More to the Point: Should Nuns Light Their Icon Lamps?

So, should nuns light their icon lamps when the “way of women” is upon them (cf. Gen. 31:35; RSV here et passim)? The short answer, of course, would be to direct the nuns to seek guidance from their abbess. We hardly need involve ourselves in any matters within a particular convent. In general, however, there seem to be no rules whatsoever telling a nun how to behave herself in her own cell. To be sure, there is plenty of advice, both from saintly elders of old and neighbors in the next cell over. But all of it is just that—advice, and it is as varied as prayer rules or other customs.


As a continuation of the discussion started in my previous paper, “On ‘Ritual Impurity’: In Response to Sister Vassa (Larin), [1] I now would like to address some of the issues that have been raised in greater detail.  The problem that has been posed by Sister Vassa is as follows:

When I entered a convent of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in France, I was introduced to the restrictions imposed on a nun when she has her [monthly] period. Although she was allowed to go to church and pray, she was not to go to Communion; she could not kiss the icons or touch the Antidoron; she could not help bake prosphoras or handle them, nor could she help clean the church; she could not even light the lampada or iconlamp that hung before the icons in her own cell: this last rule was explained to me when I noticed an unlighted lampada in the icon-corner of another sister.[2]

The conclusion at which Sr. Vassa arrives after a study of early Church writings and contemporary opinions expressed by a handful of ecclesiastical bodies is that the rules surrounding “ritual impurity” are “a rather disconcerting, fundamentally non-Christian phenomenon in the guise of Orthodox piety.”  In my previous paper, I raised some very general concerns about Sr. Vassa’s methodology in addressing the issue of ritual impurity in the Orthodox Church.  In this paper, I wish to attempt to find some constructive ways forward.

Popular Piety

So, should nuns light their icon lamps when the “way of women” is upon them (cf. Gen. 31:35; RSV here et passim)?  The short answer, of course, would be to direct the nuns to seek guidance from their abbess.  We hardly need involve ourselves in any matters within a particular convent.  In general, however, there seem to be no rules whatsoever telling a nun how to behave herself in her own cell.  To be sure, there is plenty of advice, both from saintly elders of old and neighbors in the next cell over.  But all of it is just that—advice, and it is as varied as prayer rules or other customs.  There appears to be absolutely nothing either in Church canon law or in any official ecclesiastical decision that would prohibit a nun—in any condition and at any time in her life—from lighting an icon lamp in her cell or from venerating icons.  Anyone abstaining from these acts would be following rules of popular piety, rather than any official Church rules.  As such, popular piety is almost always outside of regulated Church disciplines, and can hardly be treated with the same theological and analytical tools as official rules and ecclesiastical directives.  In fact, one such instance of popular piety is described in Bulgakov’s Desk Reference[3]:

There are such people of little faith, who are scared to partake of Holy Communion because they cannot bare this Sacrament.  In their opinion, one who took Communion must live as a hermit for six weeks, avoid almost all relations with family, discontinue their usual occupations, etc. … Obviously, a priest must root out such views from among his flock, and instill in them a conviction that abstaining from partaking of the Mysteries of Christ is the most horrible calamity for a person.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria used to say: “Ones who abstain from the Church of God and the holy Mysteries of Christ are enemies of God and friends of demons.”

Thus, priests are tasked with “rooting out” at least some popular customs that stand between a Christian and the Body and Blood of Christ.  One thing that we were unable to find in the Desk Reference, is the prohibition for “menstruating women to come to church,” which according to Sister Vassa is somewhere on page 1144.  In fact, neither on that page nor on any other were we able to find any such prohibition.[4]  Perhaps, what points to is a passing reference to rules described in yet another source («Tserkovnye Vedomosti», 1892, 23) in the context of discussing when these rules must be broken.[5]  What we do find in Bulgakov is an exhortation to priests to instill in their female parishioners a realization of the “necessity to be extremely careful in the choice of time in which to partake [of the Holy Communion]…”[6]  Bulgakov references canon VII of Timotheus (Pope of Alexandria from 378-384), to which we shall return below, but is far less categorical in his tone.

