The following conversations have all taken place in recent times with various newcomers or ‘converts’ to the Church, of several nationalities. (Let us not forget that most Russians are also converts and indeed, in another sense, we are all converts, as on a daily basis we are reconverted, that is, we turn again to Christ every day). We have concentrated these conversations into one conversation with a couple, whom we shall call Ian and Kay for the sake of anonymity.
Q: The first question we have is about our names, we are Ian and Kay. Why were we given the names John and Katherine?
A: We are formal in church and bear the names of saints, which we use in full whenever we receive the sacraments. Therefore, Alyosha is Aleksiy, Sergei is Sergiy, Natasha is Natalia, Sonia is Sophia. Similarly Pete is Peter, Mike is Michael. Therefore, Kay, short for Katherine, is Katherine. As for yourself, I fail to see why the priest changed your name to Ian. Was he an English nationalist?! Ian is the Scottish form of Ioann and is therefore closer to the original than John. I shall use the form Ian, whenever you receive the sacraments.
In general in Church we use formal language: Church Slavonic, not Russian; the language of Shakespeare, not street English. Church is a school, it is where we all learn, for example, children learn discipline.
Q: How should we dress in church?
A: In English we have the precise understanding of how we should dress, in the phrase ‘Sunday best’. Everything in Church is different, special, best. Therefore, ladies should not dress in jeans and trousers or, for that matter, long drab skirts. They are not nuns. They should wear something modest, skirt or dress, but something happy and maybe, if they have it, dress in something of the colour of the feast, showing that they are taking part in it, for example, wear blue for feasts of the Mother of God.
Men should not wear T-shirts, jeans, shorts and trainers. We are not at the beach. They should make an effort to dress for Church. We want to look nice when we stand in front of Christ. And we do not have to spend much to buy something nice; there are always charity shops. What you wear outside the Church is of course your business, but I would like to think that Church would influence your choices at home and in the street too.
Why do some convert men dress in black and grow long hair and a beard? They are not monks. Married priests usually do not have long hair and beards, especially if they have to have a secular job too. And they wear cassocks of all colours. Black is a monastic colour. If you want to be a monk or a nun, live under obedience. Without obedience, this is all just playing. Marriage is obedience and if you cannot take the obedience of marriage, you certainly cannot take the obedience of monastic life.
Then there is this strange habit among a few (thankfully, only a few) of wearing prayer-knots or beads (not a prayer rope; prayer knots in no way resemble a rope) around the wrist. What is all this about? You are not monks or nuns. By all means, use prayer knots, but at home, in private. They are not for public prayer, but for the prayer of the heart (not ‘the Jesus prayer’, as Catholics call it) or for other prayers, ‘in your chamber’, as the Gospel says. There is a rhyming Russian saying about young men who wear prayer knots around their wrists: In their hand, prayer knots (chiotki), in their head, pretty girls (tiotki). It means that it is all for show, a pretence.
Q: We are told that Orthodoxy is not a set of ideas, but a way of life. But what is the Orthodox way of life?
A: First of all, Orthodoxy is simply Christianity, the Christian way of life. It is not something exotic or strange. It only seems exotic or strange if you have never been a real Christian, but a false Christian or semi-Christian, that is, if you have always lived outside the Church. Only Orthodoxy is normality. It is everything else that is abnormal, strange and exotic.
An Orthodox way of life means reading the morning and evening prayers. All Orthodox theology is in them. Read them carefully. It means reading the daily Gospel and Epistle, reading the Lives of the Saints of the day, living by the calendar, keeping the fasts and the feasts, and living near a church where the services and sacraments are accessible, and where you can help, cleaning, supporting, singing and serving. It is also important that you give alms, in whatever way you wish.
Q: I know this is not a new question, but what is the correct rhythm for confession and communion?
A: All depends on how often you take communion. Before the Russian Revolution when people took communion only once or twice a year – and so caused the Revolution – confession was obligatory and a prayer rule beforehand was instituted. So the two became linked. During the Soviet period when there were very few churches and priests and you may only have got to church a few times in a lifetime, a three-day fast was also instituted before communion and confession.
