In issue no. 6 of The Russian Pastor,
an article by Archpriest Boris Kizenko, "Do not associate yourself with this
age," was printed. There he touched upon the question of whether or not priests
should wear their cassocks or riasa. I would like to share a few thoughts on this matter.
Very often in the sphere of Church laws and traditions we, for one reason or another,
allow ourselves to compromise these laws. In our society today, the reasons and
circumstances for such compromises can seem very justifiable. However, the danger lies in
the fact that any compromise can become habitual, and the compromised behavior then
becomes the norm, giving rise to further compromises and a general degradation of
standards. Fr. Boris very aptly describes this progression in his article. At a time when
we are perhaps at risk of completely losing the ideal in the realm of priestly attire, it
is fitting to review the Church rules and directives concerning the attire of a priest, as
well as look at some examples from contemporary life which shed light on this question.
1) The 27th Canon of the 6th Ecumenical Council states: "None who is counted
with the clergy should dress inappropriately, when in the city, nor when travelling. Each
should use the attire which was appointed for clergy members. If someone breaks this rule,
may he be deprived of serving for one week."
Here everything is clear. If you do not wish to wear a priest's clothing, do not dare
to stand before the altar of God.
2) The great interpreter of Church Canons, Balsamon, in his interpretation of the 14th
canon of the 7th Ecumenical Council, which speaks of the ordination of readers, notes: "He
who has put on black attire with the purpose of entering the clergy, cannot remove it, for
he has stated his intent of serving God and therefore cannot break his promise to God and
ridicule this holy image, as other ridiculers do."
If constant wearing of "black attire" is expected of the first rank of the
priesthood, the reader, then all the more does it refer to those who are fully in the rank
of the priesthood.
3) In the questioning period of the candidate before the ordination, the candidate to
the priesthood, in the presence of his spiritual father makes the following promise: "I
promise to wear the clothing appropriate to my priestly rank, not to cut my hair nor my
beard... for through such unseemly behavior I risk belittling my rank and tempting
believers" (Promise #5).
It is important to note here that, in confirmation of his promise the candidate kisses
the Gospel and the Cross and signs his name.
4) The 16th rule for the priests of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad says: "A
priest, who is fully supported by his parish, and is given the opportunity not to work at
a secular job, should have the appearance of an Orthodox priest, that is, should have long
hair, a beard, a riasa, wear a cross of a proper style, and not one he has thought of
himself and in his external appearance fully exemplify a true pastor."
We must remember that if the Church canons and laws were not important, the Church
would not have written them.
Physician heal thyself. I must admit, that I am a young priest, and at times find it
very difficult to follow the above rules. There are times when one's nerves are raw, and I
want to go somewhere with my Matushka and children and not stand out, i.e., be "one
of the crowd." I am overweight, and in the summer it is hard to bear the heat in my
cassock. Yet all this merely exposes my weakness, my lack of desire to constantly be a
confessor of my faith; my lack of desire to suffer for Christ even to the most microscopic
degree. In my battle with this weakness, I have found inspiration in a few true life
accounts, which I would like to share.
The Matushka of one priest, who serves in one large American city, where pagan and
Satanic cults are rampant, told me of this incident:
Batiushka always wore either his cassock or riasa with his cross. After his arrival in
the city, he grew accustomed to the fact that, when walking along a street, or in stores,
some people reacted to him with hatred. Some even hissed at him openly as they walked by,
others would actually spit at him. All this Batiushka interpreted as attacks of servants
of Satan, upon a priest of Christ. Once it happened that he and Matushka were walking
along the sidewalk in the main business district of the city. Suddenly, a woman who looked
like a witch jumped out in front of him. She started to scream at him with a frightening
voice of a sickly cat, and gestured threateningly with her arms, as if she wanted to
scratch out his eyes. Then she immediately disappeared into the crowd. The priest and his
wife made the sign of the cross and continued on their way, having grown accustomed to
such occurrences. But then Matushka realized something. This time, for some reason,
Batiushka was in secular attire. Nothing in his external appearance showed that he was an
Orthodox priest. Even his long hair and beard were nothing exceptional in contemporary
It is clear that a priest in a spiritual plane is always a priest, even when he is not
dressed properly. The evil powers feel this and most probably are pleased with our
A certain priest decided to have a photograph of himself made. He put on his coat and
hat. For some reason he was embarrassed to be photographed with a cross on. He took the
cross off and put it into his left coat pocket. The photograph was taken, developed and
printed. To the amazement of both the photographer and the priest, on the photograph there
was a huge ray (by shadows one can see that this ray is not from the sun), which pointed
to the pocket, where the hidden cross lay. Batiushka asked to have this published after
In a small parish of the Russian Church Abroad, because of the size of the
congregation, the rector holds a secular job. He works as a nurse in a local hospital. I
was certain that he removes his cassock when he goes to work. However to my surprise, I
discovered that this Batiushka works in his cassock, putting a lab coat on top of it. This
is regarded with respect by both medical personnel and the patients. Often many patients
even request that the "priest-nurse" take care of them.
Concerned about the question, "should and can a priest possible always wear a
cassock?", I began asking the grown children of elderly or deceased pastors, whether
or not their fathers always wore a cassock. Almost everyone has answered in the
affirmative, recalling that they rarely saw their father-priest without a cassock. There
are even cases where the children said that they never saw their father without a cassock.
