There is very considerable renewed interest in the ancient Christian tradition of facing East for prayer. To some of us, in our era, this may sound unusual, a bit “faddish”, even non-Christian. Thankfully we can confirm that nothing would be further from the truth. It is a time-honoured and truly ancient and venerable Christian custom.
For those who are interested, we have selected a little reading from two sources which give very specific background to the custom. They refer particularly to the celebration of the Holy Eucharist facing east, (“ad Orientem, in Latin”) but make a clear reference also to a similar alignment for lay people and members of religious orders when at prayer.
Our purpose in raising this matter with regard to prayer in one’s oratory is to encourage the holistic aspects of being united in mind and body, as well as within the whole Body of Christ, united to Christ, our Head, as we give all honour and glory to God.
The notes are offered purely for consideration by those interested in taking this tradition into account.
The sacred direction in Judaism is towards Jerusalem or, more
precisely, towards the presence of the transcendent God — “shekinah”
— in the Holy of Holies of the Temple, as seen in Daniel 6: 10.
Even after the destruction of the Temple, the custom of turning towards
Jerusalem was kept in the liturgy of the synagogue. This is how the
Jews have expressed their eschatological * hope for the coming of the
Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the gathering of God’s people
from the diaspora#.
* eschatalogical — from the Greek ‘eschaton’ meaning last,
and ‘logy’ meaning the study of: thus the study of the end
# diaspora — from the Greek, referring to the dispersion
and settlement of people far from their homeland.
The early Christians no longer turned towards the earthly Jerusalem,
but towards the new, heavenly Jerusalem. It was their firm belief that
when the Risen Christ would come again in glory, He would gather His
faithful to make up this heavenly city.
They saw in the rising sun a symbol of the Resurrection and of the Second
Coming and it was a matter of course for them to pray facing this direction.
There is strong evidence of eastward prayer in most parts of the Christian
world from the second Century onwards.
Among Christians, it became a general custom to mark the direction of
prayer with a cross on the east wall in the apses* of basilicas as well as in
private rooms, for example, of monks and solitaries.
* apses — from the Greek and Latin referring to the arched semicircular
vault at the east end of many ancient churches.
Towards the end of the first millennium, we find theologians of different
traditions noting that prayer facing the east is one of the practices
distinguishing Christianity from the other religions of the Near East: Jews
pray towards Jerusalem, Muslims pray towards Mecca, but Christians pray
towards the east.
Comments by Fr. Lang. London 21.9.2007. [ZENIT, Rome. (www.zenit.org)]
There is a logic of Ascension in the Eucharist: ‘This Jesus that you
have seen ascend into heaven, will return…..’
In the Eucharist the Lord returns; He anticipates sacramentally His glorious
Return, transforming the profound reality of the elements, and He leaves
them in the condition of signs of His presence and mediation, of communion
with His own person…..
(Editorial in “Notitiae” 332, May 1993.)
The following is a prayer you may like to recite on entering your oratory each morning. Its fulfillment will be reached in our beholding the Return of the Lord, and the Holy of Holies of the new Temple, for which we earnestly prepare.
You may be interested to know that the words in bold are a kind of verbal formula indicating the traditional Jewish bow, which was always on bended knee, from which the forehead was lowered to the ground with face to the floor. The first Christians, naturally treasuring their ancient Jewish heritage as well as its fulfillment in Christ continued this tradition. Christian men and boys in or from Middle Eastern countries still kneel in this way, facing East (Matt. 24: 27). In the case of women and girls, this can translate as an appropriate bow. Either of these is a beautiful and powerful act of homage to God. We encourage you to experience the joy of kneeling down, bowing, face to the floor, worshipping God in response to His call (Psalm 95: 6) over the past three thousand years.
Entering the Place of Prayer
A Traditional Jewish Prayer
As for me, in the abundance of your lovingkindness will I come
Into the house of God we will walk with the throng.
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
As for me, in the abundance of your lovingkindness will I come into