Orthodoxy 101: Proper Etiquette & Worship Practices

Over the years, I’ve received numerous search engine hits for Orthodoxy for dummies or things like how to make an Orthodox prostration. It made me realize that it may be helpful to compile a brief list of basic practices for the Orthodox newbie.

The first and foremost place to learn the externals of Orthodox worship is in your local parish or monastery. While some local customs will vary, the externals as a whole are part of our living tradition and will be fairly consistent.

In the 4th century, St. Basil the Great wrote about Christians standing during worship, facing east in prayer, making the sign of the cross, worship on Sunday, and numerous other practices that he states came from the apostles through oral tradition.  Even the hymn “O Gladsome Light” was quite ancient by his time.

These practices are not superstitious or arbitrary rules. Each one carries with it theological significance. Additionally, bodily joining the Orthodox in their way of worship acknowledges that we as human beings are composed of both a body and a soul, and we unite those things when we worship in Orthodoxy.

Such practice enables a person to begin to mystically enter into the life of the generations of Christians who have proceeded them, all of whom are still alive in Christ. We are unified in theology, practice, and spirit with our brothers and sisters from all ages.

This article will focus on worship in the church.  Someday I hope to do one on worship at home. This is not meant to be an all-encompassing list of external piety, but simply a guide to help beginners feel a little less awkward when embarking down the Orthodox Road. With each practice, I attempt to describe what is done and also why we do it.

Orthodox Worship in The Public Church

Standing during worship

Eastern Orthodox worship liturgy pravoslavieOne of the most difficult practices for newbies is standing for worship. Except during the homily, a Christian should remain standing during the entire service, if he has the strength and health to do so. Many people have health complications or lack the strength to stand the entire time, so seating is provided.  But we make an effort to stand for as much of the service as is possible.

Many churches have seats or pews, others have none. Visitors should wear comfortable standing shoes and so they are prepared in case there is not adequate seating.

There are certain parts of the service where everyone who is physically capable should stand, such as the Gospel reading, the Small and Great entrances, etc.

Why do we stand during worship? It has always been this way. Standing helps clear the mind, while sitting can cause one to grow too comfortable and begin to daydream. We are at prayer to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God. The posture of standing allows us to make a very small sacrifice (our temporary comfort) in order to be respectful of Christ’s presence and to show our love for him.

When a world leader such as the President of the United States enters a room, what do people do? They stand out of respect. What should we do when the King of kings and Lord of lords, the creator of the entire cosmos enters into our space? We should stand in reverence of His presence, even if we cannot feel it.

Facing east in prayer and worship

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. (Gen. 2:8)

Look toward the east, O Jerusalem, and see the joy that is coming to you from God! (Baruch 4:36)

For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man. (Matt. 24:27)

Since the time of the Apostles, Christians have faced eastward in prayer. Just as the rising of the sun in the east dispels the darkness of night, so the return of the Son of God will dispel the darkness of our present age.  In the direction in which we orient our bodies, we proclaim our faith in Christ’s second coming and look for Eden, our paradisaical home in the east. Therefore, in most parishes, Orthodox Christians will face east during worship. In the home, the icon corner is also normally located on an eastern wall.

Making the sign of the cross

We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross – Tertullian (ca. AD 200)

The Orthodox Christian makes the sign of the cross by placing his thumb to his first two fingers to symbolize the Trinity, and the remaining two fingers rest against his palm to symbolize the two natures of Christ (divine and human). The right hand holds this form as it is moved from the forehead, to the navel, to the right shoulder, and then to the left shoulder. This traces the cross on ones entire upper body.

It is an ancient symbol that has cured people of diseases, driven out demons, and worked all sorts of miracles. It is not magical, but when one is filled with faith, it is powerful.

It is customary to make the sign of the cross during prayer and also before icons and relics, but not before people such as priests and bishops when they are blessing the faithful.

Reverencing icons

Icons and relics should be treated as if the saint is actually present, because they do manifest the presence of the saint, especially for one who approaches with faith.

When moving forward to venerate an icon or relic, the Christian should sign himself with the cross once or twice followed with a bow from the waist, kiss the icon, and then make one more sign of the cross with a bow from the waist. At certain times (such as during the Exaltation of the Cross), the faithful will make a full prostration instead of a simple bow from the waist – even on Sundays.

Where to kiss?

Icons are typically kissed on the hand or foot of the person portrayed, but never on the face or in any other way that is disrespectful. The person in the icon should be looked upon as our master and not our buddy because, at this point, they are glorified and we are still in our sins. We need their help, they do not need our petitions.

When entering a Church, it is an excellent practice to venerate the icons that have been placed in the Church for such reverence. This practice helps the worshiper to enter into a spiritual mindset. Normally, the icons on the iconostas (the screen/panel separating the altar from the rest of the church) are not venerated.  There are various reasons, but the most practical is that these are often more expensive hand-painted ones that will sustain wear or damage if frequently venerated.

If the icon is not covered in a glass case/frame, refrain from venerating it while wearing lip products (lip stick, chapstick, etc.).  The oils and chemicals in them will deteriorate the finish on the icons. Most lip products are petroleum based, which is like kryptonite on the finish of an icon.  But even the oils in the natural ones can do harm.

For more on why we venerate icons, check out this article.

Making prostrations

O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! (Psalm 95:6, Masoretic text)

The prostration is typically performed all at once, so that the Christian bows to the ground and then immediately arises. The worshiper gently falls to his hands and knees, places his forehead on the ground above his hands, and then rises back to his feet.

Prostrations are infrequently practiced in parishes and Sundays because we are celebrating our adoption as children of God. We are mystically entering into the resurrection state in which we are no longer slaves bowing under the weight of sin and death.