However, in the first millennium and again today we can see that many are taking communion normally, at least once a month and even once a week. This has followed the renewal of Church life with the influence of the Optina saints, St John of Kronstadt, the New Martyrs and Confessors and many others. Confession should be at least once every forty days if you are taking communion regularly and if you wish (but not necessarily, if you have the blessing of your confessor not to), every time before communion.
However, we should not fall into the opposite extreme, of obligatory communion for all and without confession. This is spiritual decadence. People fall into spiritual delusion very easily like this. I have seen so many do this and they have all lapsed sooner or later. This was because they began to think they were superior to those who took communion less often. Sheer pride, so that in the end they said: ‘We don’t need to take communion because we are already holy’. I have seen that time and time again. Regular communion is vital, yes, but so is proper preparation and regular confession (though the two sacraments need not be linked in time).
Communion always presupposes that you fast from midnight before communion, that you try and come for the Vigil service beforehand, that at the very least you read the prayers before communion beforehand, if not the full rule, keep the Wednesday and Friday and other four fasts, that you read your prayers, that you are, in other words, striving to live an Orthodox life, as described above.
The whole point of a prayer rule before communion is to inspire prayerfulness. What state should we be in when we come to communion? The words of the liturgy say it all: ‘With fear of God and faith, draw near’. If we do not have the fear of God and faith, we should not draw near. Some say, ‘I cannot take communion because I am unworthy’. Of course we are unworthy – we are all always unworthy. He who takes communion (if there is such a person) with the feeling that he is worthy, is in a disastrous state of pride and spiritual delusion.
You will find that there are periods in your life when you need regular communion, two or three or even more times a month, at other times less often. (Women should not take communion during their monthly period, which is a result of the Fall. Men may also be handicapped by their sexual problems).
Q: Should we do what cradle Orthodox tell us to do?
A: This is theological nonsense. There is no such thing as a ‘cradle Orthodox’. Stalin was a ‘cradle Orthodox’. (As Napoleon and Hitler were ‘cradle Catholics’). Everything depends on whether you were brought up in the Church or not. I have known thousands of ‘cradle Orthodox’ who scarcely know how to make the sign of the cross. Listen to those who were brought up in the Church by pious parents and live by the Tradition. They are Orthodox. It does not matter when you were baptised, it is your long term way of life that matters.
Q: We are both ex-Anglicans. We have thought about writing something against Anglicanism. What do you think?
A: Why? Why be so negative? Are you living in the past? We must live for the present and the future. Only 1% of the UK population is practising Anglican, the same percentage as the number of nominal Orthodox in this country. If you want to talk to others about the Faith, talk to the 95% who have no effective or affective affiliation. And talk positively. But what is the point of talking to anyone and trying to convert them (including nominal Orthodox), if they have no church to attend? The most important thing is to have local living parishes that people can go to before you start trying to convert others.
Q: We both venerate Charles I as a martyr. But can we do that in the Orthodox Church??
A: The Orthodox Church venerates only Orthodox. Did Charles I die for the Orthodox Church? No, he did not. Like Louis XVI, he was basically a Catholic. On the other hand, there is no reason why, as Orthodox, you cannot have his portrait in your house, cannot read about him, invite friends to dinner on his anniversaries, or be members of the Stuart Society – several Orthodox have long been members of it. You may have a personal opinion that he was a martyr. That is fine. But do not make him into something that he was not – an Orthodox saint.
Q: What can you say about sexual relations for married couples? Catholics and Protestants used to recommend ‘the missionary position’. Is that Orthodox practice too?
A: This is your intimate life and therefore by definition, this is none of the priest’s business. What goes on behind the bedroom door of a married couple concerns only the couple. We do not meddle like Catholics or old-fashioned Calvinist Protestants in this matter. All I can say is a few general things. Above all, love each other – all that you do must be by mutual loving consent. This means no perversions or violence, no humiliation of either member in the couple. That is all on this.