The origins of such expressions of popular piety in Orthodoxy may be found in the Byzantine Orthodox worldview itself.  Unlike the Roman worldview which strives to discover the necessary minimum (the minimum elements of a sacrament, for example, or the restoration of justitia originalisi as the destiny of humankind), the Byzantine worldview strives for the possible maximum (the maximum that can be “stuffed” into a service, or nothing less than theosis or deification).  Coming from the Byzantine position, it is only natural to take matters to their extremes in a sort of zeal for God which is not enlightened (Rom. 10:2).  

Not all expressions of popular piety or, in the words of the Apostle, “unenlightened zeal,” are necessarily bad in and of themselves.  It would be just as fanatical to think that a menstruating nun who does not light her icon lamp on certain days is thus destined for perdition, as to assume that one who does is.  A very sober opinion indeed was voiced by Pope Saint Gregory I (540-604) as quoted by Sister Vassa in her paper:

A woman should not be forbidden to go to church. After all, she suffers this involuntarily. She cannot be blamed for that superfluous matter that nature excretes…  She is also not to be forbidden to receive Holy Communion at this time. If, however, a woman does not dare to receive, for great trepidation, she should be praised. But if she does receive she should not be judged. Pious people see sin even there, where there is none. […] So if a pious woman reflects upon these things and wishes not to approach communion, she is to be praised. But again, if she wants to live religiously and receive communion out of love, one should not stop her.[7]

If we assume that abstaining from Communion during menstruation is an act of popular piety and unenlightened zeal, then it is notable that Saint Gregory finds it praiseworthy.  In no way can Saint Gregory be seen as encouraging women to commune while menstruating.  As regular as this physiological state is, there are indeed other times in a woman’s life which are equally suitable for partaking of Holy Communion.  He merely states that if any woman “wants to live religiously and receive communion out of love, one should not stop her.”  Yet one who chooses to approach the Sacrament at a different time is to be praised.  Although this isolated quote is not yet the consensus patrum, Saint Gregory’s moderate view on the matter is, perhaps, the best we will find anywhere; other texts are much more blunt when dealing with menstruation and Communion, and we shall examine some of them further in this work.


 Christians and the Law

In her excellent paper, Sister Vassa appears to argue that the Old-Testament rules of ritual purity are contrary to Christian anthropology and soteriology.  The justification for this argument seems to be a general assertion that “Orthodox Christians, male and female, have been cleansed in the waters of baptism, buried and resurrected with Christ, Who became our flesh and our humanity, trampled Death by death, and liberated us from its fear” (Larin).  In my previous response, I pointed out some factors which had not been discussed by Sister Vassa.  Here, I wish to offer further documentary evidence in favor of a more careful consideration of the injunctions of the Old Law, especially concerning blood.

In the Scripture, we find the following text which seems to defy the notion “that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom. 14:14; RSV here et passim): “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:28, 29).  Of course, what is most relevant to our topic in this verse is the command to abstain from blood (as food), which is also a command found in Leviticus 17:11, 12.  Thus, “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit” that an Old-Testament purity rule be preserved.

We must not think that there was a dietary or public health reason to keep such a rule; other peoples consumed blood, apparently with little if any ill effect to their health.  Saint Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215) speaks of such people and of Christian customs: “When faint with hunger, [the Scythian] asks his horse for sustenance; and the horse offers his veins, and supplies his master with all he possesses—his blood. … Perish, then, the savage beast whose food is blood!  For it is unlawful for men … to touch blood” (The Instructor 3:4).[8]  In another place, Saint Clement restates the passage from Acts (15:28, 29) as bearing the authority of the Holy Spirit and the Apostles, particularly Paul (The Stromata 4:15).[9]