When and how to do a prostration during weekday services is best discovered simply by following the example of those around you. The best rule of thumb that I learned in a monastery: don’t do anything that makes you stick out.

In general, kneeling at will, beating the chest, shouting, and other extravagant outward displays are fine in a jungle, but are not acceptable in church.

Lighting a candle

Lighting a candle and placing it before an icon of our Lord or a saint’s icon is a long-standing tradition.  We light the candle and ask our Lord (or a saint) for help, for prayers, etc.  The lit candle represents our prayers and the light also represents the prayers of the Church dispelling the darkness of this world with God’s light.  The small fee we pay for the candle shows our seriousness in making the prayer (and it often helps a little to support the local church).

Dressing properly

When visiting a church, the most traditional rules are as follows:

  • For men: dress pants or khakis with a collared shirt.
  • For women: a modest top with a skirt or a dress, preferably at least knee length. Maybe a head covering. See below for more details.
  • For both: No colognes, perfumes, or flashy jewelry. The purpose of gathering to worship is just that: worship, not attracting attention to ourselves.

Most parishes will accept anyone who is at least making an attempt to dress as respectfully as they know how, particularly if the person is visiting. Services outside of Sunday morning liturgy tend to be more casual.

If visiting a monastery, check their website for information on how to dress. They tend to be very traditional.

A note on head coverings: they are used in many parishes and nearly all monasteries, but some have no rules about such things. Head coverings have been used by Christian women since the beginning. It is even addressed in the Bible. It is not a symbol of bondage or oppression, but rather a symbol to the spiritual world that this woman is covered (protected) by the authority of her Husband Christ (if she is unmarried) or by her husband in the flesh who is under Christ. St. Paul wrote very mysteriously about this matter, but seemed to stress that it had spiritual significance beyond what our eyes can see.

Greeting a priest/bishop

For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (1 Cor. 4:15)

Generally, priests are addressed as “Father” and bishops as “Master,” for the latter are Christ’s presence among us, as the apostles taught (see the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle Paul).

When greeting a priest, the Christian crosses his right hand over his left hand.  The priest will say something like, “The Lord blesses,” while making the sign of the cross over the hands. The priest then places his right hand on the Christian’s hands. The Christian bows at the waist and kisses the right hand of the priest.

St. John Chrysostom stated that if a Christian were to meet an angel and a priest walking together, that he should greet the priest first and receive his blessing, for he is a conduit of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even if the priest is not very saintly in his behavior, the grace of the Lord is still upon him due to his office held in the Body of Christ.

The same etiquette is followed with bishops except one says, “Master bless.” If a room has several priests and a bishop, the Christian typically refrains from asking the priests for a blessing and only asks the bishop.

Normally, the priest’s left hand is not kissed. We kiss the right hand of the priest for it is through the priest’s right hand that the Holy Spirit comes upon the Eucharistic elements and transforms them into the Body and Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy.

Addressing monks/novices

When greeting monks, all are addressed as “Father.” Not nearly all of them are priests, but all are still addressed with respect. Ordinary monks are not ordained to the priesthood and have not been given the grace to give a priestly blessing (though you certainly may ask for their prayers). Usually, hieromonks (priest-monks) wear pectoral crosses and that is how they can be distinguished from the other monks. You can ask a hieromonk for a blessing just as you would any other priest.

Novices are addressed as “Brother.” If you’re uncertain, simply ask. Most of them were newbies once, especially here in America, so they don’t mind.

I have not visited a women’s monastery, but the rules I believe are pretty much the same: female monastics are addressed as either “Mother” or “Sister” depending on their rank.

Worshiping on Sunday

The Orthodox, like the disciples of Christ, worship on the day of the Lord’s resurrection. As the Book of Acts indicates, the disciples went to the Jewish Temple on the Sabbath (Saturday), but they had their own Christian worship on Sundays.  The Temple was destroyed in AD 70, which pretty well ended Saturday public worship.  Some fringe groups claim that Saturday is the true day Christians should worship in church, but the founders of these groups are both theologically and historically ignorant.

Every Sunday is a miniature Pascha (Easter) in which the Body and Blood of Christ are received by the faithful for the remission of sins and life eternal as we celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord and look forward to our own.  Our Lord died on the sixth day (Friday), rested in the tomb on the seventh day (Saturday), and arose on the eighth day (Sunday).

Sunday in Greek is Κυριακή, which means “Lord’s Day.”  Symbolically, it is a never ending day, therefore it is fitting to worship on the eighth day.  When we worship, we enter into a time outside of time, proclaiming our life and resurrection in the Lord. That is why we worship on what should properly be thought of as the eighth day; the day that is the culmination of all days, the fulfillment of all ages.

God willing, part two will be posted someday when I have a chance to write it.  I hope to address things like prayer rules, icon corners, vigil lamps (how-to, maintenance), lighting incense, etc.  Feel free to leave any extra tips in the comments below.  I know I’ve left out quite a few things, but hopefully this will address a majority of questions.

Lastly, this can all sound overwhelming or like a bunch of useless rules.  If you’re new, try not to sweat it.  You’ll pick up on these things as you go along.  The rules are not arbitrary, but they’re also not the equivalent of a New Testament Law of Moses.  No one is going to stone you if you miss something.  Most people probably won’t even notice.  Most of all, focus on prayer and drawing close to God.  Eventually, these things will become a part of you and how you worship.

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I grew up Protestant, but found my home in the ancient Orthodox Church while in my 20's. I'm now a seminary student and I keep this blog going to encourage those who are trying to deepen their walk with Christ.