Orthodox Basics

What is the Orthodox Church?

The Eastern Orthodox Christian Church has existed continuously from the time of Pentecost, first spreading out into the predominantly Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire with the Apostles who established communities in major cities and regions.

Early growth also occurred in Rome and Greece and by 380, Christianity had become the official state religion in the western half of the Roman Empire. This western branch eventually split from the Eastern Orthodox Church in the 11th century, becoming known as the Roman Catholic Church.

Saint Aidan’s Orthodox Church is part of the Archdiocese of Canada (www.archdiocese.ca) in the Orthodox Church in America (www.oca.org), a jurisdiction ruled by a council of a synod of bishops. Today, the Eastern Orthodox Church continues to uphold and proclaim the fullness of the Christian faith as the Apostles preached it from the beginning. We trace our spiritual roots to the Russian mission to Alaska and North America in 1794.

Like North America itself, we are a multicultural community. Some of us are Orthodox “from the cradle,” while others have converted from various backgrounds. In keeping with our common North American identity, all our services are in English.

Orthodoxy is a lived faith, meaning that it is much more than just going to church on Sundays. The home is full of moments celebrating the beauty of life.

Orthodox Christian Life

In the Orthodox Church, we do not just go to church on Sundays. Our lives at home are also full of worship.


Icon Corner

The Icon Corner is a space set aside in your home to connect with your family, your parish, the saints who have gone before you, and all those who worship God. Try to have it facing eastward – your home is like a little church and the prayer corner is like the altar in the church which faces east.

Click on the picture to find out how to set up your icon corner.


For Orthodox Christians, an icon is a sacred image, a window into the world of God. We honor the saints who have gone before us but we do not worship them. All saints reside in Heaven and pray for those on earth. We can pray to the saints for intercession, which means that we ask them to pray for us – for the healing and salvation of ourselves and others, for blessings of the body and soul of ourselves and another, petitions for any good gift from God.

Patron Saints

Icons unite the family during communal prayer. When you become Eastern Orthodox through the holy mysteries of baptism and chrismation, you receive a patron saint. Whether the saint is chosen for you as an infant at baptism, or you choose one yourself as an adult when you are baptized, your patron saint connects you to the Church. Daily prayers honor your patron saint and directly connect you to your baptism, which connects you to the church community – both the church you attend regularly and the entire Orthodox Church around the world. You can also pray to your patron saint for intercessions.

Prayer at Meals

We generally say a prayer to give thanks for the food we receive before and after meals. Here is an example from the oca.org website:

Lord’s Prayer: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Father, Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily
bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass
against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever
and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Lord, have mercy. (3x)
O Christ our God, bless the food, drink, and fellowship of Thy servants, for
Thou art holy always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

We give thanks to Thee, O Christ our God, that Thou hast satisfied us with
Thy earthly blessings; deprive us not also o f Thy Heavenly Kingdom. As
Thou didst come to Thy disciples and didst grant them peace; so come to us
and save us, O Savior.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever
and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Lord, have mercy. (3x)
Blessed is God, Who has fed and nourished us with His bountiful gifts by
His grace and compassion always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Personal Prayers

The Orthodox Church follows the Old Testament practice of having formal prayers according to the hours of the day. We are urged to pray regularly in the morning, evening and at meal times, as well as to have a brief prayer which can be repeated throughout the day under any and all circumstances. Many people use the Jesus Prayer for this purpose: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Of course, the form of the prayer is secondary and may vary from person to person. It is the power of the prayer to bring us to God, and to strengthen us in doing his divine will that is essential.

In the traditional catechism of the Church three types of prayer are listed: asking, thanking, and praising. We can add a fourth type which can be called lamenting before God, questioning him about the conditions of life and the meaning of our existence, particularly in times of tragedy and confusion. We very often find all four kinds of prayer in the Bible. Praying is not merely repeating the words of prayers. Saying prayers is not the same as praying. Praying should be done privately, briefly, regularly, without many words, with trust in God that he hears, and with the willingness to do what God shows us to do

The prayers of a person at home differ from those in church since personal prayer is not the same as the communal prayer of the Church. When we go to church to pray, we do not go there to say our private prayers. Our private prayers should be said at home, and not in church.

This does not mean that we do not bring our personal cares, desires, troubles, questions and joys to the prayer of the Church. We certainly can, and we do. But we bring ourselves and our concerns to church to unite them to the prayer of the Church, to the eternal prayer of Christ, the Mother of God, the saints and the brothers and sisters of our own particular church community. In church, we pray with others and we should therefore discipline ourselves to pray all together as one body in the unity of one mind, one heart, and one soul.


