Why do we turn to the East while we pray ? Can we not pray in any direction ? Since God is present every where and can hear our prayer, is it really necessary that we turn to a particular direction while praying?
Jews who live anywhere outside the holy city of Jerusalem traditionally turn to the direction of Jerusalem in Palestine ( modern Israel) for prayer, Muslims anywhere in the world will turn to Ka'aba, the sacred black stone in Mecca, Saudi Arabia for the prescribed hours of prayer. Christians from very ancient times used to turn to the direction of the rising sun for public prayer. For Christians in the western world this tradition is nearly lost. However all Christians belonging to the Eastern (Orthodox ) Christian churches still maintain this venerable practice of turning to the East for the public act of the community worship.
In the Christian church, we make a distinction between the personal prayer of an individual and the public worship of the Christian Community. An individual is free to pray any time, in any direction and in any posture. In fact, Christ and and the Apostles encouraged the practice of "unceasing prayer". One can pray while taking a bath, playing or eating. One can maintain the mood of prayer through out the day. This kind of continuous prayer of an individual has no fixed form or style or words. This could be done mostly in silence or with words one chooses or with the help of ancient prayers like the famous " Jesus Prayer". This can be practiced without engaging our conscious mind at all. This is essentially the practice of the presence of God every moment of our earthly life.
But public worship is different in its form and style. It is a community prayer in which many individuals together constitute one body, an expression of the body of Christ, the Church. They are not an ad-hoc community, but they continue the unbroken tradition of worshipping the Triune God from the time of the Apostles onwards. The best example of this kind of public worship is the Eucharistic liturgy or Holy Qurbana. In public worship we turn to East, the direction of the rising sun.
The Apostles of Christ were all Jews. The early disciples of Christ in Palestine were mostly Jews. They prayed like other Jews. Soon however, Christians developed their own prayers addressed to Christ as the saviour.
Because of a new spiritual awareness in the early Christian community, Christians developed a detachment to physical places like Jerusalem. Their absorbing concern was with the "Heavenly Jerusalem" and the way to reach that abiding spiritual city. All places on earth were the same for them. No place was particularly sacred. So the early Christian community gradually moved away from the Jewish orientation to the city of Jerusalem in Palestine. At the same time a new sense of direction emerged in Christian worship, namely the direction of the rising sun.
So, turning to the east stands for our final preparation to receive Christ when he comes for the last Judgment of the world. Thus the east symbolizes our spiritual wakefulness, our readiness to give account of our life and our hope in the transfiguration of all creation in Christ our Lord.
This biblical, Christ centered tradition of the church of turning to the east in prayer is part of the rich heritage of the Orthodox church. We build our churches in the east-west direction. The whole congregation together with the priest turns to east in remembrance of all that God grants us from the time of our creation in Paradise to the fulfillment of all in the Second coming of Christ. The bodies of our beloved departed faithful are laid to rest facing the east with the hope of resurrection and meeting Jesus face to face.
Turning to the East, of course is a symbolic act. We know that East and West, South and North have no physical and geographical significance in the age of space travel in a Tran terrestrial cosmic frame. Yet it is a deeply spiritual symbol and a most beautiful one in the whole of Christian tradition. In special situations when the place or building where we worship happens to be inconvenient for the traditional orientation of the community, we are free to turn to any suitable direction. The sense of the east gives the right " orientation" ( from the world Orient + East ) for our earthly life in the midst of suffering, doubt, and spiritual disorientation. In any case, it is only wise to keep this ancient tradition in its right spirit.