Pious Behavior in Church

Adapted from a work by Archpriest Victor Potapov, 2002

CrossFirst of all, one must come to the realization that everything externally taking place in church is an expression of our internal feelings, and must be consonant with them. Thus, for example, a prostration is a sign of humility. Accordingly, as we bow, we should humble our hearts. Otherwise, our prostrations are but an empty formality. The sign of the cross is an expression of our faith in the crucified Lord. Accordingly, when the movement of our hand making the sign of the Cross should unite with our feelings and thoughts directed to the Cross of Christ whose sign we place upon ourselves. Otherwise, it is what is characterized by some as “waving of the hand” or, as what used to be called in olden times “polishing buttons.”

The words of our prayer should never be merely words. Rather they should always be filled with meaning. Our heart should speak in and through them. Otherwise, prayer is an empty gesture, bereft of any content. In our spiritual lives, what is external, i.e. everything known as ritual, is secondary. The Gospels teach us to prefer the spiritual over the physical. “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” (Mark 2: 27). Christ says to the scribes and Pharisees: “Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you saying: This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth, and honoureth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from me (Matthew 15:7-8).” “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. Thou blind Pharisee, cleans first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also… (Matthew 23:25-26).” We see in the Gospels that nothing so raised the Lord to indignation as did hypocrisy and overt displays of legalism. Religious piety in which a man’s heart does not participate is but an empty worship of ritual and formalism.


Before discussing the matter of prostrations, I would like to underscore once again the fact that one’s external movements have a meaning of secondary importance, or perhaps it would be better to say, have a derived meaning. The external is of no value unless it is corresponds to an internal meaning. Thus, the internal is greater than the external. For example, before making the sign of the cross, one must direct one’s heart and mind toward the Crucified Lord. Before making a prostration, one must feel one’s submission and obedience to God. Before kissing an icon or placing a candle before it, one must have love and reverence for the one depicted on the icon. It is only under those conditions that the Church permits the use of external rituals and symbols.

Priest preaching homilyThe physical movements of the body associated with prayer are useful, for they permit the entire body to participate in prayer and to be blessed by it. Physical movements help us to focus our thoughts, as it were to give life to the gesture, to render it not abstract, but real. Small prostrations, or bows to the waist, are done in church during petitions (ektenias), after each individual petition. We bow to the waist at the Small Entrance during the Liturgy and during Vespers, and each time the Gospel, an icon or the cross is brought out of the altar. We should perform a small bow in response to our being censed, and in response to the priest’s blessing. As the priest makes the sign of the cross with his hand or with the censer, we should bow toward him without making the sign of the cross. Those who are seated should stand up during censing and during each the priestly blessing. Please note that as the priest proceeds around the perimeter of the sanctuary, censing icons and the faithful, it is not proper to turn and follow him, with one’s back to the altar. Instead simply bow as he approaches and remain facing the altar as he passes by you.

We make prostrations when venerating the cross, an icon, the Gospel, or holy relics. The following order is observed: make two small prostrations, kiss the holy object, and then make an additional small prostration. At the great entrance during the Liturgy we stand with bowed heads, for the great entrance symbolizes the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem in anticipation of His passion. It is an important part of the Liturgy. We also stand with heads bowed during the reading of the Holy Gospel.

Sign of the Cross
Such a posture helps us concentrate, and helps us avoid looking about during such an important part of the service. We bow our heads each time the priest says “Bow your heads (or ‘let us bow our heads’) unto the Lord,” for during these times the priest reads a prayer on behalf of all. We should make the sign of the cross with all due care and attention. It is better not to make the sign of the cross at all than to make it carelessly.

Our prayer in church is communal prayer, in which both clergy and laity participate. All of us, the clergy and the laity, comprise the visible, earthly Church. In the church building, we see before us icons of those who are invisibly present: the Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and the earth, along with those others whom the Church has glorified. And the Head of the Church, our High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, himself sits on the throne in the altar, in the form of His Body and Blood.