The Postures of Orthodox Christian Prayer

By Fr. Harry Linsinbigler

A few decades back I remember running into an article that basically said that sitting and kneeling, even though done in many Orthodox Churches, weren’t really “Orthodox” postures of prayer.  Maybe the claim was true and we were doing it all wrong for years. As it turns out we were, but not as the article claimed.  I must admit, that I was curious why some places were so insistent on standing during a kathisma/sidalon (this literally means “sitting”), or why we stood rather than knelt while the Presanctified Gifts were brought forth in the penitential midweek of Great Lent, or why on the day of Resurrection people still knelt despite the canons against kneeling on Sundays.

It is true that standing empowers prayer.  However, as the Kollyvades Fathers point out, so do other postures–depending on the prayer.

The Kollyvades movement was a movement of Orthodox spiritual fathers, including St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, St. Paisij Velichovsky, St. Makarios of Corinth, among others, who sought to restore authentic Orthodox praxis that had fallen by the wayside. Some of the more well known matters include frequent communion and the proper placement of memorial services in the week and in the liturgical cycle of the day.  One of the lesser well-known matters of great concern to the Kollyvades was posture and movement in Orthodox prayer.  St. Nikodemos particularly wanted genuflection to come back into common practice in his day during the midweek services.

The following list of the postures of Orthodox prayer is gathered from the Canonical collections, the Typika, the Philokalia (the compiling of the Spiritual Fathers of the Church from St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain & St. Paisij Velichovsky), and ancient, middle, and modern euchologia. Sts. Nikodemos and Paisij both lamented the fact that several of the authentic and meaningful postures of prayer had been lost in practice during the time following the 16th century, and encouraged a return to the full Orthodox practice.

Here is a list of the postures of Orthodox prayer:

A. The Standing Postures:

1. STANDING ARIGHT (ORTHOI)—standing at attention, standing erect with head raised facing forward). There is generally a liturgical announcement to “stand aright” at certain high liturgical moments such as the reading of the Gospel, the Anaphora, and the litany/prayer of Thanksgiving after Communion.

2. STANDING WITH HEAD BOWED—Standing erect except for the head which is bowed at the neck. It is the posture that the people and priest take when the liturgical instruction is given “let us bow our heads to the Lord,” but is appropriate at others times as well. It is important to note that the bowing of heads (from the neck) is not the same as bowing from the waste (see below at “waist bow”). The two are related, however, in that the head-bow position is the only “prostration” (posture where face is bowed down toward the ground) that is allowed, for example, on Pascha where not even a waist bow is to be made.  While a bow at the head is done in a standing position, a bow at the waist is done as a moving posture, as is the great bow (see below under moving postures and reverences).

3. STANDING WITH ARMS EXTENDED (MYSTIKOS/ORANS)—Orans is standing erect with arms raised with hands facing outward. We see this most often from a celebrant priest at certain liturgical moments (but not the other priests that are serving). This is the posture the Priest takes when saying the first part of certain prayers, and some of the Anaphora prayers. It is pertinent to note that this posture is only made toward the east or toward the Gifts (which from the point of view of the celebrant is toward the east in any case), etc.   There is also a “palms up” version of the lifting of hands that is practices by clergy and laity alike. We see it mentioned at the Psalms at Vespers: “Let my prayer arise in Your sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” In some traditions, clergy and laity do “palms up” during the Lord’s prayer.

B. The Sitting Postures

4. SESSIONAL PRAYER Kathisma/Sidalon Sitting. “Kathismata” are sessional prayers whether said or hymned. We recall the words of Christ in John 6.10: “Have the people sit down”. In addition to standing, sitting is a posture of the resurrection, as our Lord says, “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with Me on My throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3.21). While standing in prayer represents that the Lord is our Strength, sitting in prayer demonstrates that the Lord is also our Rest.  The Typikon on several occasions indicates times when “the brethren are seated.”  In olden times, there were seats around the outside of the church, toward the back, and in the gallery, and the rest sat on the floor on carpets. Now many temples have seating so that people do not need to sit on the floor.

