On Sitting and Orthodox Services

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev

Some people think that a characteristic difference between Orthodox churches and their Catholic and Protestant counterparts is the absence of seats. Actually, all ancient directives for serving in the church presupposed that seats were to be present in church because it is in fact proper to sit during certain parts of the services. In particular, the psalms and also the readings of the Old Testament and Epistle were heard while sitting. So were readings from the writings of the Church Fathers and also certain Christian hymns, such as kathisma hymns, whose name itself indicates that they were listened to while sitting. Standing was considered necessary only at the most important moments of the divine service, such as during the reading of the Gospel and during the eucharistic canon. Certain liturgical exclamations passed down to the present day, such as “Wisdom, aright!” [1] and “Let us stand aright, let us stand with fear!” were originally the deacon’s call to the faithful, inviting them to stand up for certain prayers, as they were sitting during the previous prayers.

The absence of seats in the church is a custom of the Russian Church but by no means is characteristic of Greek churches, where, as a rule, benches are provided for all who participate in the divine services. The absence of seats in the Russian churches surprised Greeks who visited Russia even in the seventeenth century. Paul of Aleppo was a deacon and one of the pilgrims who accompanied the Antiochian Patriarch Macarius in his travels in Russia. After attending a very long Russian service, he shared his impressions:

“On Saturday we listened to their liturgy, from which we departed no sooner than our legs were useless from standing so long, since in the churches there are no seats… You could imagine then, reader, standing in church without moving, like stones. We suffered much from tiredness, as the soul was torn apart by exhaustion and longing… Being among them, we were in amazement. We left the church, hardly feeling our legs from tiredness and ceaseless standing… Knowledgeable people told us that if someone wishes to shorten his life by fifteen years, let him go to the land of the Muscovites and live among them as an ascetic.” [2]

The author’s feelings are likewise familiar to people today who often complain about the absence of benches. But some Russian Orthodox churches have places around the periphery of the church designated for sitting. These places are intended for elderly and infirm parishioners. The custom of sitting during readings and standing only for the most important moments of the service, however, is not characteristic of most Russian Orthodox churches. It is preserved only in the monasteries where stasidi — high wooden chairs with collapsable seats and high elbow-rests and having one’s back lean against the wall. There would be nothing dishonorable if stasidi or another type of chair were to be installed in parish churches. It would make Orthodox services not only more “humane” in relation to the faithful, but it would also give rebirth to one of the elements of ancient ceremony. (Orthodox Christianity Vol. III The Architecture, Icons, and Music of the Orthodox Church, pp. 77-79)

[1] “Wisdom, aright!” is a most ancient liturgical exclamation meaning, “Wisdom, stand aright!” (that is, stand upright, for that which will be read is wisdom).

[2] Paul of Aleppo, Travels of Patriarch Macarius to Moscow in the Middle of the 17th Century (St. Petersburg, 1898, 13-14, 57-58.

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