My how things change. Last week, and up to today, the media spent its ink discussing, ad nauseaum, how dangerous the Pope's Turkish visit and how frosty the Turk's reception of him would be. Too much ink, I venture to guess, because today's headlines are much different. Confounding our Western, and liberal of course, media, and his Islamist and Christian detractors, Pope Benedict prayed to East with an imam at Turkey's most famous mosque.
Reeling from this reality-and editorial line-shattering event, those in the media scrambled to categorize and frame wily Benedict's apparent about face. Pope prays toward Mecca headline, the natural result. But did the Pope 'pray toward Mecca'? He certainly did, in the sense that if anyone happens to be praying while facing East they too would 'pray toward Mecca' by geographical default. But you would also be praying toward Jerusalem, Nazereth, Bethlehem, Agra, Beijing, Kyoto or Seoul.
The anthropological roots of praying toward Mecca are rooted in Mediterraenean and Middle Eastern traditions. Simply put, way back when, people identified the rising of the Sun in the East with various spiritual concepts. Christians, in their pagan assimilating ways, saw some basic truth in this, and taught that praying to toward the East, orientalizing prayer, reminded us of the rising of Christ and his Promise to Return in Glory. Most churches, even today, are still on an East-West axis, with congregations facing (and thus praying) the East. In the last 100 years the practice died out a bit, but is enjoying a rebound of sorts.
In Benedict's Spirit of the Liturgy, orientalizing prayer is discussed at great length. Benedict has always believed in physical, corporal acts during prayer, and recalls in his book fond memories of 'praying to the East' as child. He has stated, with some frequency, that posture is crucial to prayer, and that the Church must embrace this aspect of prayer once again, especially in the West.
So for Benedict, the option to orient himself during a prayer session with Muslims was less about making a 'PR' stunt-gimmick, like his predecessor's kissing of the Qu'ran, and more about making a statement about common practices and beliefs Muslims and Christians share.