5. HESYCHIA—known for a time by its opponents as “naval gazing”, this form of prayer posture is not found in the liturgical setting, but is used by ascetics in the practice of hesychastic prayer (prayer of silence).

C. The Kneeling Postures:
The following are the “stationary” kneeling postures. Motionary kneeling postures are mentioned below. The following postures are not to be used from Saturday evening through Sunday evening according to the canons. The Kollyvades Saints lamented that many of these fell out of Orthodox practice and encouraged their re-introduction into Orthodox life:

6. STANDING ON BENDED KNEE—erect kneeling, one is kneeling but otherwise erect in posture with head up (also known as “standing on bended knee”). We see this posture, for example on the eve of Holy Friday at Matins with the 12 Gospel readings.

7. GENUFLECTION–to kneel with head bowed. This we see on Vespers for Holy Spirit Monday if served at its appropriate hour (i.e. Kneeling Vespers on the evening of Pentecost Sunday), but not if served earlier after Liturgy. Specifically, it is, as the first kneeling prayer says, “offering supplication by inclining the neck on bended knee”. St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain tells that genuflection is an Orthodox practice that had already fallen into disuse in his day (except for kneeling prayers of Pentecost) but needed to be revived, as it is appropriate for weekdays and even Saturdays. Since it is a posture of repentance, those who were excluded from communion in the early Church were called “kneelers,” since Communicants did not kneel on Sundays and kneeling on Sundays indicated precisely that you were excluded from Communion under penance. Some might object “but the kneeling prayers of Pentecost are on Sunday.” The answer to this is that, no, they are not. They fall after the Prokeimenon at Vespers, which indicates it is liturgically Holy Spirit Monday at this point. Despite our modern conveniences, the proper time of this service is Sunday evening, after the day has passed (even though today it is moved earlier due to people not coming later).

8. PROSTRATION This form of prayer posture is found both in and outside of Liturgical contexts. There are two forms of prostration. One is kneeling with one’s head to the ground, while the other is laying flat on the floor with one’s head to the ground.

D. Prayer in Motion

9. PROCESSION This is a standard Liturgical prayer movement in Orthodoxy that symbolizes our walk with God together as His Body. As such, it represents theosis (walking with God, walking in Christ, walking by the Holy Spirit), and participation in the divine dispensation, but has the practical aspect of moving from one place to another with prayer. A simple definition is moving about in an orderly fashion during prayer (usually prayer in song, i.e., singing or chanting hymns)

10. WAIST BOW (poiasnyi poklon—”small bow”—standing metania) aka a “little fall” or a “belt-bow”. Here we make the sign of the cross and sweep hand to the ground or toward the ground, or in modern Mediterranean practice, to sweep hand to the ground then make sign of cross), and then come back up immediately to a normal standing position. This is traditionally defined as an acceptable poklon for Sundays, except during Bright Week, when no deep bows whatsoever are called for. When we sing “come let us worship and bow (fall) down before Christ” on Sunday, it is the little bow (“little fall”) that is called for.

11. GROUND BOW (zemnoy poklon or great metania), aka “kneeling prostration” (from a standing position make sign of cross and go down to knees, bow head to the ground, and then immediately get back up to standing position), and then to raise up immediately. This is appropriate at certain times during the midweek, with increased amounts on Wednesdays & Fridays, and throughout the midweek of the weeks of Great Lent. The second chapter of the Typikon (Ustav) expressly forbids this on Sundays, where it states “Do not make prostrations to the ground, but bows at the waist, until the hand touches the ground. For on Sundays, and feasts of the Lord, and during the entire Fifty Days [between Pascha and Pentecost], the knee is not bent” (Typikon chapter 2). In our day, dispensation is often given on this point for various reasons.