A good many years ago Conciliar Press published a brochure, written by Frederica Matthewes-Green, entitled 12 Things I Wish I Had Known, meaning before her first visit to an Orthodox church. It’s very much worth reading by all of us, long-time Orthodox parishioners as well as first-time visitors.
Something similar needs to be written for persons who have recently been received into the Orthodox Church. The focus this time should be on small but important details concerning what we call the “Orthodox ethos.” This includes such things as the way we traditionally make the sign of the cross, the way we stand or sit during a liturgical service, and the attitude we bring with us as we enter into church and participate in communal worship.
With a large number of people entering Orthodoxy from other Christian traditions or from none, attitudes and behaviors taken for granted in traditional Orthodox countries tend often, and quite naturally, to change under the influence of American popular culture. We are perhaps the most casual people on earth, addressing strangers over the phone by their first name, slouching comfortably when we stand or sit, talking loudly and profusely when we want to make a point, and so on. It’s understandable, if regrettable, that these behaviors carry over into church life, including during services of worship.
People do what they see others doing. It’s important, then, that we recognize the power of example. In the best of times, little children will imitate their parents and others as they enter the church, venerate icons, pray quietly or listen to the readings, and wait for the opening blessing. If parents, or others, habitually arrive late to service, talk to neighbors during the reading of the Hours, stand with their hands in their pockets or sit slouched with legs crossed, then the children will do the same. If parents, or others, make the sign of the cross casually (in “vain repetition”) and in non-Orthodox fashion, then the children—and other newcomers to the faith—will tend to do the same.
There are a few things, then, that ought to be taught and stressed about attitudes, gestures and other behaviors, not just for the sake of decorum, but because they have a profound influence on spiritual life and growth. Such things as arriving for a service on time, unless unforeseen events make it necessary to enter the church once the service has begun. Or entering church quietly, greeting others warmly, yet refraining from conversation. Or standing, unless we really need to sit, in respectful silence and in prayer, as an inner preparation for what is to come. And once the service begins, to continue in that attitude, with the heart and mind open to the mystery of grace that unfolds in and around us.
It is not unusual to see recent converts from Catholic or Episcopalian traditions make the sign of the cross in the usual Western fashion. If the Orthodox manner has developed as it has—the tips of the first three fingers of the right hand pressed together, the last two folded into the palm, touching first the forehead, then the chest, then the right shoulder and finally the left—it is because this gesture represents an essential confession of faith. It affirms our belief in and appeal to the Holy Trinity, it manifests our faith in the divine-humanity of Christ, and it leads toward the place of the heart, the temple of the Holy Spirit. Gestures, every bit as much as words, attest to our belief, our deepest convictions, and they reinforce those convictions through movements of the body.
Two other little but important things need to be said, both to the newly chrismated and to adult cradle Orthodox. Our priests usually preach without text or notes, although they are perfectly free to use either. Especially when the priest uses no such support, preaching is a demanding task. It requires an extraordinary amount of concentration, both on the message he is seeking to convey and on the people he is addressing. If a baby is howling somewhere in the congregation, it can be terribly distracting. Common sense and a concern for both the priest and the parishioners dictate that parents of a noisy child simply leave quietly for a few minutes (to the narthex or adjoining room), then return once the child has recovered a little composure.
A final point concerns receiving communion. In many parishes, communicants make the sign of the cross and/or kiss the chalice immediately after they receive communion. This well-meaning and pious gesture can be disastrous when it jostles the chalice and leads to the spilling of consecrated wine.
All of this has a practical significance we need to be aware of, and that awareness should lead our priests and other catechists to include it in the basic education provided to prospective converts and to ordinary parishioners.
More importantly, it has to do with our spiritual growth, the development of attitudes and behaviors that can guide and fortify us in our movement toward the Kingdom of God. To enter into church in silence, to stand in quiet awe before the mystery of the altar, to open the heart in common prayer to the Lord of all, to profess and proclaim our faith with words and gestures, and to unite ourselves in holy communion with Christ and with one another: this is the essence of spiritual life (life in the Spirit), and it helps reshape us, recreate us, from our self-centered sinfulness to the “perfection”—the God-given grace—to which Christ calls us.
He alone has done the great things to make our salvation possible. Our task is to assume “the little things” that represent our part of the “synergy,” the cooperative effort between Him and ourselves, without which there is no salvation at all.