The Orthodox Church is the hospital for the soul, bringing us spiritual and bodily healing through the sacraments. Confession is meant to become an important part of our lives at home and it’s our responsibility to create time for confession throughout the year.

However, the accountability that comes from confessing our sins to someone else is spiritually beneficial and is in line with the practices of the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments. Most frequently, your parish priest will be your father confessor and spiritual father.

What should I say?

Honesty and sorrow for our sins are the most important internal aspects of a good confession. Leaving something hidden in the darkness of secrecy gives it a certain power over us. It’s a freeing thing to get that off your chest, to no longer hide skeletons in your closet.

There are many ways to prepare for confession. Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory wrote a beautiful self-examination based on The Beatitudes called ‘If We Confess Our Sins’. The questions are offered as a general indication of what our approach should be. You can find excerpts in the ‘If We Confess Our Sins‘ booklet such as ‘Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (St. Matthew 5:7) Do I show mercy to others? Do I forgive those who offend me? Do I try to understand those who are different? Do I take pleasure in judging and condemning? Do I talk about others? Do I revel in gossip?’

St. Demetrius of Rostov created a confessional guide (updated by Fr. Jeremy at orthodoxroad.com to make it more easily understood by modern Americans). Many people have found it to be a helpful starting point. Confessions should name the sin yet not be explicit in detail. We should avoid vagueness and euphemisms. For example, we should say, “I became drunk” and not “I was at a party and might have gotten a bit carried away.” The latter statement is too vague and unrepentant. We are only to confess our own sins, not the sins of others.

Vulnerability is necessary to make a good confession, though some people are concerned the priest will judge them. However, priests are commanded to never judge those who confess their sins. The priest acts as a witness of our confession to God. They are there to witness the penitent’s confession to God and encourage him or her in repentance.

How often should I confess?

The Orthodox Church in America’s guideline is confession once a month unless someone feels a need for more frequent confession. For example, confession every week can be beneficial in making progress against long-standing sinful habits. A minimum would be to confess four times per year — once for each of the four lenten seasons: Nativity Fast, Great Lent, Apostles’ Fast, and Dormition Fast.

God allows constant struggles for our humility. To those who wonder if they are really repenting even though they repeat the sin over and over, I would say you are in the process of repenting but your repentance is not yet complete. For those who are ready to give up, I would ask: Do you take your trash out? If so, why? Don’t you have to keep taking the trash out every week? We keep doing it because nobody likes to live in filth. Confession is like spiritually taking the trash out. Even if you’re generating far more spiritual trash than you should, keep coming to confession and keep wiping your soul as clean as possible. It will be worth it in the end.

Daily Confession

While the sacrament of confession is not a strictly private event, we should kneel nightly before our icons or at our bedside and mentally review the day. Did I say something offensive or unkind? Did I lack love or patience at any time? Did I commit some other kind of sin?

Confess all these things to God, then making the sign of the Cross over your bed, ask our Lord to bless your sleep, remembering that it is an image of death and the grave. One day, we will do this for the last time before being laid in the earth. Let’s pray we don’t have a sudden death that prevents us from making a final confession with a priest. (orthodoxroad.com)

Yearly Feast Days:

The church year is full of feast days that have been celebrated by Orthodox people since the beginnings of the Orthodox church. Special days that are celebrated with the church community can also be celebrated in the home with prayers, stories, food, decorations, and more.

The twelve Great Feasts are:

Nativity of the Virgin Mary – Sept. 8
Elevation of the Precious Cross – Sept. 14
Entrance of the Virgin Mary into the Temple – Nov. 21
Nativity of Our Lord – Dec. 25
Theophany of Our Lord – Jan. 6
Meeting of Our Lord into the Temple – Feb. 2
Annunciation of the Virgin Mary – March 25
Entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem – April 28, 2024 – these 4 dates vary as Pascha is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, which varies every year. The Entry into Jerusalem is always the Sunday before Pascha.

Pascha – May 5, 2024. Pascha is the Orthodox Christian name for Easter and our most important day of the year. Regular Easter in North America will be on March 31 in 2024, so you can see how different it is some years!
Ascension of Our Lord – June 13, 2024, always 40 days after Pascha
Pentecost – June 23, 2024, always 50 days after Pascha
Transfiguration of Our Lord – Aug. 6
Dormition of the Virgin Mary – Aug. 15

Head over to the OCA website to see all of the Feasts of the Church Year, and then find out where we are in the Pascal Cycle in the current year.

