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How to Behave in Church Some thoughts from Fr Patrick Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord? Or who shall stand in His holy place? – Psalm 23: 3 (LXX) Many who enter an Orthodox Christian church temple for the first time ask, “I do not know what to do when I enter the church. How should I handle myself? Is it ok to sit down? When must I stand?” “How do I handle my children?” and many other questions like these. Indeed, many who have been Orthodox Christians for even a long time can lack some aspects of how to behave in church. In most cases, they have never learned correctly and have passed on their ignorance to their children. In a pastoral spirit, I seek to address these issues in this article. Please accept these as humble instructions for your spiritual improvement. First of all, we ought to enter God’s holy church-temple with a proper spiritual attitude. The psalm-verse I cited at the beginning of this article is followed by an answer to these questions: “He that is innocent in hands and pure in heart.” So, in short, no matter how properly a man may comport himself in church, if he be a hypocrite or a willful sinner (impure in heart), his presence in church constitutes an offense against God. Let everyone of us, from bishop and priest down to the simplest child, learn to enter the house of God with a humble and pure spirit. Remember, God disdains the proud but looks favorably upon the humble. “A broken and contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.” Now with this spiritual disposition, there are concrete things to be said. As the faithful, all Orthodox Christians should attend to these things and teach their children likewise. 1. Dress with Christian modesty—both men and women! Remember, you ought not to enter the house of God showing off your body. Adorn yourself with a quiet and meek spirit and teach your children likewise. When you have dressed for church, look in the mirror occasionally: does my appearance draw others’ attention away from prayer and toward me? Am I modest in my appearance? Have I dressed in a way so as to please God Who looks upon the heart or to please man who judges by outward appearance? So then, the chief considerations when dressing for public worship are two: that the clothing be clean, and that it not distract the other worshippers. Here are some practical details: a. Women ought to wear dresses or skirts which fall below the knee. b. If a woman chooses to wear pants, these should be of the loose-fitting, women’s suit-pants type and of a conservative style. c. For both men and women, upper wear should thoroughly cover the breast, upper back and shoulders. d. The practice for women of wearing head-coverings is a pious and long- standing practice of the Church from antiquity. However, head-coverings are not mandatory. e. It is not, however, the practice for men to wear any hat or head-cover. Please instruct your boys to remove hats when in church. The only exception here is the special head-cover used by monastics and clergy. f. If you must wear perfume or cologne, please use a scant amount of it. It’s best to wear no such fragrance, since it can provide a distraction to others. g. Men should wear dress pants and a full-sleeve shirt. Men and boys should avoid wearing casual shirts with logos, messages, or other distracting images. I humbly discourage the common practice of wearing blue jeans to church. Dress tie and jacket are not required, but are historically respectful. h. Both men and women: please do not wear shorts in the church nave. 2. When entering the narthex, calm yourself, present your tithe and offering into the money-box, make your extra donation (optional) for candle(s), if you desire to light any, take any service booklet or leaflet available as needed. And then stop before entering the nave. Take notice—has the divine service begun already? Is it appropriate to enter yet? 3. Please refrain from entering the nave of the church, if any one of the following are taking place: a. The reading of the Six Psalms (near the beginning of Matins)—all should be perfectly still during this holy reading. We do not even sign ourselves with the cross, until the final “Glory” after the sixth psalm. b. The reading of the Holy Gospel (either in Matins or in the Divine Liturgy)—these are the very words of Our Lord and should never be interrupted by our movements. c. The Great Censings during the Magnification in Matins (“More honorable”) and just before the Great Entrance in the Liturgy (“Let us who mystically represent the cherubim”) d. The Epiclisis during the Liturgy (just after “It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos”) e. And any other time at which the priest is blessing the people, including the dismissal prayer, “May Christ our true God…” 4. At any other time, as the service of worship is in process, enter the nave quietly, attempting not to disturb others in prayer. Try to keep all unnecessary noises to a minimum. Refrain from speaking to others, even words of greeting—remember, we will have our social time later. It is enough now to smile and make a voiceless nod of acknowledgement to others. Our church temple is small: your words distract from the most important words issuing forth from the altar or the chanter- stand, or the holy hymns on the lips of the faithful. 5. If you have arrived before the divine services have begun—a thing much desired!—then you have the precious time to compose your heart in silence before God, to venerate the holy icons and to prepare yourself for common prayer. 6. Except for the times in the services mentioned above, as well as during any liturgical procession, you may light your candle at the icon stand or memorial table and offer your prayers. Then, go and take your place in the midst of the nave. 7. You have noticed that much of the church space in the nave is free of chairs or pews. The fundamental biblical attitude for prayer for the body is the standing position. This means that the faithful should stand while at prayer, except when we are to make bows, kneel, or make a full prostration. We did not enter God’s holy church-house to be entertained, but rather to bring our offering of praise and worship. The seats in the nave serve the purpose for those who are weak in their legs, are elderly, have small children, or are sick or infirm in some way are most welcome to use the chairs. Respecting these persons first, it is permissible and acceptable to sit at various times of the church service, as you may have need. No one will reproach you for this. 8. Having said this about chairs in church, many Orthodox churches in the United States have pew- or