Of course, Saint Clement was an Alexandrian; and Sister Vassa acknowledges in her paper that opinions “of Egyptian provenance” support the practice of menstruating women abstaining from Holy Communion.  She seems to imply that this was due to some peculiarity in “the socio-cultural, historical reality of the ancient world, which very much believed in and demanded ‘ritual purity’.”  On the other hand, Sister Vassa argues that “it was more characteristic of these [early Christian] writers to view all proscriptions of the Mosaic Law as purely symbolic except those concerning sex and sexuality.”  This may not be completely correct, however.  Tertullian (ca. 160-ca. 220), for example, speaks of things which are unlawful to Christians: “Blush for your vile ways before the Christians, who do not have even the blood of animals at their meals…  To clench the matter with a single example, you tempt Christians with sausages of blood, just because you are perfectly aware that the thing by which you thus try to get them to transgress they hold unlawful” (Apology 9).[10]  Likewise, Marcus Minucius Felix (ca. 200) writes: “So much do we shrink from human blood, that we do not use the blood even of edible animals in our food” (The Octavius 30).[11]  Here, of course, the Old Law is not mentioned as the reason why Christians “shrink from human blood,” but we cannot rule out certain early Judaic influences on the dietary customs of the Christians in the second part of the statement.  Similar passages, usually pointing to Acts, can also be found in Origen and the Apostolic Constitutions. 

While the remnants of Judaic dietary rules that “seemed good to the Holy Spirit” and the Apostles to preserve may not have any direct bearing on rules concerning menstruation, it appears that a total rejection of all Old-Testament rules or their purely allegorical interpretation may not be warranted.  We shall not discuss the significance of the injunctions against consuming blood for our times, but in times far less ancient than the first two or three centuries of Christianity, the Christian East continued to follow these rules.  In 1054, the Constantinople Patriarch Michael Keroularios (also, “Cerularius”; ca. 1000-1059), writing to his Antiochian counterpart, listed the eating of unclean meats among the “Judaizing practices” of the Romans.[12]  It is interesting that by that time, the keeping of certain dietary restrictions was viewed in the East as a Christian practice, while breaking them was somehow Judaizing.  More properly, however, we should speak of certain sensibilities of the Greeks and the lack of the same among the Franks.


Women in Holy Places

Another Frankish practice that seemed to offend Byzantine sensibilities was the fact that the Romans allowed women to enter the altar (as they nowadays, after Vatican II, also do) and perhaps to commune there.[13]  An interesting remark by John of Claudiopolis (12th century) may be a reference to the topic of our study: “And this [enter the sanctuary] even women whenever they wish[14] (emphasis is mine—S.S.).  In the same century, Theodore Balsamon (of Antioch) in his answer to Marcus of Alexandria (Question 35) says that “deaconesses enjoyed a rank in the Bema (or Sanctuary), but that the complications due to menstruation dispossessed them of their rank and removed their service from the Bema.”[15]  Likewise, in the fourteenth century, Matthew Blastares writes that deaconesses were “forbidden by the Fathers to enter the Bema or to perform any such services due to the unfortunate event of menstruation.”[16]  Thus, the chief objection for women entering the sanctuary in the East may have been related to menstruation.  This same issue, evidently, was instrumental in the cessation of the practice of ordaining deaconesses.


The same considerations, apparently, continue to be relevant in the Russian Church in our time, as Metropolitan Anastasy (Gribanovsky), for example, allowed young girls to serve in the altar as acolytes, but not older ones.[17]  Likewise, women after menopause are sometimes allowed to enter the altar for various reasons, but not women who are of childbearing age.  Thus, the issue of menstruation is likely to play its role in the inevitable discourse on female ordinations in the future.  However, we were able to find only one strictly canonical injunction against women entering the church while menstruating—Canon II of Saint Dionysios, Archbishop of Alexandria from 248 to 265.



