Ginny, a colleague of mine, invited me to read the posts related to Pussy Riot and contribute to the discussion from my perspective as a non-Russian, ROCOR priest’s wife. I’ve learned a lot from what I’ve read, and do not in any way consider myself an expert on Russia or on Orthodoxy (after 15 years, I’m still working at praying with my heart and mind at the same time), but thought I might be able to provide some useful clarification and/or complication to the ongoing discussion.
RE: the position of the young women during their protest, and whether or not this constitutes “prayer.”
There’s been quite a bit posted about this already; the women are standing immediately in front of the royal gates of the central iconostasis of the church—a place generally reserved for clergy. Lay people only approach this part of the church when they are about to receive communion or be ordained, married, or buried. Thus, their very location in the church is provocative. Adding to this is the fact that they are facing the “wrong” direction (their making prostrations facing the people rather than the altar has been called “idolatry” by some.) Lay people (all of the time) and clergy (the majority of the time) face East—looking at the iconostasis which separates the “high place” (where the altar—which typically contains relics of saints—and the reserved sacrament are located). Even when the Epistle is being read, the reader faces East—away from the people. The exceptions to this are the reading of the Gospel by the priest (or deacon) which is done facing the people, and the dismissal blessings given by the priest. (Obviously, the priest also faces the people when communing them.) Thus, by their very position and the direction they were facing, these women violated the use of that space in significant ways. If they were not intending to “offend” Orthodox Christians, they chose an odd way to show it.
Audible, public prayer in an Orthodox service is formal and “set.” After all, the liturgy most often used is St. John Chrysostom’s—from the 4th century. This is not to say that there is no place for extemporaneous prayer in church—but private prayers are inaudible—prayed silently. Worship is communal work; it is not about expressing oneself. Whether or not one wants to consider the actual text of the song a prayer, within the context of an Orthodox church—whether or not a formal service was being offered at that time—it would be asking a great deal to expect an Orthodox Christian to consider their action a prayer.
RE: Orthodox prayers for political leaders
I am neither qualified nor desirous of judging the appropriateness of Patriarch Kirill’s relationship with Putin. I do think that when a church appears to publicly endorse a political regime, it risks becoming a legitimate site of political protest (and I wouldn’t have had a problem if PR had protested in front of the cathedral rather than in front of the iconostas). The only point I’d like to clarify here is that prayer for a political leader does not equal endorsement of his or her policies. It is standard in the litanies of Orthodox services to pray for both the leaders and military of the country to which the church belongs. This (I think) is more rightly understood as a prayer requesting God to act as He will regarding the political and military regimes of a country—or that they act in a way which God CAN bless—rather than a prayer demanding some kind of divine stamp of approval.
Without entering the debate about the degree to which Russia is an Orthodox nation, I should simply like to remind readers that hundreds of thousands of clergy and monastics, and tens of millions of Orthodox Christians were killed in Russia in the 20th century, including one elderly woman who was shot after having been seen crossing herself as a funeral procession went by. Given this fact and its relative historical nearness, God only knows what kind of trauma was experienced by those Orthodox Christians who were present when PR stormed into their place of worship. Their freedom to worship in peace was violated. (I wonder whether those who champion PR’s “rights” to protest Putin’s policies in this context would also champion the Wellsboro Baptists “rights” to protest American policies at veteran’s funerals.)
RE: ROC & ROCOR
Finally, as the wife of an unpaid priest of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, I would entreat readers not to confuse ROCOR with the Russian Orthodox Church. Communion has been restored between ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate, but their material circumstances are vastly different. You are unlikely to find any ROCOR bishops wearing expensive gold watches, and the vast majority of Russian Orthodox Churches in America are ROCOR. And since most ROCOR clergy are unpaid, and so must support themselves with secular jobs in addition to fulfilling their duties as priests, please do not be too surprised if they simply haven’t had the time to follow coverage of the PR controversy or participate in the conversation about it.