Resources - Becoming Orthodox
This article has a very limited brief: to give you a few hints about the Orthodox Church. It does not pretend to be comprehensive (see John 21:25), as several lorries could not hold the material that would need to be written just to give you a first taste. The Orthodox Church is a rich Tradition, which will repay a lifetime of discipleship and of conforming yourself and your whole life to her. The purpose of the Orthodox Church is, of course, to bring you ever nearer to The Saviour, to make you holy, to bring you to eternal life. Following the Tradition is, therefore, not an end in itself but the God given means, full of the Holy Spirit, of fulfilling the Gospel. Christianity is "the death of religion" – we live by faith and love in Christ Jesus our Lord. This means that the Tradition is astonishingly rich, varied and elastic.
By Tradition we mean the same as did St. Paul when he told St. Timothy to guard it (2 Timothy 1:14) so we mean:- The Holy Scriptures, the Sacraments (of which there are many), the services and prayer, feasting, fasting and almsgiving, the saints and martyrs, the calendar, the arrangement of the home, the arrangement of the Temple, confession and spiritual fathers … and so on. Little by little you will come to know much of the Tradition and find your life conforming to it.
There are those who seek to change the Orthodox Church. These people will always be sadly disappointed. Not only will the Church not change but also those people will find themselves placed beyond it in a place of their own making. You must come before God as a disciple of the Gospel not as its judge. The Orthodox Church has a "Table d’hote" not an "A la carte" menu – designed to fulfil its purpose.
Start quietly, humbly and receptively. Don’t try to do everything at once: that way leads to pride. The demons will try and get you to take on tasks too difficult for you at first – they will enjoy seeing you fail and becoming despondent (St. Anthony the Great). Follow the advice of a wise spiritual father who will lead you at the right speed, always clamouring for more, into the tradition.
Please feel free to copy this material and give it away to any might make use of it.
But, now, let us begin.
The best way to learn about the Orthodox Church is by mixing with Orthodox People. Orthodoxy is a rich tradition and a "seamless robe." You will need to have it passed on to you from another person and then transmit it yourself.
Making up your mind: No hurry!
The first thing to realise is that there is no hurry. You shall not be hurried or coerced into becoming Orthodox. Neither shall any priest be hurried nor coerced into receiving you. When and if the time is right you will be received. This can take any amount of time from immediately to many years. The Church has your interest at heart – no one will want to force you to become Orthodox and if you choose not to be we will hope that you have learned something useful on your Pilgrimage with us.
Making sense of the journey so far
A very understandable worry that people often have is this: "Have I been travelling the wrong road up to now?" The answer is "No: that road has brought you here." If it is right for you to become a member of the Orthodox Church that does NOT mean that it was wrong for you to have belonged to something else before. You should always be thankful to those who brought you this far. Neither should you feel that you are betraying your past: St. Philip was following St. John the Baptist until The Lamb of God was pointed out to him. He then left St. John and followed Christ.
The Saviour calls everyone to Himself and to follow Him in The Way. The manner of that call is different for each person. Your priest will see you frequently and you will join him for catechism over a period of time. You will come to various services and become involved in the life of the local Orthodox Church and the community that surrounds her. It may be that your sense of vocation to become a member of the Orthodox Church is very clear – it may be you are tentatively searching for the Truth. Your vocation within the Orthodox Church will become clear. There is plenty of scope for ministry and the ministry of lay people is taken very seriously.
The mission of The Church has not changed. The Church exists to fulfil the Divine command: "…make disciples of all nations…" People often ask "What will I do after I am received? What form shall my discipleship take?" We cannot tell you. The Holy Spirit points the way forward … local missioners … catechists … treasurers … servers and singers … clergy … teachers … leaders … evangelists … monastics … iconographers … carpenters …charity workers … parents of all sorts … plasterers etc. One thing is for certain: there is plenty to do for members of the Orthodox Church. - "Pew fodder" is not an option. The main thing is to be salt and light where you live.