This means that the requirement of the Church is possible to fulfill with God's help. One
only needs to try.
A priest of a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.
From Orthodox Life, Vol. 41, No. 1, (Jan-Feb 1991), pp. 26-29.
Translated by Matushka Maria Naumenko from Russkiy Pastyr (The Russian Pastor) #7.
+ + +
Proper Clerical Dress
You make a religion of robes, beards, and long hair. I know that the church canons say
that we should have beards and I know your arguments about long hair. I am unimpressed. I
am a follower of Christ, not man-written and man-enforced rules....Robes look weird and
cause people to laugh on [sic] us. They do not win over people to Orthodoxy....I dress
like a Roman Catholic and you dress like Mohammedan Turks. Who is more in the [sic]
tradition? Did you ever hear of anyone being defrocked for what he wears? No. For serving
like a lot of you Old Calendarists after he was kicked out? You bet. Case closed....Keep
sending your journal, since I find certain useful purposes for the paper. (Fr. [initials
Your question, which we received
several years ago, despite its somewhat saucy tone, provides us with an opportunity to
clear up certain misunderstandings about a subject of spiritual importance to contemporary
Orthodox Christians. As you point out, the traditional appearance of an Orthodox
Priestthe attire and grooming which he should maintain at all times, both in public
and privateis a matter of canonical regulation. The Sacred Canons of the Church
reflect the proper functioning and life of the Body of Christ; they are not simply laws
and rules, but guides to the life in Christ and patterns by which to accommodate the
action of the Holy Spirit to our daily activities. They are inspired and binding on all
who live in spiritual sobriety and uprightness. And though they are enforced by
menone of the clear duties of the clergy, and especially the Bishops, is, in fact,
to uphold canonical order, they are nonetheless Divinely inspired. The Sacred Canons
are also an integral part of Holy Tradition, which, together with Scripture, forms the
ground of administrative authority on which our Faith is built.
The inner and outer cassocks traditionally worn by
Orthodox clergy are, to the pious, objects of tremendous respect and veneration. Anyone
who considers them "weird" is unenlightened. Nor does anything appointed by the
Church, enveloped as it is in Grace, impede our witness as Orthodox Christians. Ignorance
or simple bigotry account for instances in which clergymen are ridiculed for dressing in a
traditional manner, and the treatment for ignorance and bigotry is not the abandonment of
our customs, but, once again, the enlightenment of those who ridicule us. Moreover, our
traditional Orthodox clerical dress witnesses openly to the Grace of the Priesthood. Many
times our own clergy, who maintain such dress, encounter young children who, yet untainted
by the vanity of the world, will turn to their parents and remark, "Look, its
Jesus." Such incidents speak for themselves and attest to the importance and nature
of Orthodox Priestly attire. The idea that the traditional dress of an Orthodox Priest has
it roots in Turkish vesturewhether secular or religiousis a contrived piece of
historical fantasy that has often been used to justify contemporary innovations in
clerical garb. Under the Turkish yoke, certain changes in cut and style can be observed in
monastic and Priestly dress, but these are insignificant. Our clerical styles predate the
Moslem yoke, and indeed it was from the Desert Fathers, who inhabited many of the areas
where Islam first flourished, that the Islamic clergy took many of their customsfrom
the robes that they wear to the minarets (which are modeled on the structures in which the
ancient Stylites lived and prayed, that is, "pillars" with a small cubicle on
The round white collar, bib, and business suit which you
call "Roman Catholic" clerical dress is neither Roman Catholic in origin nor
much more than normal street garb with a special collar. Papist priests, like Orthodox
clergy, dressed in cassocks and special headgear well into this century. Only in the last
few decades have they adopted what is actually Protestant clerical clothing or simply
street clothes. As for the issue of deposition, let us note, first, that Orthodox clergy
have, indeed, been suspended and even deposed for abandoning traditional clerical dress.
St. Evalalios, a predecessor of St. Basil the Great in the See of Cappadocia, deposed his
own son for abandoning traditional Priestly garments for "unsuitable" attire.
Second, while clergy in Greece, at least, have been routinely deposed by the New Calendar
State Church for returning to the Patristic (or Old) Calendar, deposition for "Old
Calendarism," were it validas the Blessed Elder Philotheos (Zervakos) once
commented, would logically force the State Church of Greece to depose many of the
Fathers of the Church, including those who specifically condemned the calendar innovation,
in the sixteenth century, in three separate Church Councils.
We would also remind you that St. John Chrysostomos,
deposed falsely and for what was his actual fidelity to the Faith, not only refused
to recognize his illicit deposition, but continued to serve, in defiance of what was
manifestly a spiritually wrong and invalid pronouncement. As such, he set a standard which
many Old Calendarists today, falsely maligned and punished for acting in good conscience
out of reverence for Holy Tradition, have rightly taken as their own. Like him, we trust
that many of these mistreated traditionalist champions for Orthodoxy will win a Heavenly
Crown for their courage. At the same time, we pray that those who have wronged them and
divided the Church by innovation will escape that fearful "reward" which St.
John Chrysostomos himself assigns to ecclesiastical politicians and false shepherds
who misuse the Churchs powers; that is, Hell.
From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIV, No. 2&3, pp. 16-18.