Many years ago I remember attending a Liturgy at a parish church and noticing a young man standing in the front of the temple, making profound bows, together with frequent, almost exaggerated signs of the cross. My first thought was that he must be a newly baptized Orthodox Christian. After embracing Orthodoxy, many people fall into the trap of exaggerated piety, having first becoming attracted to the externals of the faith. Coming out of religious traditions that have little in the way of externals, is it any wonder some among us would gravitate towards such outward piety?
Some converts become experts in canon law and liturgical rubrics, and number themselves among the super correct. Archbishop Averky of Jordanville (of blessed memory) said of converts, “they are like envelopes and have a tendency to come unglued.” None of this is meant to diminish the importance of external piety, nor making the cross properly. Liturgical correctness has its place, and we should always avoid sloppiness in the way we make the sign of the cross. Nor is it necessary to stand in the back of the temple during services. What is important is that we be careful that our piety is not meant to be seen by others.
I once knew a monk who always stood in the back of his monastery’s catholicon, avoiding any public display whatsoever. He told me the temptation to be seen as a pious and holy monk was too strong, so he made a decision to give others no opportunity to witness him in worship.
It should not be construed that I am suggesting everyone stand in the back of the church, less everyone be doing battle for those few spots on a crowded Sunday morning. What I am suggesting is that we remember that we are there for worship. If you become aware that your motives for standing in front of others during worship is an occasion for pride, by all means move to the back. It is the Lord Who should see us, and for Whom our pious external acts of worship should give honor. Externals are meant to be an aid to worship, bringing our bodies into conformity with the heart. For this to happen, we must guard the heart, making sure the externals are not temptations for pride.
The way to make sure our piety takes us deeply into true worship is to express these external acts of worship in the privacy of our homes. Orthodox worship, expressed by standing before our icons, making the sign of the cross with care, and doing prostrations in the privacy of the home, instruct the heart in true worship. If we’ve established a true relationship with the Lord in our home, that which is expressed in the temple, publicly, will be authentic.