How to be received
Eventually you need to make up your mind what you think God is calling you to do. This may mean taking the bull by the horns, finding your priest one day and saying:- "Father please receive me into the Orthodox Church." The time between this and being received varies a lot. For some it may be immediate (as with the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts) or it may be many years (as with St. Constantine).
During this time you will be taught a number of practical matters (like how to receive Holy Communion) and the priest will continue to catechise and prepare you.
Each person received needs a Godparent. This must be a person of the same sex and older in the faith and already Orthodox who can lead you into the faith.
Choosing a patron saint
This is no small matter. Many people already have a Christian name but not everyone does. If you do you should think very carefully before changing. If you don’t you will need to choose a patron saint. Your priest will advise you about this. When you have a patron you will be asking his/her prayers each day, celebrating her/his feast day, others will celebrate your feast day (name day) and pray for you particularly on that day also. Many people find themselves becoming very like their patron and developing an interest in their concerns [e.g. someone called Stylian, Nicholas or Basil will become interested in helping orphaned children, John (after St. John the Merciful) will become involved in charity work etc.]
Baptism or Chrismation?
This depends of whether you have been validly baptised before. Unbaptised children and adults will be baptised and then chrismated (anointed with Holy Oil for the reception of the Holy Spirit). Those who have been baptised are normally chrismated. You should ask your priest about this.
How to develop a life of prayer
It is absurd to suggest that a few words will give anything other than the most basic idea here. You will need to consult with your Spiritual Father. So to start you off:
It is important to maintain a continual cycle of Scriptural reading. Currently there is no "ideal" text of the Old Testament. There is a project in America to produce one suitable for Orthodox. Orthodox should use the Septuagint with the Apocrypha (as did Christ) and translations from it. You will find that this is usually impossible. The New Testament is slightly easier. The best available at the present is "The Orthodox Study Bible." This has the advantage of copious notes, articles and a scheme of Bible reading, the readings for each day of the year, the Psalms and the usual "Icon Prayers" for morning and evening personal devotions. You should try to get to a proper Bible Study based on the teachings of the Fathers each week.
You will want to collect the following icons: The Saviour (Jesus Christ), The Mother of God (St. Mary, usually with the "Adult Child" Christ enthroned and pointed to by her), The Forerunner (St. John the Baptist) and the icon of your patron. Some people have a further patron for the household. When you pray develop a habit of standing before the icons, with your eyes and heart open. Orthodox do not normally dot icons about the house.
The Icon Corner
You will want to make a place in your home for prayer. Obviously you can and should pray everywhere but Orthodox have found an icon corner sanctifies the whole home. Usually it is placed so that the person praying faces east. In it you will have the icons mentioned above set out, as they would be in a church or with the Saviour elevated above the others and the Mother of God below Him. They should be low enough to be easily venerated. Here you will have the following equipment on a shelf below the icons: the Holy Bible, hand censer with charcoal and incense, candle or oil lamp, service books, perhaps some flowers. The whole lot needs to be kept clean and well polished. You may also keep wedding crowns, baptismal candles and so on in the Icon Corner. Another name is "Beautiful Corner" and it should live up to its name. Being in a corner is helpful as when you enter it you are immediately surrounded by the icons and can pray without being distracted. Some houses have several such Corners but there should always be a main one for family prayers. In the dining room there is a need for at least one icon (of the Saviour or perhaps of the Last Supper or the Hospitality of Abraham or of Bethany etc.) to face when blessing meals. You will slowly acquire what you need.
There is an excellent calendar produced by the Fellowship of St. John the Baptist (address elsewhere) This tells you the date, the saints for the day, the feast and fast days (and exceptions), the readings for the day and the tone of the week. (Tone= the tunes and songs sung at the services.) Currently it costs £3.50
Hours of prayer
These are: Vespers (6pm), Compline (9pm) Midnight, Matins (3am) First (6am), Third (9am), Sixth (midday), Ninth (3pm).
In practice these are usually served as follows (Antiochian use): 6pm: 9th and Vespers, (or Compline when served in Lent), Before the Liturgy: Matins and the 1st, 3rd and 6th hours. Be prepared for huge variation. In the Icon Corner at home you will want to pray at regular times – perhaps on getting up and at 6pm.