Canonical Evidence


Canon II of Saint Dionysios reads as follows:


Concerning menstrual women, whether they ought to enter the temple of God while in such a state, I think it superfluous even to put the question. For, I opine, not even they themselves, being faithful and pious, would dare when in this state either to approach the Holy Table or to touch the Body and Blood of Christ. For not even the woman with a twelve years’ issue would come into actual contact with Him, but only with the edge of His garment, to be cured. There is no objection to one’s praying no matter how he may be or to one’s remembering the Lord at any time and in any state whatever, and petitioning to receive help; but if one is not wholly clean both in soul and in body, he shall be prevented from coming up to the Holy of Holies.[18]

Clearly, Dionysios appeals to women themselves and their own sense of piety, while issuing an opinion, rather than a prohibition proper.  Moreover, even though the question was concerning women “entering the temple of God,” Dionysios leaves this question without a definite answer, and instead speaks of approaching the Holy Table and touching the Body and Blood of Christ.  Perhaps in his day entering the temple of God was understood as being for the purpose of partaking of Holy Communion, but there is little if any evidence of this.  Most often (six days out of seven, since the Eucharist was likely to have been offered only on Sunday, the Day of the Lord, as has been shown by many scholars, including Fr. Robert Taft, one went to church to pray.  And Dionysios finds “no objection to one’s praying “no matter how he may be” or to one’s remembering the Lord “at any time and in any state whatever,” and “petitioning to receive help,” presumably, also in the church.  In fact, the interpretation of the Canon also states that “none of them [menstruating women] is forbidden to pray, whatever be her predicament (whether she be at home or in the promos [narthex?] of the church).”[19]  Thus, the Canon specifically addresses menstruating women partaking of Holy Communion, not entering the church or lighting icon lamps in their homes or monastic cells.


Canons of the Church

Among other canons that Sister Vassa mentions after rhetorically asking whether communion should be withheld from the hearing-impaired, are Canons 6 and 7 of Timotheus and Canon 18 of Hippolytus.  Of them, Canon 18 of the Church of Alexandria is “Of women in childbed, and of midwives again”—not a topic we wish to address specifically at the present time.  Since Sister Vassa does not actually cite these texts, we find it necessary to cite them here as a matter of convenience:[20]


If a woman who is a catechumen has given her name in order to be enlightened, and on the day appointed for the baptism she incurs the plight which regularly afflicts women, ought she to be enlightened on that day, or defer, and how long ought she to defer?


She ought to defer until she has been purified.


If a woman finds herself in the plight peculiar to her sex, ought she to come to the Mysteries on that day or not?


She ought not to do so, until she has been purified.

In the first instance, the issue seems to be quite simple: if a menstruating woman enters the baptismal font, the water will necessarily be mixed with menstrual fluids, and the woman as well as all those who follow her into the font would be baptized in a mixture of water and blood.  Methinks, the advice to “defer until she has been purified” is still a very good one even in our day.  The purification which is meant here is most likely natural, not ritual, since we are not aware of any specific Christian rituals for monthly purifications.  In other words, a woman is expected to simply wait until the flow of blood stops and she is able to wash herself before entering the baptismal font. 

Canon 7, on the other hand, does not immediately imply practical reasons for not approaching the Mysteries (Holy Communion), such as menstrual blood dripping in the sanctuary during divine services, but in the absence of any anthropological or soteriological assertions, we may assume that the unavailability of modern Western feminine hygiene products in ancient times may have been one of the reasons for canons such as this.  In the previous work we have already discussed some examples of women not using any menstrual protection whatsoever even as late as the beginning of the twentieth century.  Quite obviously, while this may still be the case in some parts of the world, this is no longer the case in the West, and some modifications of the rules concerning menstruating women entering temples may be in order.

Finally, the seventeenth Canon of John the Faster (John the IV, Patriarch of Constantinople from 582 to 595) mandates that a woman who partook of Holy Communion while menstruating must remain without Communion for forty days.[21]  Compared to canonical penances for other offences that excommunicate the perpetrator for many years, even decades, forty days is obviously a symbolic gesture, perhaps showing that John did not view this as a serious offence.  In any case, we can clearly observe definite canonical support for the rule of menstruating women abstaining from partaking of the Holy Communion, although some of the origins of these rules may not be relevant to our current circumstances.

