All of us are quite familiar with the term “orientation” from everyday language. Most people probably associate it with the idea of being “aligned” in a particular way. Someone who “loses his orientation” has in fact lost sight of his direction and goal. Scarcely realizes anymore that “orientation” means, very precisely, “east-ing”. “To orientate oneself” means to turn to the east, toward the sunrise (ἀνατολή). (57)
In the second section of this second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition devoted to “Places and Times,” Father Gabriel (Bunge) examines a wide variety of patristic witnesses in order to explain the deep theological resonances involved in turning East for prayer. This practice was of the utmost importance for the Fathers, and Origen is adamant that there is no reason that should ever prevent a Christian from praying facing the East. The Fathers were convinced that the practice of praying facing East was of apostolic origin. In seeking to explain and commend this practice, they outlined a rich theological symbolism in which bodily orientation reflected their convictions about the inner, spiritual attitudes are expressed, and formed by, bodily actions.
The Fathers taught that we turn East to pray because of salvation history. Saint Basil the Great writes:
Therefore we all look to the east during prayer, but few know that we are in search of our original home, Paradise, which God planted in the Garden of Eden, to the east. (60)
Father Gabriel writes:
Paradise is that place in which God’s “original”, initial, and most authentic will was realized in creation. The sin of the first human couple disturbed this order and led to their banishment from this “original home”. Nevertheless this initial creative will of God remained in force. Therefore included already in the punishment was also the promise that this banishment would not be final. …
Christ’s work of salvation consists in fulfilling this promise and thus validating again God’s original will in creation. …
When the Christian, therefore turns to the east to worship, then in his mind’s eye arises that Paradise as the “original home”, where he is totally himself: living in perfect harmony with his Creator, with whom, indeed, he speaks there face to face, in harmony with his equals, with himself and with the creatures that surround him. He looks at the “tree of life”, from which he is now no longer excluded thanks to Christ’s death on the Cross – which is why the easterly direction for prayer has been marked with a cross on the wall from time immemorial. (60-62)
This brings us, then, to the Christological reason for turning East. Saint John of Damascus develops this by arguing that we should turn to the Lord in body as well as in spirit, and he outlines the scriptural metaphors for dawn and light that are applied to Christ. While the East emerges as the preferred point of the compass in Old Covenant salvation history, this is strengthened in the New Covenant.
Thus the unwritten apostolic tradition of worshipping God while facing east has various reasons that complement one another and which John Damascene carefully notes in the course of the chapter. Since everything beautiful should be dedicated to God, the Author of all that is beautiful and good, and since the dawn is not doubt one of the most beautiful things, it should be reserved for the worship of God. This is a “cosmic” argument, then, that even a non-Christian could have formulated, which is why the east had a privileged place even in non-Christian times and in non-biblical traditions, as we will see later. Nevertheless it is biblical man – the Christian, based on the fullness of revelation in which he shares, to a greater extent than the Jew – to whom salvation history discloses the entire theological depth of this “orientation”. Facing the east, the Christian worships God with a view of the “ancient fatherland”, which he has been seeking since he was banished from Paradise. At the same time he thereby turns towards the Crucified, who through his death and Resurrection has opened again for us the gate to our original home, into which he has preceded us, as Luke 23:43 suggests. From thence, from the beginning, we await the Lord in his second coming in glory, which will bring the fulfilment of the promised salvation. (65-66)
This interpretation is also expressed in the symbolism of baptism.
In the sacrament, what was bestowed upon humanity as a whole in salvation history is bestowed upon me in an utterly personal way.
When, therefore, you renounce Satan, utterly breaking all covenant with him, that ancient league with hell, there is opened to you the Paradise of God, which he planted in the east, whence for his transgression our first father was exiled; and symbolic of this was your turning from the west towards the east, the place of light. [St Cyril of Jerusalem]
The relation between the “east” and Christ is so close in the mind of the Fathers that Ambrose in the same context, with regard to the newly baptized turning from the west toward the east, can simply say: “Whoever renounces the devil turns toward Christ and looks at him directly.”
Whenever a Christian places himself in the presence of his Lord to pray, therefore – even if this is not always said explicitly or consciously adverted to – he renews with this turn towards the east that act of turning away from the evil one and of professing the triune God, which he performed once and for all in baptism. (66-67)
Central to this act of orientation – and to the prioritising of it above all other considerations – is a commitment to turning to the One whom we wish to address.
After all this, who would claim that “orientation” in prayer was an anachronistic side issue? When its meaning is understood and where it is consciously put into practice, it preserves the praying Christian from the flight into non-essentials – which today more than ever is a danger. The Muslim knows very well why he bows in prayer toward Mecca – with no regard whatsoever to the architecture of the room in which he happens to be. The Zen disciple, too, knows very well why he does not need such an “orientation” at all while meditating, since any thought of addressing “Another” is foreign to him.
And the Christian? He ought to know that his sanctification consists solely in union with God while completely maintaining his “otherness” as a person. After all, the “type”, the pattern of this unconfused unity, which indeed makes it possible, is the unity of the three Divine Hypostases of God, who is essentially one (Evagrius). He is reminded of this precisely by turning his “face” – both spiritually and physically – towards the east, toward the Lord! (71)