Liturgical east

My vicar recently introduced me to the concept of liturgical east: a kind of simulation for spiritual purposes. The underlying tradition, that geography has spiritual dimensions, needs to be revisited.

The idea that the direction in which an action is performed is important, is not new.

According to Jewish tradition (see Wikipedia for sources), Jews face Jerusalem when saying certain prayers (eg the Amidah). The Talmud says
“A blind man, or one who cannot orient himself, should direct his heart toward his Father in Heaven, as it is said, “They shall pray to the Lord” (Kings I 8). One who stands in the diaspora should face the Land of Israel, as it is said, “They shall pray to You by way of their Land” (ibid). One who stands in the Land of Israel should face Jerusalem, as it is said, “They shall pray to the Lord by way of the city” (ibid). One who stands in Jerusalem should face the Temple…One who stands in the Temple should face the Holy of Holies…One who stands in the Holy of Holies should face the Cover of the Ark…It is therefore found that the entire nation of Israel directs their prayers toward a single location.” ( Berakhot 30a) though it adds
If one was riding a donkey, he should dismount from it [while he prays>.
If he is unable to dismount, he should turn his face [towards Jerusalem>.
And if he is unable to turn his face,
he should focus his heart toward the Holy of Holies [in the Temple in Jerusalem>.

In Islamic tradition, Muslims must face towards the Qaaba stone in Mecca when they pray. Originally they too faced the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but after some years Mohammed felt inspired to change this. The Koran says:
“From whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn Thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque; that is indeed the truth from the Lord”. (Sura 2, 149)
although it does go on to say
“It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; “(Sura 2, 177)

Various systems are available for working out how to orient oneself, including Qibla Pointer, a web site which superimposes a directional arrow on a Google Map of your location. There is some debate about the best means of calculating the direction. Using rhumb lines rather than the great circle method can give very different results in some parts of the world, ag Alaska. However, this is incidental to the basic idea. That the idea matters to believers is shown by the fact that a recent conference in Malaysia was held to determine how a Muslim astronaut should pray in space. (As well as the problems of facing Mecca, there are others: ritual ablutions in an evnironment where water is rationed, and the fact that prayer is on a daily basis, but a spaceship in earth orbit will have many sunrises and sunsets than the earth during an earth day.)

In Christian tradtion the idea has been controversial recently, especially in the Catholic Church. No less a person than Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote, in 2000,
” one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the East is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again…… a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of accidentals, but of essentials. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue, but of common worship, of setting off towards the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward expressed in a common direction for prayer.”
(This was in the context of a debate about whether the Priest should face the worshippers during Mass, or have his back to them – see for example this.. I should say that many churches, including my own, take the matter less seriously.)

Origen, in On Prayer, says:
“Now concerning the direction in which one ought to look when he prays, a few things must be said. Since there are four directions, north, south, west, and east, who would not immediately acknowledge that it is perfectly clear we should make our prayers facing east, since this is a symbolic expression of the soul’s looking for the rising of the true Light. But suppose someone wishes instead to offer intercessions in whatever direction the doors of the house face according to the opening of the house, saying that having a view into heaven is more inviting than looking at a wall; and suppose it should happen that the opening of the house is not toward the east. In this case let the person be told that the buildings of men arbitrarily face in certain directions or have openings in certain directions, but by nature the east is preferred over the other directions, and what is by nature must be ranked ahead of what is arbitrary.”

Note, however, that the Christian tradition orients itself towards a direction, not to a particular place. A Muslim or Jew praying in South Africa would presumably face towards the North; a Christian would still face East.

However, there are still practical issues. Churches (or mosques or synagogues) are usually large, and their design is determined by tradition. It may not always be possible to build them facing in a given direction. My own Anglican parish, for example, has three churches:
St John the Divine, built in 1831 on a line approximately NW to SE, with the East end at the SE
St.Matthias, built in the 1850s from SW to NE, with the East end at the NE
St Mary Magdalene, built W to E, with the East end actually facing East. Originally built in 1220, rebuilt 1487 – 1506 and altered at various times after that. Either the east-facing tradition was stronger in mediaeval times, or perhaps it was just easier to find land!

North and South relate to the earths magnetic field, and the magnetic poles are moving constantly by small amounts. There is some evidence that these changes have been much larger in the past. So even the physical concept of East is less firm than one might think.

The Church gets around this issue by the concept of liturgical East (or North, or whatever). That is, a part of the church is designated as East for liturgical purposes, even if it does not actually face East, and prayers are made facing this way rather than the actual east. It is this concept of a simulated east that fascinates me. Within the building, a symbolic world is created. This allows you, as the Talmud says, to focus your heart, even if your intellect is pointing somewhere else, though Origen might not approve.

The Jewish and Islamic ideas are earth-centric: that is, they relate to a particular place on one planet. The Christian idea is solar-system-centric: that is, they relate only to the relative positions of one star and one planet. Presumably a Christian astronaut on the Moon or Mars could still face the sunrise, ie East. His problem would arise when he left our solar system.