The very fact that such rules are contained in several canonical texts, however, warrants a more careful consideration of its origins, than simply treating them as matters of public health, although this may have been the primary reason.  Clearly, not all canons that can be located are of equal importance to the Church in the twenty-first century, or should even continue to be observed.  But the canons regarding menstruating women and Communion have consistently been observed and referenced as applicable in the Russian Church from the twelfth century, to the 1913 edition of the Desk Reference, and to our time, as is also attested to by Sister Vassa.  Moreover, Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) writes that literally following Mosaic Law in abstaining from sexual relations between a husband and wife, one of whom is not a Christian, during menstruation, may be one of the things which sanctifies the non-Christian partner and the couple’s children (On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants 3:21).  This sanctifying aspect of purity rules is a thread in the fabric of Orthodox Christian piety, pulling on which may help unravel the cloth.


The Fabric of Piety

The argument that “Orthodox Christians, male and female, have been cleansed in the waters of baptism, buried and resurrected with Christ, Who became our flesh and our humanity, trampled Death by death, and liberated us from its fear” (Larin) can broadly be applied to any number of traditional pious customs observed by Orthodox Christians: from fasting before Communion to fasting in general, and from women (including nuns) covering their heads in church to calling God “Father”—each can be easily deconstructed as a “dogmatically indefensible … fundamentally non-Christian phenomenon in the guise of Orthodox piety” and a retained bias of the “socio-cultural [and] historical reality of the ancient world” (Larin).  What dogmatic defense can possibly be offered to the practice of priests abstaining from marital relations on the night before serving the Liturgy or from a cup of coffee the morning of the service?  Who can dogmatically defend the habit of not using liturgical vessels for a backyard barbeque?  Can a paten really be defiled or made unclean by a few pieces of grilled meat?  And what is, dogmatically, an “unclean paten”?  Can it not be washed well with soap before the next service?  If Orthodox Christians, male and female, have been cleansed in the waters of baptism” (Larin), then why bother with the holy water or repeat “God, cleanse me, a sinner” during Great Lent year after year?  With enough resolve, most forms and expressions of Orthodox piety, many liturgical texts, and much of what constitutes the fabric of Orthodox praxis can be deconstructed through the prism of the “socio-cultural [and] historical reality of the ancient world” and found dogmatically indefensible. 

This is in no way to suggest that all things must be kept just because we have always done them.  Times and circumstances change, theological thought develops and trends replace one another, but the Church has found it necessary to tarry on the way to modernism and “progress.”   An Orthodox nun who chooses to partake of Holy Communion only when menstruating and always wearing jeans and a tank top, may indeed be dogmatically “kosher,” but not everything in Orthodoxy is a matter of dogma.  As discussed earlier, Saint Gregory the Great, while finding no dogmatic reasons for menstruating women to abstain from Communion, nonetheless says that those who do abstain should be praised.  Why should they be praised?  For perpetuating a “disconcerting, fundamentally non-Christian phenomenon in the guise of Orthodox piety” (Larin)?  Or for retaining “a practice that reflects pagan and Old-Testament fears of the material world” (ibid.)?  No, according to Saint Gregory, they should be praised for their piety, as non-dogmatic as it may be.


A Way Forward

We must agree with Sister Vassa that some rules or, more correctly, pious traditions, surrounding menstruation may indeed be unwarranted and in need of correction.  We find no reason why a nun or any Orthodox woman should not light her icon lamp, venerate icons or crosses in her home or at church, enter the church and participate in divine services.  It is still necessary to consider local customs and sensibilities, however.  As the Apostle says: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (1 Cor. 10:23).  On the other hand, when it comes to partaking of Holy Communion while menstruating, we do find some canonical impediments that should not be dismissed too lightly. 

In the previous paper, we briefly mentioned a possible theological dimension of the rule concerning menstruation and Communion.  Much more exegetical and analytical work remains to be done before any definite conclusions can be made.  We shall save this work for a future paper; here, it suffices to mention that there are obvious limits to any theologizing.  If any modern woman has an issue of blood, in other words, if the flow of blood is frequent or constant, nothing and no one should stand between her and her Lord, and a usual dispensation and an oikonomical suspension of canonical rules is warranted for the benefit of her soul.  In most normal cases, however, when women partake of Holy Communion only once a month at best or once a year at worst, choosing a proper time for it may be a good thing.