Fasting Guidelines:

In general, except where otherwise noted, all Wednesdays and Fridays are days of fasting,

There are also several canonical fasting periods throughout the year such as Great Lent, and the Nativity Fast. On these days We have many tried and true family-friendly recipes here from our parish.

Strict fasting rules are not generally followed outside of monasteries; however, it is good to develop and stick to an intentional fasting rule, which is based on the Strict Fast principles of no meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, wine or oil to be eaten. You should establish a fasting rule that you feel challenges you, and yet you will be able to keep. The spirit of a fasting period in the church is to keep it simple. It has always been held that these rules of fasting should be relaxed in the case of anyone elderly or in poor health, so they should simply do what they can manage, but do something and stick to it, after consulting with your priest or spiritual father! As you start out, it is better to start slowly and gradually, and you can then later increase your efforts as God leads. Perhaps choose 1 or 2 of them to get going. It is not a good idea to invent new rules of fasting for yourself, just stick to the ones given to you by the Church and work within their outline (it is not an Orthodox practice to pick something to give up during Great Lent at random.)This is a marathon, not a sprint. For those who are healthy: run the race of the fast with love and perseverance, not paying attention to the fasting of others around you.  For those with health complications: whatever efforts you make, do so with love and patience, enduring the involuntary hardships without complaining.

Some would disagree with this “lightening” perspective and insist on the “true” strict fast, but we believe that a simpler fasting plan would be in keeping with what our beloved patron St. Aidan advised. When the first missionary, Bishop Corman returned from attempting to bring Christ to the Northumberland natives in the 7th century, he complained that they were unteachable and obstinate. Aidan told Bishop Corman he was too severe with these untaught people, and instead of blaming them for being obstinate, he should realize that the fault lay with himself for feeding them solid food which they couldn’t digest, rather than doing as the apostle said and feeding them milk as if they were new babes (1 Cor. 3:3). It should be noted that St. Aidan himself was a very strict ascetic, and likely followed the fasting rules completely.

The Fathers valued hospitality as a greater law than fasting, so when you find yourself in a situation where you are being offered food by those who have only good intentions and know little or nothing about the Orthodox fasting seasons, it is best not to make a big deal about needing to fast. Just quietly bless the food and partake, perhaps try to take a little less. This especially applies to family festive occasions during the Christmas season. Generally, the advice given is to simply accept what has been given to you in hospitality and love with a spirit of gratefulness. Fasting like prayer is best done in secret, and should never be made a spectacle of, so discussing your fasting rule, and especially judging others for not following what you might consider the “correct” fasting regime is a particularly bad idea.

With fasting, almsgiving, and prayer, you will find that you are blessed in proportion to the effort you make, but always remember that fasting is only a tool for the goal of drawing closer to Christ and a means to this end. It should never become the goal in itself. We are under grace, not the law. If you end up fasting very rigorously and perfectly in your own strength, you will probably need to repent of the more serious sin of pride. Use the time saved in not having to prepare elaborate meals for prayer and scripture reading, and the money saved for increased almsgiving.

Individual circumstances vary widely; living with non-Orthodox families, ages when children should start some fasting, your personal health concerns and energy levels, and many other factors should be considered and discussed with your priest or spiritual father. Fr. Andrew is always happy to discuss your particular fasting practice or any other aspect of your spiritual life with you, so please get in touch with him anytime.

Fasting before Communion

Generally, the minimum for fasting before receiving communion all year would be to not eat or drink before receiving communion for at least 6 hours before an afternoon Liturgy or Pre-sanctified Liturgy (during Great Lent), and midnight (or earlier) before Sunday Divine Liturgy.

Have a more in-depth look at the fasting guidelines here.

Orthodox Basics

The Orthodox Faith series is intended to provide basic, comprehensive information on the faith and life of the Orthodox Church. It consists of four volumes and is available in our library or for purchase through our bookstore. Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko (1939–2015) was a professor of dogmatic theology and served as dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Alongside his numerous books and articles, Father Thomas was also renowned as a gifted speaker and homilist.

The Preface is written by His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon

Volume I – Doctrine and Scripture
Volume 1 contains four sections: sources of Christian Doctrine, main doctrines of the Orthodox Church present by way of commentary on the Nicene Creed, an explanation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, & an explanation on Scripture.

Volume II – Worship
Volume 2 contains 5 sections: the church building, the sacraments, daily cycles of prayer, the church year, and the Divine Liturgy.

Volume III – Church History
Volume 3, written by Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko and revised and expanded by Dr. David C. Ford, contains an in-depth look at church history through the centuries.

Volume IV – Spirituality
Volume 4 deals with the main themes of Christian Life: prayer, fasting, repentance, the virtues, witness in the world, and communion with God.