Old Rite Practices
Preparing to come to an Old Rite service
Most Old Rite faithful try to arrive on time for the services. The benches located in the Church of the Nativity are placed there because the faithful usually arrive several minutes before services begin, thus, allowing them a place to sit before services commence. Also, it is still the practice of the Old Rite to read the liturgically-appointed homilies during Matins and/or Vigils. During the reading of these homilies the faithful sit and listened attentively. When the services do begin, the faithful stand with arms folded with as little shifting of feet and body as necessary. It has always been custom in the Old Rite to stand at any time of prayer with arms folded much like the instructions given before the readings of the Six Psalms.
Proper attire is always expected in church. It is a general custom in the Old Rite to have special church clothes that are simple and appropriate for prayer which is accompanied with bows and prostrations. While many other Orthodox confuse this custom with the desire to preserve an ethnic vestige of the past, the real reason is to avoid a “fashion show” in the church, to maintain clean clothes unsullied by cigarette smoke or other uses associated with the worldly places often frequented by all of us in this secular world, and to insure comfortable, modest dress for prayer. Females of all ages must have their heads covered with a scarf while in church. Such items as hats and napkin-like coverings are considered to be inappropriate and insufficient as head coverings for females.
Entering an Old Rite church
Many people unfamiliar with the Old Rite are fearful of coming to an Old Rite church. The Old Rite is not a different rite of the Russian Orthodox Church, but instead it is a variation of the very rite familiar to those who know the rite practiced by the Russian Orthodox Church after the reforms of the Patriarch Nikon. There are, however, certain practices of the Russian Orthodox Church no longer familiar to the faithful who use the reformed rites, but still followed in Old Rite parishes. Several of these practices may be confusing to other Orthodox faithful without some explanation.
First of all, Old Rite services always begin and end with what is known as the “entrance and departure bows.” (Pri-hod-ni-ye and Es-hod-ni-ye Pokloni). These “bows” or, more correctly, these prayers are:
God be merciful to us sinners. (bow)
Thou hast created us, Lord, have mercy on us. (bow)
We have sinned immeasurably, Lord, forgive us. (bow)
Then, It is truly meet…(Shine, Shine, New Jerusalem during the Paschal season) (prostration). This is followed by Glory to the Father… (bow); Now and ever… (bow), Lord have mercy (2), Lord Bless. (bow). Finally, the Dismissal (May Christ our true God…) (prostration). Only then does the priest vest and exclaim, Blessed is our God… These prayers also follow the dismissal at the end of services, before the faithful complete the services.
When prostrations are made, Old Rite Orthodox use a small cloth pad known as a podruchnikwhich is placed on the floor. The reason for this is that the hands, used to make the Sign of the Cross in an external expression of a dogmatic belief in the two natures of Christ and the unity of the Holy Trinity, should not be soiled in prayer.
Conduct during services
Prostrations are made at times and at prayers that are often different than for other Orthodox accustomed to the diminution of prostrations made by and after the Patriarch Nikon. A study needs to be made to determine exactly what the canons of the Church meant when they prohibited prayer “on bended knees” at certain times. For example, the service books used in the Old Rite, and used by all Russian Orthodox prior to the reforms of Patriarch Nikon, specifically direct prostrations at the Kissing of the Gospel at Sunday Matins, or at It is truly Meet… at the end of Liturgy, and even at the end of Shine, Shine, New Jerusalem… all during the Paschal season. While one might argue the propriety of making these prostrations, it must be understood the service books directing these prostrations are hundreds of years old and pre-date the schism in the Russian Church by many decades, if not centuries. Thus, these prostrations are not “Old Believer oddities” but the semi-ancient if not ancient practice of the Russian Orthodox Church.
While on the subject of the Sign of the Cross and bows, it is appropriate to mention that these external expressions of the inner faith constitute part of what might be be best described as a love of uniformity and order that is pravalent among the Old Ritualists. The prefatory section of the Psalter, mentioned earlier, specifies exactly when the Sign of the Cross and accompanying bows to the waist or prostrations are to be made. Thus, all of the worshipping faithful will be found making the Sign of the Cross at exactly the same time and places. In the Old Rite, one does not make the Sign of the Cross, nor prostrations, nor kneel when one feels moved to do so but at the appointed times in unison. This may cause some confusion to other Orthodox, since the Sign of the Cross is not necessarily made at each invocation of the Trinity or entreaty to Christ, while at other places, such as the end of More Honorable than the Cherubim… the Sign of the Cross and any accompanying bow are always made by all of the faithful.
Likewise, even motion is discouraged during certain parts of the services. Entrance or exit or even fixing of candles is not expected during the reading of the beginning prayers (Heavenly King through Come, let us Worship) or during the reading of the Six Psalms in Matins, or during the reading or recitation of the Creed, or during the reading of the Gospel. Even apart from these more solemn parts of the services, Old Rite Orthodox do not wander around the church in order to venerate icons or to light candles. While the warden or “altar boys” may fill the oil lamps or replace candles, the other faithful who enter the church after the beginning of services do not wander through the church, but find a place to stand and enter with as little disruption as possible. If one entering the late would like a candle lit, they may ask the warden to place to place a candle at an icon in front of the church. Once one has found a place to stand, it is general practice to stay at that place unless one must leave the church because of sickness or some other need. Otherwise it is not common to walk in and out of the church.
Finally, a couple of comments should be made on the Mysteries most commonly practiced by Orthodox Christians. Confession is a Holy Mystery not appropriately squeezed in during the celebration of other services. In fact, Confession in the Old Rite practice is a service itself with the reading of prayers, Psalms, a sermon for those making confessions, and review of sins recited by them.
Those who partake of Communion are expected to make a Confession within a reasonable time beforehand. They must not partake without Confession, if they have committed grave sins or disregarded the rules of the church in regards to the fasts, attendance at Church on Sundays and feasts, or especially if they have borne a grudge against their neighbor. They must attend Divine Services the before the liturgy at which they will partake of the Eucharist, and they must prepare themselves by reading the pre-Communion canon and prayers. Communion is given to the laity in the form of three spoonfuls of the precious and most honorable Body and Blood of Christ.