When preparing to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, we do several things that help us be found in the right disposition of spirit, soul, and body.  We direct our spirit to God through the act of our will and through meditation and contemplation of the Mysteries of Christ; our soul follows the lead of the spirit, and we help it through prayers, spiritual readings, and the Sacrament of Repentance; finally, we prepare our bodies through kneeling and fasting,—not that bacon and eggs are impure (even served with cheese), not that a cup of Greek coffee in the morning is defiling, and not that intercourse between spouses in unlawful or unclean.  

It is well attested to and understood by the Church that menstruation is not something which defiles a woman, or renders her deprived of the Holy Spirit, or is a sign of her not being acceptable in the eyes of God.  Bulgakov in his Desk Reference writes that a “dangerously ill woman who is in a state of natural impurity shall not be deprived of Communion.”[22]  Of course, this is not a reference to a common cold, but perhaps any serious illness.  Moreover, Bulgakov insists that bleeding must not be an impediment to Communion “when there is a need.”[23]  Thus, menstruation is not seen in the same way as a state of uncleanness in ancient Judaism; rather, it is seen in terms of our present bodily condition—certain for men, and certain for women—which does not reflect on the things of the age to come, but nonetheless affects the way we live in this age.

In her paper, Sister Vassa references the text prepared for the Orthodox Church in America which argues that rules preventing menstruating women from partaking of the Holy Communion are “indefensible according to strict Orthodox Christianity.”[24]  It is less than clear what is meant by “strict Orthodox Christianity,” but I would not reveal any secrets if I said that not all opinions expressed within the O.C.A. have found positive resonance in the Russian Church, and not all forms of O.C.A. piety have always agreed with Russian sensibilities.  While rules of ritual purity are not limited to the Russian Church, other jurisdictions are offering their opinions, and the debate has clearly entered the Russian Church with the publication of Sister Vassa’s paper (perhaps even earlier).  Undoubtedly, Russian theologians will also need to examine this issue and find solutions that will reflect the mind and the tradition of the Church. 


[1] Sveshnikov, Fr. Sergei. “On ‘Ritual Impurity’: In Response to Sister Vassa (Larin).” Orthodoxy and the World., 6 July 2009.

[2] Larin, Sr. Vassa. “Ritual Impurity.” Orthodoxy and the World., 2 July 2009.  Originally published in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 52:3-4 (2008) 275-92.

[3] Bulgakov, S.V. Nastolnaya kniga dlya svyaschenno-tsernovno-sluzhitelei. Kharkov, 1913, pp. 1134-5, n. 2.  Here et passim, the translation from Russian is mine—S.S.

[4] Due to the large number of pages in the work, a second verification would be necessary, but page 1144 certainly does not contain exactly that which Sister Vassa claims that it does.

[5] Bulgakov, pp. 1144-5, n. 3.

[6] Ibid. 1135, n. 2.

[7] Epistles 11:64.

[8] The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translation of the Writings and the Fathers down to A.D. 325 (ANF). Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973, 2:277.

[9] Ibid. 2:427.

[10] Ibid. 3:25.

[11] Ibid. 4:192.

[12] Migne, J.-P. Patrologiae cursus completes, series graeca. Paris, 1844—, 120:789-92. 

[13] See Kolbaba, T. M. The Byzantine Lists: Errors on the Latins. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000, p. 59.

[14] Ibid.

[15] The Rudder (Pedalion) of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. CD-ROM. Brookfield: The Orthodox Christian Center and Mission, 2006, p. 497.

[16] Ibid. 498.

[17] This information is from the recollections of Ludmila Assur who was one of the girl acolytes under Metropolitan Anastasy in the 1950s during his summer visits to Burlingame, California.  The girl acolytes did not wear a sticharion, but otherwise performed the usual duties of boy acolytes.

[18] The Rudder 1366.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. 1617-8.

[21] Ibid. 1687.

[22] Bulgakov, 1144.

[23] Ibid. 1144, n. 3.

[24]Women and Men in the Church. A Study on the Community of Women and Men in the Church.” Department of Religious Education, Orthodox Church in America (ed.), New York, 1980, 42-43.

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