Visiting the Orthodox Churches as a non-Orthodox / Russian Pilgrimage

As they say – “Do as the Romans do!” Especially in Moscow, appropriately and prominently called as “the Third Rome” in the Christendom…
This article will prompt the foreign visitors to act in an Orthodox church a lot like locals, the Orthodox faithful. Its guidelines will allow visitors to show their respect of the local traditions and customs and learn about the Orthodox culture.

As we, the visitors, step into an active Russian Orthodox church or a monastery, we all have to keep the following picture clear in our mind: this place is the house of God for the Orthodox Christians. Therefore, anyone entering it will absolutely feel at peace and welcome on condition they are aware of the basics of the Orthodox faith or act with all due respect to customs and traditions of that particular house of worship.

While visiting the Orthodox places of worship is subject to some limitations, please don’t think that this indicates a visitor is not welcome. On the contrary, majority of churches and monasteries are extremely friendly towards the churchgoers and visitors alike. Certainly, there are some very strict monastic communities out there, which do not allow pilgrims of any kind, but these are not included in the pilgrimage programs.

Otherwise, all you have to do is comply with some general rules. Of course, there are priests who will be happy to explain to you what you can and cannot do while in their church. Then, there are those “babushkas” in charge of candleholders or people behind the church candle shop counter who will typically act as advisers to visitors. What follows is a compilation of the visitor-relevant rules and useful information for the uninitiated:

  • The daily regimen of Orthodox religious services in Russian churches is made up of morning and night services that vary in meaning and duration. The liturgy service starts the day and lasts approximately for 3 hours, often beginning as early as 6-30 am and lasting till as late as noon. The evening service is held between 5:00 pm and 8:00 pm (schedules vary from church to church).

    The monasteries will have more vigorous schedules, and at some, it would begin at 5am and may have two liturgies at various locations within the monastery. Later in the day, some will have molieben (prayer) services and, lastly, the vigil (extended evening service) will complete the service cycle at around 5 pm.

    Times vary from place to place but the Orthodox pilgrims are usually keen to attend as many services as they can. The Orthodox faithful planning to participate in the liturgy and receive communion are expected to attend the evening service a day earlier and have their confessions heard then.

    The pilgrim tour agencies will work around the needs of non-Orthodox participants to bring out the best of the locale without burdening the uninitiated with the lengthy church routines, if so preferred.

  • Moving around the church during the liturgy service is not desirable and, at some particularly solemn moments, a complete silence and full attention is required, while moving around and in front of the altar area (such as lighting a candle or going to venerate an icon in the front) is not welcome for the duration of any church service.
  • Head coverings for women: hair has always been perceived in Russia as a symbol of beauty attracting everyone’s attention. When a woman covers her head in church, she attempts not to distract other people from their prayers. Women are expected to cover their heads before entering the church or a monastery and avoid wearing revealing clothes and lipstick (since one may wish to venerate some icons). Short skirts and shorts are not prohibited, but considered improper at Orthodox church facilities.

    Men’s attire: Men are to wear trousers (no shorts) and enter the church with their heads uncovered.

    In general, the preference should be given to discreet and modest clothing choices.

Nowadays, the rules concerning general appearance of the faithful and visitors are not followed as strictly as before and are not upheld universally. In many churches, bareheaded women and those wearing trousers are provided a wrap or a stole (these can be usually found at the entrance to the church).

  • Avoid making noise and talking loudly inside the church, even when the service is over. Turn the volume down on your cell. Do not go up the solea (part of the sanctuary’s or altar platform). Do not enter the altar.
  • Photography is allowed in most places but it is best to confirm with the church sacristan. Read the information signs at the entrance to a church or a monastery. Avoid taking pictures during the service using noisy settings, and turn off camera’s flash.
  • Only baptized Orthodox faithful have the right to participate in the church sacraments (confession, communion, etc.). Communion for the Orthodox fiahtful is allowed only after confession and with the permission of the priest.
  • Churches and monasteries largely depend on and welcome their visitors’ donations. Donation boxes are usually installed in several places inside the church and by the candle counter.
  • Submitting prayer notes is reserved for the church faithful with only Orthodox names to be included in them. To light a candle, one may drop their donation in a specially assigned box (if a sign says that candles are free with a free will donation) or purchase them from a church counter.

    You may then proceed inside the sanctuary and light them placing then at a free space of a candleholder in front of the icon. Most importantly, say your internal prayer for those who are in need of your intercessory prayers.

Anyone can enter an Orthodox church, listen to a choir signing or tour its interior.

Praying means gathering of one’s thoughts, calm and concentration, which is not so easy to do in a place filled with noise and people, so it is advisable that visitors and pilgrims observe the guidelines above.

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