In these sad times there are very few real "Spiritual Fathers" who receive directly from God and tell their spiritual children. However there are many people who have travelled further than others and can lend a helping hand to bring you to where they are. Priests who are also "Pneumatikoi" (singular: Pneumatikos) [Antiochian pneumatikoi wear the Epigonation which is a diamond shaped vestment] may hear confession. Before you are received and once you are received you will make your confession. How often depends on many factors – essentially your confessor will link Holy Communion and confession and tell you how many times to do each.
Practical advice from Fr. Philip on Morning
Prayer from The Orthodox Study Bible.
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Practical advice from Fr. Philip on saying the
Hours (The Third Hour).
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Entering an Orthodox Temple / Attending a service
What to wear
Dress simply, modestly and respectfully. Men should wear long trousers and sleeves at least to the elbow, head uncovered. Women should wear skirts to the knee or below or long trousers and arms covered at least to the elbow. The custom of women wearing headscarves is still practised in Slav Churches though not so much in Antiochian/Greek ones (unless you want to.) Clothing is best loose fitting and, in winter, warm as this gives plenty of movement and churches can be perilously drafty.
What questions you need to ask when making contact
What sort of service Orthodox will often ask and at what time the Liturgy will end. They then turn up to as much as they feel they (and young children can cope with). This is much better than arriving for the first half hour.
People can be maddeningly literal when answering your questions too. In some places nothing is given away. So:-
"Your blessing Father! Will there be a Liturgy for the feast of St. X?"
"God bless you! Yes."
"What time will it start Father?"
"After Orthros (= Matins)"
"Thank you Father, What time does the Liturgy end please?"
"Approximately 12.30 in the afternoon."
"Thank you Father – will it be in St. Y’s Church?"
"No: we will have it at St. X’s Well Chapel."
"Thank you Father, my name is George Bloggs and I would like to receive Holy Communion if I may: my Spiritual Father has given me permission to do so."
"Father, will there be Vespers and pre-communion prayers the night before in St. Y’s?"
"We will have Espirinos (= Vespers) at 6pm"
"Thank you Father I shall look forward to being there."
So: Matins = Orthros.
Vespers = Espirinos
Vigil = Vespers and Matins together.
Asking for prayers to be said
There are lots of ways of having people remembered in services:
Before the Liturgy – provide the priest with a list of those to be remembered at the Proskimide. You should put your own name at the top of the list and divide the list into four columns; Living Orthodox (include the priest you are asking to pray.), Living Non-Orthodox, Departed Orthodox, Departed Non-Orthodox. (In Antiochian Churches "Living" and "Departed" is sufficient)
At Vespers or at the end of the Liturgy – Commonly people provide five loaves (as used for the Proskimide), a bottle of olive oil (for the Lamps), a bottle of Communion wine and ask for a Litia (or Artoklasia which is the same thing). Names of those to be prayed for are listed (all living). At the end of the short service the bread (and sometimes wine and oil) is distributed to the congregation.
For the departed you may ask for "Trisagion Prayers for the Departed" = Mnemosimon = Pannikhida. For this you need to provide Kolliva and a loaf that is covered with sesame seeds (or something similar). There are many recipes for this. Essentially it is a mixture of whole boiled wheat, barley or rice mixed with sugar and spices and topped with dried fruits and nuts. Again these are distributed at the end of the service.
St. Phanourious’ cake may also be offered. In some places a type of ginger cake is offered. In some traditions Slava bread is offered. As time goes by (say 500 years) local recipes will develop.
Sign of the Cross
People often ask when to make the sign of the Cross. This differs in different Patriarchates. Do what comes naturally within the congregation. How to make the sign of the Cross: best if you ask someone to show you. Antioch is slightly different from the other Patriarchates. Bow letting the hand drop and open pointing forwards. Stand upright. Right hand, thumb and fore and index fingers put together. These represent the Trinity, they point away from your palm (=you). They are a Mystery. Other two fingers folded into the palm. These represent the two natures of Christ: fully God and fully Man. Pointing towards you as a sign of the incarnation. Touch the forehead, diaphragm, and top of the right shoulder, bottom of the left shoulder. Further interpretation: We offer our thoughts and feelings, our good (right) and bad (left) selves to God in repentance. The dropping of the Crossbar from right to left reminds us that the "Good" thief went to Paradise, the other – we don’t know.
