Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer
reviewed by Shawn Tribe
We have seen enough images of Muslims at prayer in recent years to know they have a sense of sacred direction when they pray, as have the Jewish people historically, but what about Christians? Has that been a part of our tradition, and is it important?
This idea of sacred direction in liturgical prayer is what Uwe Michael Lang, a Catholic priest of the London Oratory of St. Philip Neri (the same religious congregation to which John Henry Newman belonged) sets out to discuss. Father Lang gives an affirmative and convincing yes to both questions.
Lang writes within a Catholic context, and underlying the discussion is a de facto shift in liturgical practice in most Roman Catholic parishes since the 1960s: the move from the priest and people facing in the same direction to their facing one another. He sets out to counter two basic arguments: (1) that this was the practice of the early Church; and (2) that for the faithful to participate in the liturgy properly, they must face each other.
Facing the Sun
Lang addresses the subject both historically and theologically. Historically, he details the order and arrangement of early Christian churches—the book includes many diagrams—and brings to light the witness of the Fathers, even a number of the liturgical texts themselves, to demonstrate that facing a common sacred direction was the general practice of the early Church. In fact, the modern focus on the priest and people facing one another is rather novel by comparison, for the perennial Catholic understanding has always been that in the liturgy, “the whole congregation celebrates facing God, through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.”
Theologically, Lang details how the eastward direction has had “a very distinctive theological and liturgical significance: Facing east in prayer embodied their [the early Christians’] lively hope for the Second Coming of the risen and ascended Christ in glory, to judge the living and the dead; it also symbolized the journey of the pilgrim people of God towards the future bliss promised them.” He argues that this orientation best highlights the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist held by Catholics.
Likewise, he highlights the theological dangers of the erosion of this sense, noting in contemporary Catholic worship the loss of transcendence and a corresponding distortion of Christian worship into something human and self-centered. He quotes the theologian Max Thurian: “The whole celebration is often conducted as if it were a conversation and dialogue in which there is no room for adoration, contemplation and silence. The fact that the celebrants and the faithful constantly face each other closes the liturgy in on itself.”
Overall, Turning Towards the Lord sets the record straight about the history of early Christian worship and effectively critiques certain modern ideas about worship exemplified in the insistence on the priest facing the people—ideas that seem less rooted in Christian liturgical practice and theology and more in an age formed by rationalism and the television industry. Besides being an important and unique contribution to the field of liturgical studies, scholarly but accessible to most readers, this work also says much about the way our early Christian ancestors approached prayer and is a pertinent reminder, even to those from non-liturgical churches, of the nature of true Christian worship and liturgical participation.
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