this Christmas I was given a beautiful Victorian ‘prie-dieu’. ‘What’s a prie-dieu?’, you may ask. It is a piece of furniture for use during prayer – indeed, the term ‘prieu dieu’ was originally an 18th century French word, and literally means ‘pray God’. It consists of a low kneeling surface (mine is comfortably upholstered) and a narrow upright front with a rest for the elbows or for books. It is a great aid to sustained prayer. Not that you have to kneel to pray. When I am in my church office, I normally pray at my desk. At other times I might pray as I walk. There is no one correct way to pray.
There are, however, five traditional postures for prayer.
The classic position for prayer is called the ‘orans’ position – orans is a Latin word for praying, it involves standing, with eyes open, looking up to heaven – and often with hands held high, with the palms of the hands lifted up. It is a traditional posture for praising God. It is the normal position for prayer in the so-called ‘Eastern’ churches; it is also the way people pray in Jewish synagogues. In the so-called ‘Western’ churches the priest often holds his hands out in this way as he blesses the bread and wine at communion. It was no doubt with this position in mind that Paul wrote to Timothy: “I desire that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument” (1 Timothy 2.8). At the Transfiguration Jesus appears to have adopted this position: for Luke tells us that as Jesus was praying, Moses and Elijah were “standing” with him (Luke 9.28-32).
A very different standing posture is when the head is bowed, and hands are clasped in front. It is the traditional posture of a shackled prisoner of war who is brought before his conqueror: the hands are clasped at the waist as if they are shackled in chains. The eyes are shut or averted – looking directly at one’s captor was thought to be an act of insolence. This is a traditional posture of penitential or intercessory prayer – and in many churches (including Baptist churches) on the Continent is a favoured way of praying. Sometimes in England we stand for prayer – but often with hands behind the back. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we read that the tax collector “standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’” (Luke 18.10-13).
Kneeling was the traditional posture for asking favours from a king, and so it became the traditional poster for prayers of repentance and supplication. So, for instance, in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we read that the servant “fell on his knees” and pleaded for the king to be patient with him (Matt 18.26). Although, the Council of Nicea in AD325 forbade kneeling on Sundays, on the grounds that penitential prayer was not appropriate on a day set aside to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, it became the normal posture for churches in the West. Significantly, when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, “he knelt down and prayed” (Luke 22.41-44).
Lying prostate on one’s stomach is another posture for prayer. It became the traditional posture for desperate prayer. Matthew tells us that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus didn’t just kneel – at one stage “he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want’” (Matt 26.39) I’m told that in churches in the East where there are no pews, this form of prayer is still in use.
Finally, there is the ‘sitting down’ position. We read in 2 Sam 7.18 that David “sat before the Lord” and prayed – whether or not his hands were folded and his eyes closed, we don’t know. Not surprisingly, this only became a common position for prayer in church after the invention of pews in the Middle Ages!
And, of course, there are other postures for prayer. You can, for instance, lie in bed and pray – although I personally don’t recommend that position, simply because at night-time I am tempted to fall off to sleep! At the end of the day, what counts is not how we pray – but that we pray!