Venerating the icons
We pray before icons, remembering that they are painted on wood or even printed on paper. The image upon them represents the person or event or teaching depicted. Icons fairly frequently take part in answered prayers and in miracles, and many exude fragrant oils. Every icon represents Christ. We are only interested in the saints depicted in that they were full of the Holy Spirit and therefore draw us to Christ. When venerating any icon of a person make the sign of the Cross twice with the bow then kiss the foot of the person depicted and make the sign of the Cross again with the bow. If no foot: kiss the hand, if no hands then kiss the hair.
Lighting a candle
Having venerated the icons, do light candles before them. In many Temples this is fairly obvious but in some there are special sand trays for the departed and others for the living or in honour of the saints. The ceiling will not fall in if you get it wrong and no one will notice or bother. Expect someone to blow your candle out when the sand tray gets full.
Standing, sitting and kneeling: where to stand
Stand unless you are tired or ill and need to sit. Try to stand for censing, processions, being blessed, the Gospel reading and when you see very elderly people standing. Never kneel on a Sunday. You may prostrate on weekdays during the Epiclesis ("Send down your Holy Spirit …) during the Eucharistic Prayer but many do not. In Antiochian Churches stand where you want to but in some churches men stand before the icon of Christ and women before the icon of the Mother of God. Stand with your hands by your side or loosely clasped in front (not behind your back), do not lean on the walls or pillars (if you need to sit then sit down), do not cross your feet or legs. This is particularly important in "traditionally Orthodox" countries where a fierce little lady will tick you off roundly. Listen out for the occasional order given by the deacon or priest e.g.: "Let us pray to the Lord!" "Stand upright!" "Bow you heads to the Lord!"
Moving about: coming in and going out
Wandering about is distracting and bad behaviour even though you will see it done a lot. Going out to have a cigarette is very bad behaviour. If you need to move to venerate icons or blow out candles that have burned down or are melting onto the floor get on with it and no one will notice.
Arriving on time
There is no reason why single people and those without children should not arrive on time. Those with children may gauge how long their children can manage (keeping in mind that Russian and Greek children can manage a whole service very well) and come for that. I.e. they arrive late and stay for say the final 20, 30 or 40 minutes of the service. In many Greek parishes this is difficult to determine as the services often do not start on time and may never start at the time advertised.
Length of services
The length of Orthodox services often confuses people. Rough times are as follows::-
Vespers (= Espirinos): 40 minutes
Matins (= Orthros): 60 – 90 minutes
Hours 15 minutes each
Divine Liturgy: 75 – 90 minutes
The trouble is the services flow one into the other so it may be difficult to know when one began and another ended. Added to this when they are served differs according to Patriarchate: Antiochian parishes usually have morning services in the morning and evening ones in the evening but Slav ones will usually have Vespers followed by Matins on Saturday Evening.
Eating and drinking
Only eat and drink what you are given to eat and drink by the priest or his delegate. Whatever you are given to eat - eat. Do NOT put out blessed bread, Kolliva etc. for the birds. You can expect (if you have been baptised) to receive the Antidoron at the end of the Liturgy. Come forward kiss the Cross, the priest’s hand and receive his blessing and the Antidoron.
Bishop: will wear a crown shaped Mitre and a vestment looking like a big T-shirt (sakkos) and a scarf shaped vestment that goes from his ankles round the neck and back to the floor (Epitrachelion). Priest: will wear a vestment like a large poncho (phelonion) and the Epitrachelion, Deacon: will wear a long T-shirt shaped vestment (stikarion) and a strip of cloth (orarion) that goes over one shoulder and hangs to the floor at the back. Servers (perhaps led by a Sub-deacon): will wear a stikarion without the orarion or with it crossed before and behind. Reader: may wear the stikarion but will read and lead much of each service. Choir: some choirs have uniforms but all lead the singing. Many have completely taken over the singing.
