We had made camp the night before on Marie Lake, a mile south of Selden Pass. The next morning it was my turn to offer the morning Mass, and my job to find a suitable rock for the altar. I found a flattish boulder just before the sun rose, and deliberated whether to face east or west. Facing East would be painful, with my face directly into the blazing sun. Facing West would be much more comfortable, with my eyes sheltered from the sun’s blinding and burning rays.
The art of wilderness hiking is the art of orienteering, which literally means “pointing east,” toward the “orient.” The rising sun is often hailed in Latin as “O Oriens,” and Catholic worship for most of its twenty-one centuries has been offered to God “facing East.” The Lord came from the East (as in “we saw His Star rising in the East”) and is expected to return from the East. So Catholic priests, and Catholic altars, and Catholic churches, are “oriented” eastward, eagerly anticipating the Second Coming of the Lord from the East. The natural orientation of all life is toward the sun (just ask any sunflower); we naturally seek light and warmth. But the sun’s blazing light and heat can be painful, as can God’s burning love and truth and beauty. It can be too much for us at times, and we hide our faces from Him.
In the end, I braved the rising sun by facing East for that morning Mass. I couldn’t see the people around me, and could barely see the altar and missal, but isn’t that the essence of the mystery, after all? If we think we can “see” or understand the mystery of God’s Real Presence in the Mass, we are not looking very carefully into the reality. To look directly into the face of God would annihilate us, and even to peer into the depths through the sacraments terrifies us. But face East we must, in order to be ready for Him when He comes.