chair-seating. So the assumption exists that people will be sitting. In the following statements I mention sitting as an allowance, not a command. In other words, if I say “you may be seated,” this means that it is ok to sit, not that one is supposed to sit. 9. The next question then arises: when must we stand? Here, then, in reply, I stress the times in the services when all in the church—including the children—must stand. Mothers (or fathers or sponsors) should take up infants in their arms during these times; if possible, none should be reposing on the floor or in seats: a. At the opening exclamation of any divine service, “Blessed is the kingdom” or “Blessed is our God,” by the priest. (One may sit for the litany or psalm-reading which follows). b. During any liturgical procession with icon, censer, Gospel-book, or Holy Gifts. c. During the singing of the Trisagion Hymn (“Holy God” or its substitute). d. During the reading of the Gospel. e. Whenever the priest or deacon censes the people and the church nave. f. Whenever the deacon says “Stand aright!” g. When the cherubic hymn begins until it ends, including the intervening Great Entrance. h. All stand from the Kiss of Peace through the exclamation for the Megalynarion, “Especially our Most Holy Lady.” i. We stand and remain standing, as much as we are able (except during a lengthy serving of Holy Communion to the laity during which one may sit down), from the priest’s blessing, “And the mercies of our great God and Savior” through to the end of the Divine Liturgy. 10. Parents should never allow their small children to run loose in the nave or to distract other worshippers. This is not the time or setting to entertain children; let the small ones learn reverence and silence by good example. If children make repeated loud noises or cannot be quieted, a parent is duty-bound to remove them from the nave, for at least a short break. When in doubt, ask yourself this question: how would I wish other parents to handle their children in church for my sake? 11. Please do not bring children’s toys into the church nave. If your child is restless, take him over to an icon and show him the details (if you can avoid distracting others unduly) or provide him with a noise-less and appropriate activity: to look at church-oriented books, to color with a few crayons, etc. Please take with you any of these materials when you leave. 12. All should refrain from using any lip-application, if they intend to venerate any holy icon with a kiss or to take Holy Communion. The oils in lipstick are corrosive and difficult to clean off from the icons. 13. About receiving Holy Communion and bringing your children. Some basic principles: a. The traditional order for receiving Holy Communion is the following: first, newly-illumined persons, followed by their sponsors (the sponsor carries the baptismal candle); these are followed by the children, then the other faithful adults, or the adults bringing their children, if they like. b. Sponsors should bring their spiritual children to communion, at least once in a while. Encourage your child’s sponsor to do this! It reinforces that special relationship established at baptism. c. Each communicant draws near, making a bow from the waist before the chalice, while the person in front of him is receiving Holy Communion. He holds his arms over his breast in cross-wise manner, right hand over the heart and left over that, and steps up close to the chalice. It is important to step close to minimize the distance that the priest must negotiate in bringing the Holy Gifts to his mouth. If the newly-illumined has been carrying a baptismal candle, or his sponsor has, he hands off the candle before approaching the chalice. d. In the Eastern Orthodox Catholic tradition, the precious Gifts are served to the communicant by means of a liturgical spoon. The whole purpose of the spoon is to deliver the mystical Body and Blood of Christ to the communicant without touching the mouth or tongue. e. Thus, each communicant should lift his head as though he were looking above, open his mouth by dropping his jaw, and allow the priest to deposit the Gifts into his mouth. Whether the communicant receives the Gifts with open mouth, or closed upon the spoon, the head should be tilted upwards to minimize the danger of dropping the Gifts. In no case should the communicant stick out his tongue. f. Upon receiving the Gifts, and awaiting the completion of the priest’s words until the end, he makes a small step back away from the chalice, and then turns away toward the bowl with the blessed bread. The communicant should say nothing and should not sign himself with the cross. Remember, you have just partaken of the Master! Keep silence and hold Christ in your heart! After receiving Holy Communion, one does not need any further blessing; so the sign of the cross is not needed at this holy moment. g. When you take up the blessed bread from the bowl held by the altar server, please treat it with respect as the material loaf from which the Lamb was cut to be consecrated. Teach yourself and your children not to drop crumbs. You should consume this bread thoroughly. h. All communicants are expected to remain in the nave for the prayers after communion (either said silently from your own prayer-book or by listening to those read from the chanter-stand after the dismissal from the Divine Liturgy). If you do not have the time to spare, or must see to some other responsibility in the church, then make it a point to pray the prayers of thanksgiving after communion later on, before the end of the day. 14. Do not leave the nave until the priest gives the final dismissal! Think of that dismissal as coming from Our Lord Himself. Would you dare exit from the presence of the King while He still holds court? 15. When the service has been completed, please refrain from socializing in the nave. Several will wish to continue in quiet prayer. After making your final reverence, depart from the nave and then enjoy one another’s company. 16. If you wish to talk with the priest, please be aware that after the Divine Liturgy he must complete his service in the altar with several final actions, including removing his vestments. Wait patiently in the nave until he comes out and makes his final bow. Fr Patrick always exits the nave through the main door. These instructions and many others, along with explanations of why we should behave in these ways, can be found in a wonderful booklet called, “The Orthodox Companion,” published by our Archdiocese and available for a small charge from the parish bookstore. Of course, Fr Patrick welcomes any discussion about these things, as needed.
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