Taking part in the services
There is considerable variation here. Essentially Antiochian Parishes encourage congregational singing, Greek ones less so and Slav ones not at all. Every congregation encourages use of the five senses so burying your head in a book is certainly the wrong thing to do. Learn the services as far as you can and then jettison the books.
Do not receive Holy Communion unless you are Orthodox and you have your Spiritual Father’s express permission to do so. You may (if baptised) receive the Antidoron at the completion of the Divine Liturgy. Antidoron means "In place of the gifts."
Receiving a blessing - greeting a Bishop or priest
Go to the Bishop, bow before him and say (Antiochian Bishop) "Sa-eed-na – Your Blessing." Hold out both hands right over left, slightly cupped and the Bishop will bless them. Kiss his hand when he places it into yours. Do just the same for a priest but "Bless Father" as a greeting.
Usually taken during the Divine Liturgy. Sometimes more than one collection is taken (e.g.: "For the Church", "For the Priest" and "For the Disaster") it is usually fine to take out change. At the outset it is worth thinking of making your giving proportionate to your income and regular. If you pay tax you should consider filling in the forms so that the church recoups it.
Too many translations. Each Temple will have its favoured books.
It is usually fine to bring flowers to the Temple and then either arrange them in a vase before an icon or place them round an icon. At certain times particular plants are brought in (e.g. greenery at Pentecost, basil for the Holy Cross, abundant flowers for Good Friday/Holy Saturday for the Epitaphion services). As fruit and vegetables ripen then should be brought in for the harvest blessings – they are then given to the priest who may distribute them among the congregation.
Understanding an Orthodox Temple
The narthex: the porch – often missing in these Islands. Represents the world.
The nave: the main area of the temple. Contains the Bishop’s Throne, from here the Deacon leads the prayers etc. Represents the Church in the world.
The screen: Joins the nave and the altar and carries the main icons. It is the main focus of attention for most services. Contains doors that further join together the different parts of the Temple.
The altar: the area east of the screen - contains the Holy Table, Proskimide table (Table of Preparation). Represents heaven. Do not go in here unless you must (i.e. you are the officiating priest or server.)
Time, Prosphora, Wine, Money, Artoklasia, Icons, Flowers, Incense, charcoal, vessels, vestments, etc.
Before you make any donations make sure they are in keeping with the rest of the Temple. It is MUCH THE BEST to donate to a fund for Temple furnishings than to give souvenirs of happy holidays. The latter can turn the Temple into something reminiscent of a junk shop. Someone with design flair and simple tastes could be chosen to act as buyer for the parish. On the other hand there is nothing so pleasing as a country church in Greece filled with the most appalling icons and dissonant flower vases, bits of needlework all arranged in the most homely way. You will often find fairy lights twinkling away round the icons. The "perfect" temples are nearly always Uniate.
Consumables (e.g. wine [Mavrodaphne or Commanderia], incense [Orthodox style – from Monasteries and shops in "Orthodox" countries – check to see if there is some usual type used in your church], charcoal [Kerry Candes, Dublin], Prosphora [attend lessons before cooking] are always very acceptable.
Through prayer, discussion and mutual friendship, members of the Fellowship attempt to deepen their understanding of the one Orthodox faith, which they all share.
The Fellowship organizes a residential weekend conference each summer. Recent subjects have included Called to be One: Our Unity in the Eucharist, Confession and Healing, Repentance and Forgiveness, Death and Resurrection, and Veneration of the Mother of God.
There is a study weekend early in the year, devoted either to the Bible or to the Church Fathers. On past occasions we have studied, for example, The Epistle of St Paul to the Romans, Theosis, Prophecy, and St Symeon the New Theologian.
Day conferences have been held in different places, including a series on Women: an Orthodox Perspective. At a Liturgical Weekend members gained experience of how to read and sing at church services. We have made pilgrimages to Walsingham, Patmos, and Russia.
