By birth I am Russian Orthodox, and currently am a member of an OCA parish, the congregation of which consists of various ‘denominations’ of born or converted Orthodox. Having attended a Synodal church from my youth, I find that I miss some of the more traditional practices I was raised with. In this light, I am searching for some book, perhaps, or other source of information which would provide me with a better feeling as to what the rubrics, or rather, conduct of the laity during church services should consist of: when to make the sign of the cross, when to make prostrations, when to kneel or not to kneel, etc.
Any information you could provide in directing me to such information would be greatly appreciated!
Thank you for your enquiry. Unfortunately, I know of no book which offers the guidelines you seek, primarily because there are a wealth of local traditions which, while generally valid, often are not consistent with other local traditions.
In general, most parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia follow what might be referred to as “High Russian” practice. Many OCA parishes trace their origins to individuals from the Carpathian region of what is today far western Ukraine, southeastern Poland, and eastern Slovakia, where local traditions are often very different than those of purely Russian origins. Furthermore, there are many OCA parishes, such as my own, which minister to Orthodox Christians of every possible background—Greek, Russian, Carpathian, Romanian, Polish, Bulgarian, etc.—which require a certain “melting pot” approach.
I might offer a few examples: Among Orthodox Russians, on the Eve of the Great Feast of the Nativity, Great Complines and Matins are celebrated, with the Divine Liturgy on the morning of the Nativity itself. Among Orthodox Poles, the tradition is to celebrate Great Complines and Matins together with the Divine Liturgy in one continuous celebration which generally begins somewhere between midnight and 2 AM and ends at sunrise. While both groups are Orthodox, their local traditions are somewhat different.
Another example: Many Slavs bless pussy willows on Palm Sunday [a “given” since in the countries of their origin palms were absolutely unavailable and, as a result, the first blooming branches of spring were used in place of palms]. Many other Orthodox, especially from southern Europe and the Middle East, bless palms, which are readily available in those regions, rather than pussy willows, which are unknown throughout much of those areas. And there are some Greeks who bless bay leaves on Palm Sunday. I have also encountered Orthodox Christians who bless daffodils instead of any of the above. In my own parish, I bless “branches,” and whatever people bring, assuming that what they bring resembles a branch of any form [palm, pussy willow, bay leaves, flowers, tree branches!] I bless them. Here there is really no “right” or “wrong” as local customs were often dictated by the realities of life and other factors.
Other local traditions which are not universal include whether one kisses the bottom of the chalice after receiving Holy Communion [common among Russians and Ukrainians but virtually unknown among Middle Easterners and those of other backgrounds], whether one holds two fingers on the Gospel book during confession [a very local tradition, one with which I grew up but which my wife had never, ever heard of in her home parish], etc.
What is of utmost importance is that we never place the external expression of our faith above the content of our faith or the spirit in which we are called to live our faith. As I noted above, while I grew up with the custom of placing two fingers on the Gospel Book during Confession—a tradition with which I am most comfortable and still perform when I go to Confession—I would never impose this custom on my wife who, along with everyone in her home parish, had never heard of the custom. What is important for all Orthodox Christians is that during Confession we sincerely seek God’s forgiveness and repent; the placement of one’s fingers during Confession is quite secondary and in no way makes one’s Confession “better,” “more sincere,” or “more Orthodox”. Surely, if I were to impose this tradition on my wife or the devout faithful of her home parish I would be emphasizing something which is of secondary importance. [By the same token, in her home parish the faithful are accustomed to reciting a standard prayer at the beginning of each Confession, a prayer which is probably of western influence and of which I had absolutely no knowledge until I had met her and visited her parish. Many of these differences stem from the fact that her home parish was of Carpathian background while mine was of White Russian background.]
As a result of all of this, especially in North America, there is no one book which categorically spells out what everyone must or should do, other than the very basics which are universal among all Orthodox Christians.
Might I recommend that you speak with the pastor of your parish as to what the community’s traditions are, while keeping in mind that there is nothing wrong with following one’s own traditions, so long as this does not become a cause for personal pride or the implication that “my way is the only way and you are less Orthodox because you do not follow it.”