As our knowledge of the cosmos has developed, we now know that the Sun is only one of a huge number of stars in a huge number of galaxies. Galileos theory of relativity, proposed in 1632 in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, remarks: “Thus the goods with which a ship is laden leaving Venice, pass by Corfu, by Crete, by Cyprus and go to Aleppo. Venice, Corfu, Crete, etc. stand still and do not move with the ship; but as to the sacks, boxes, and bundles with which the boat is laden and with respect to the ship itself, the motion from Verflice to Syria is as nothing, and in no way alters their relation among themselves. This is so because it is common to all of them and all share equally in it. If, from the cargo in the ship, a sack were shifted from a chest one single inch, this alone would be more of a movement for it than the two-thousand-mile journey made by all of them together.” In other words. motion is relative to your environment, and usually only noticeable in relation to it.

It is interesting that ships have their own version of liturgical left and right – in other words starboard on a ship is the right hand side, assuming you are facing in the direction the ships bow is pointing.

According to Wikipedia, Einsteins Special theory of relativity “generalizes Galileos principle of relativity — that all uniform motion is relative, and that there is no absolute and well-defined state of rest (no privileged reference frames) — from mechanics to all the laws of physics, including both the laws of mechanics and of electrodynamics, whatever they may be…..This theory has a wide range of consequences which have been experimentally verified, including counter-intuitive ones such as length contraction, time dilation and relativity of simultaneity, contradicting the classical notion that the duration of the time interval between two events is equal for all observers.” For instance, in respect of time: “Wir haben zu beruecksichtigen, dass alle unsere Urteile, in welchen die Zeit eine Rolle spielt, immer Urteile ueber gliechzeitige Ereignisse sind. Wenn ich z.B. sage: Jener Zug kommt hier um 7 Uhr an, so heisst dies etwa; Das Zeigen des kleinen Zeigers meiner Uhr uaf 7 und das Ankommen des Zuges sind gleichzeitige Ereignisse”.

This in turn led to a revision of how we measure the universe – eg Riemannian geometry and complex mathematical speculation about the shape of the universe.

As well as liturgical east being only a symbolic representation within a given building, actual east is also only a representation within a given planet, ie the Earth. There is no absolute East. In this sense liturgical east is no more or less logical than starboard in a ship, or compass East on the Earth.

The idea of pilgrimage, going to a particular place for religious reasons, is also relevant. Psychogeographers. like Guy Debord practised: “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can thus be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.”

Whilst psychogeographers, since the idea bgan in the 1950s, have largely focused on art and activism, stressing playfulness and experimentation, there would seem to be a huge field here for applying psychogeographical ideas and techniques to religious thought. In using chance or coincidence to direct their praxis, they perhaps parallel the religious reliance on faith. For example, Jesus instructions to his disciples were:
“These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:….But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…..Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat….” (From Mathew, chapter 10)

This bears some resembalnce to the classic instructions for a Situationist derive, as explained by Debord: “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there….. the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities.”

The idea of pilgrimage, strong in most religions, is similar to the Situationist derive – that you go somewhere you would not normally travel, for a reason outside your normal daily life. (Although the pilgrimage often has a rason – ie to visit the tomb of a saint – whereas the derive is often irrational – eg to navigate around London using a map of Paris.

The emphasis of both derive and pilgrimage is as much on the journey as on the arrival. Pilgrims walk around the Qaaba in a ritual fashion. Some pilgimrages are deliberately set up to be difficult and taxing – for example, walking barefoot to Croagh patrick. Debord says: “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science — despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself — provides psychogeography with abundant data. The ecological analysis of the absolute or relative character of fissures in the urban network, of the role of microclimates, of distinct neighborhoods with no relation to administrative boundaries, and above all of the dominating action of centers of attraction, must be utilized and completed by psychogeographical methods.” (Theory of the Dérive, Internationale Situationniste
#2, 1958.)

We have become increasingly divorced from the real world, since we now have to accept
1. that much of it is not as real as we think, or at least that our own subjectivity plays a large part in that reality
2. increasingly, that some reality is simulated, and what we accept as the evidence of our own eyes may have other meanings.

This has now become a life and death issue. For instance, modern weapons kill people by remote control. US drones operating over Pakistan are controlled from cities in the US. To the controllers, there is presumably no sensation of any difference between an actual mission and a training simulation: they look and feel the same.

I posted earlier about the spatial ideas of Deleuze and Guattari as (mis?) used by the Israeli Defence Forces in urban warfare. In effect these are a total denial of traditional orientation. Direction no longer matters: “[the IDF…> used none of the city’s streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows, but moved horizontally through walls and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation’, seeks to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares….. Travelling through walls is a simple mechanical solution that connects theory and practice”.

Odd how what seems old-fashioned and rather quaint in a seven-hundred year old church sounds quite different when Debord or Deleuze says it. Boninis Paradox says that “As a model of a complex system becomes more complete, it becomes less understandable. Alternatively, as a model grows more realistic, it also becomes just as difficult to understand as the real-world processes it represents”.

You could argue that our world is now so much more complex than the early Christian world that the symbolism (or simplicity) of facing east is meaningless on several levels. Conversely, you could also argue that it is a mans of simplfying the world to make it more comprehensible, at a psychological or spiritual level, even if the simplification is meaningless in scientific terms. All our models of reality do this, and many of them are of proven usefulness.

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