The Fellowship issues a journal, Forerunner, which appears twice a year, as well as an annual Calendar and Lectionary, which lists the daily Scripture readings and a wide range of saints, including many British. A Directory is published annually, giving details of all Orthodox places of worship in Britain and Ireland. A series of Bible Study Notes for Orthodox use is in preparation.
Membership is open to all Orthodox; while our meetings are open to non-members, we hope that as many as possible will want to support our work on a more permanent basis by taking out membership.
Although our work is limited to the British Isles, Orthodox from abroad are welcome to become members and to attend our gatherings.
This is the Youth Organisation for all the Orthodox youth of Great Britain (11-24yrs). Amongst its activities it runs two annual camps each year. To know more contact Father Philip (FrPhilip@aol.com / 01652 655250)
SYNDESMOS, the World Fellowship of Orthodox
Youth, is a federation of Orthodox youth movements and theological schools
around the world, working under the blessing of all the local canonical
Churches, to serve the Church, Her unity, witness and renewal.
The aim of SYNDESMOS is to develop cooperation and communication among Orthodox youth movements and theological schools around the world, and to promote within them a deeper understanding and vision of their common faith.
Founded in 1953, the history of SYNDESMOS has been one of dynamic initiative in the life of the Church. Since the beginning, youth and Orthodox unity has been central to its activities.
SYNDESMOS' original aims remain its present challenges, as it seeks to respond to the needs of young people in the Church, and revives its commitment to witness to the Gospel in the 21st century.
Finally, some very practical and important matters ...
Don’t overdo it!
When: Wednesdays and Fridays, Nativity fast, Lent, Holy Week, Peter and Paul fast, Dormition fast, Holy Cross Day. For 5 hours before receiving Holy Communion.
Rules: No alcohol, olive oil (or similar) or animal products except those animals that have no backbone.
When broken: Illness or infirmity or when it would cause illness or infirmity. When travelling some distance (measured in time) for example travelling by car from Manchester to London, or walking all morning. You will see "Fish wine and Oil" or "Wine and Oil". Be sensible – don’t buy the most expensive vegan margarine and vegan ice cream or fake bacon – do without! Be sensible: start by doing what you can easily (e.g. give up meat this year, meat and fish next and these and dairy products the year afterwards). You will need to build up some new recipes so that you have a balanced diet. Certain weeks are fast free weeks.
When: Sundays, Pascha, 12 Feasts, Name days (Yiorti),
Rules: better food should be eaten, some wine or equivalent taken and a celebration of some kind made.
When broken: Some feasts take place during the fasts in which case the calendar will say "wine and oil" or "fish, wine and oil." The oil is olive oil but it really refers to expensive oils used for dressings. One always fasts before Holy Communion.
Different types of service
The Divine Liturgy: St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, St. James Brother of the Lord, Presanctified Divine Liturgy of St. Gregory.
The Hours: Vespers (Espirinos), Compline, Midnight Office, Matins (Orthros), 1st, 3rd, 6th, 9th hours, Morning and Evening Icon Corner Prayers, Grace before and after meals.
Moleiben (prayer service – supplicatory), Artoklasia (Litia – bread, wine, oil and grain is blessed as a supplication), Memorials (Pannikhida / Mnemosimon) with or without Kolliva, Name days (Many Years! Blessing).
Thanksgivings (Doxologies), Blessings (hundreds of different ones from blessing of a house to the blessing of a spoon), Baptism, Marriage, Funerals, Confession etc.
Lord have mercy!
This is the most common prayer in the Orthodox Church. To an English speaker it sounds negative. The Greek word "mercy" comes from the same word as olive oil. So "Lord have mercy!" has the following consequent meanings all at the same time: "Lord … have mercy, heal … soothe … bless … anoint … give peace … make clean … make joy come … give abundance … make whole … make holy!" so it is a fairly full prayer.
May the Lord have mercy on you as you make this journey with Him!
(a minor adaptation of a booklet prepared by Fr. Philip Hall)
For more information, contact the Web Editor:-
Contact: Fr. Gregory Hallam firstname.lastname@example.org