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(April 2006)

“Let Us Stand Aright, Let Us Stand With Fear!”

L a i t y   w i t h i n   t h e   H o l y   A l t a r?

From the Holy Mountain publication “«Σελίδες Ἐρήμου» (Pages from the Wilderness)”, October 2004, translated from the Greek by the staff of the Greek Orthodox Brotherhood of St. Poimen


The sight is indeed awesome! If it is a fearful thing to be within the confines of an Orthodox Church, the space occupied by the Sanctuary of our faith—the location wherein His Body and Blood prevail, the so-called Holy Altar—ought to invoke an even greater awe and fear. The priest who serves literally trembles in fear, for he has been deemed worthy by God “to enter within the veil into the Holy of Holies where angels desire to stoop; to hear the voice of the Lord God’s glad tidings; to see with his own eyes the presence of the holy Oblation; and to delight in the divine and sacred Liturgy” (from the services of Holy Unction).

Attention, prayer, awe, contrition, fear, compunction, sanctity, and an overly attentive and respectful behavior: these are all elements recommended for the posture and attitude of all clergy within the Holy Altar. Unfortunately, this environment worthy of the Divine Presence is altered through the presence of other persons within this sacred location.

We could easily maintain that the presence of a specific individual to serve the liturgical needs of the priest would not necessarily compromise or be at odds with the location’s holiness. However, there is such an abuse in the presence of laity that it provokes impiety and completely disrupts the serving clergy’s prayers and attentiveness to the ongoing divine services. Thus, one ends up wishing for the complete absence of all laity from within the Holy Altar.

Let us review all those who enter the Holy Altar of various Orthodox Churches:

(1) Young children, the so-called “Altar boys.” These are pure and innocent—for the most part, children. However, these children either become overly familiar with the ongoing divine events; or become scandalized by the inattentive behavior of men; or reconcile their presence only through their “Altar-wear” uniforms; or, even worse, cause disruptions through their noisy presence. They thus become accustomed to disrespectful behavior and an overall impious posture. It is quite noticeable that Altar boys rarely stay within the area wherein the church-going laity is present. With a few quick leaps, they “fly” through the main section of the church and then through the Holy Altar back door, they eventually find their way into the streets. The Church often loses these children forever. It is essential and necessary that these children receive some very specific instructions and training. They must understand that their sole purpose is to assist in the divine services. During the Liturgy, let all these children stand attentively at the solea. Their presence within the Holy Altar is not necessary.

(2) Men of varying ages. Young men who used to dress like “Altar boys” now rush into the Holy Altar. They claim and behave as if they take responsibility for the younger children. They are often seen talking among themselves or even laughing. The serving priest appears to be completely unable to ask them to permanently leave the Holy Altar. He instead tolerates these “used to be Altar boys,” who nowadays enter God’s Church and His Altar with all kinds of different looks and clothing (long hair, blue jeans, earrings, etc.). The presence of these young men with the peculiar looks in the Altar becomes the topic of conversation and source of scandal for many churchgoers.

We also observe a few older men, of varying ages, who insist upon being within the Holy Altar because they are the priest’s friends, or because they have a relative who is a priest, or because they “need to be” there, or because… Usually, all of these men have the exclusivist or pharisaic attitude that they are better than all other adult churchgoers on the outside and thus demand special treatment, a better piece of holy bread, etc. All these men must exit the Holy Altar. The argument that “if we ask them to leave the Holy Altar they will never step foot inside this Church” simply does not hold and is completely incorrect. Furthermore, the serving priest becomes morally implicit in this exemplification and public display of pride, lack of discernment, and complete disrespect during the Liturgy.

(3) Women who assist in maintaining the propriety of the Church enter the Holy Altar as well. They even utilize the excuse that somebody has read a prayer over them. However, even within women’s monasteries whereby the presence of a nun within the Altar is necessary, such presence takes place with the greatest of discernment. The presence of women in the Holy Altar is prohibited and permitted in few and extremely rare occasions. The demand for attendants within the Holy Altar is minimal and even when deemed appropriate, it is preferred that the serving priest address completion of the related tasks on his own instead of being distracted by the presence of laity. It is not difficult to prepare the censor or the boiling water for Holy Communion.

Even when circumstances warrant this, let the priest select an older, serious man of impeccable character to assist him with piety and devotion. The holy bread can be cut into pieces at a different location in the Church and brought into the Holy Altar by this person. The candles may also be lit by the same person and passed to the children who will be in the solea. The loaves of holy bread, along with the names to be commemorated, should also be passed onto the same person.

There is an easy solution for all of the associated needs. Let us only make the firm commitment that our Holy Altar will remain impassible; that it will be impassible not only to laity, but also to the corresponding familiarity of “typical” worship, to mischief and disorder, to disrespect and impiety.

“L e t   u s   S t a n d   A r i g h t ,   l e t   u s  s t a n d   i n   F e a r!”

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Editor’s Note: Much of the disrespect observed by the Athonites can be applied to the very structure of our churches today. A visualization of their typical churches, so true to the ancient form, as compared with many of our modern structures, will elucidate the Athonites’ frustration. With a vain and convenient appeal to “ancient tradition,” modernist elements within worldwide Orthodoxy have sought to tear down the iconostasis or templon. If this is not possible, they want to at least minimize it by shortening its height or compromising its actual wall with see-through slots. Compare this to many of the Athonite churches, where the iconostasis is usually tall and opaque.

Rarely do we find a church with a typikario (bookroom) or proper vestry. Having these compartments that surround but do not include the altar-proper would provide a close and quiet place for attendants to complete their tasks as suggested by the article.

The general degradation—even blatant disregard—of the architectural tradition of the Church is also a visible demonstration of the pervasive lack of understanding of the theological symbolism contained in the actual church structure. While a separate article (or rather, book) could be dedicated to this subject, let us at least not fail to recognize that the erosion of our architectural tradition extends beyond the altar. Let the reader ask himself how many American Orthodox churches he has visited are either in the shape of a cross or in the basilica style. How many, instead, are haphazard, irregular, or even “New Age” in form? How many actually face east? How many are free from Protestant pews and organs? How many contain Roman Catholic kneeling benches? How many have for seating purposes the theologically significant stasithia, so traditional to Orthodoxy?

In addition to the recommendations in the above article, we would also like to add a few suggestions along the same lines:

(1) Rather than creating a stir with a loud heating device, the attendant may boil water ahead of time and store it in a good thermos until the appointed time.

(2) Altar boys should avoid wearing ties (they can get caught in or negligently brushed against holy things) or shoes that distract by clicking on hard floors. The latter applies to women as well.

(3) To avoid scandal and needless temptation, altar wine should be stored in a locked cabinet away from the access of children.