by Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) of San Francisco and the West


Orthodox Church in America

The Bishop of San Francisco and the West

650 Micheltorena Street, Los Angeles, California 90026

Telephone: (213) 913-3615; Facsimile (213) 913-0316


Date 1/1/96
Circumcision of our Lord
St. Basil the Great


The Very Reverend and Reverend Rectors — Parish Clergy Diocese of the West


Dearly beloved:


The blessing of the Lord be upon you!


This Letter of Instruction has been written and is being distributed in response to a petition from the Clergy of the Rocky Mountain Deanery, relayed by Very Reverend Archpriest Joseph Hirsch, asking me to inform them of my orders regarding the opening and closing of the Holy Doors during the Divine Liturgy and other divine services. It may be remembered by those clergy who attended a Diocesan clergy conference shortly after my consecration as Bishop of San Francisco that I distributed my translation of the same chapter from the Typikon as is included below in this letter, in response to a similar, but less formal request. My experience as your bishop so far has indicated to me that I should not only repeat but digress somewhat on my original response.

Here is a literal translation of chapter 23 of the Typikon:

About the curtain of the holy altar, when it is opened and when it is closed

The curtain is opened at the beginning of Vespers, and stays open even up to the Dismissal. At Matins likewise, from the beginning to the end. At the Hours, when read apart from Liturgy, it is opened for the Apostolic reading and stays open until the dismissal.(1) At the Dismissal it is indeed closed. At the beginning of Liturgy, though, the curtain is opened, and it stays opened all the way to the Great Entrance. After the entrance, though, it is again closed, until the Priest, or Deacon, exclaims: "The Doors! The Doors! In wisdom let us attend!". Then it is opened, and it stays opened until the cry: "Holy Things are for the Holy!" Then it is closed again. After the Communion(2) it is again opened, and it stays opened until the end of the Holy Liturgy. After the Dismissal of the l liturgy, though it is closed for good. When a Molieben is sung, the curtain remains open from beginning to end.(3) Be aware that the Holy Doors are never ever(4) opened ­only at the beginning of Great Vespers, when there is a Vigil and the Priest therefore censes, and at all entrances, i.e., vespers and liturgy entrances, and for the reading of the Gospel. They are likewise opened also from the Appearance of the Holy Mysteries, even up to the completion of the Divine Liturgy.

It is not for me, one diocesan bishop, to direct that the Typikon not be followed in any respect, save for specific occasions of economy, i.e., to save a soul. Nor am I aware, nor have I been made aware, of any instructions by the Holy Synod of which I am a member that bless any deviation from this or any other provision of the "Holy Typikon, that is to say, the Format of the Churchly Services in the holy Jerusalem Lavra of our venerable and God-bearing Father Sabbas."(5) This is not to say that I have not observed a more or less wide deviation from the provisions of this Typikon as it pertains to Holy Doors and Curtains in parishes of our Orthodox Church in America, in parishes of the Greek Archdiocese, and of the Antiochian Archdiocese. Usually, of course, the priests practicing such deviations have a more or less reasonable explanation for their actions, including the claim that this or that bishop has commanded or advised or blessed their custom. It seems to me I am bound to accept the word of an Orthodox Priest on such a matter, with no evidence to the contrary. Then there are specific rationales. These are much harder to accept and, generally, I do not do so, save in two specific cases that I will develop below.

What are some of these rationales? Well, there is one (and this one is, oddly enough, usually put forward by those who hold firmly to the doctrine that we must not assign symbolic meanings to the elements of the Liturgy) that goes like this: "We should open the doors at the words, 'Blessed is the Kingdom...' since the Kingdom of Heaven has been opened unto us." This rationale, clearly a non sequitur, ignores not only the direction of the Typikon, it also ignores what we teach about the holy icons, and the iconostasis in our Church. For example, we surely do not accept the heterodox claim that the iconostasis is a barrier to anything.(6) On the contrary we teach that the icons on the iconostasis, including those on its doors, open Reality to us, open Heaven to us, and do not separate us from anything but join us more intimately to what is behind them, whether it is the Kingdom of Heaven or the Holy Altar of our Temple, where not only our clergy, but the Angels and Saints are serving. To abolish the iconostasis or make it of no substance is to, in fact, put dark glasses or even blinders on the eyes of the Faithful. Not having an Iconostasis makes the Holy Actions LESS accessible and LESS subject to the participation of the Faithful, not more so. Of course, the Typikon is quite free of symbolisms of any kind­symbolisms about Christ's life that were so loved by the People as well as the more rational symbolisms of today's learned folk. In the world of the Typikon doors are opened for a practical purpose only.

As for the curtain, it is well known that in the developments and refinements that have taken place in our Church, always under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and always with the Faithful people GUARDING What has been passed on to them, the curtain was in use long before the development of the Iconostasis as we know it. The reason (not rationale) for the curtain is made particularly plain in the Typikon's direction that it be opened at the words "The Doors! The Doors!" This is that moment when the Subdeacons of old, or those having the office then known as Door-Keeper, made their final "security check" as we would say. Then not only could the curtain be opened, but the Aer could be lifted up from the Gifts placed on the Altar at the Great Entrance and since then protected by that curtain and Aer. (The curtain could even be considered, in a sense, another larger Aer.) It is of course, incorrect to interpret the words "The Doors! The Doors!" as being any kind of direction to OPEN any doors! I also want to point out here that the Peace that is given to the people before that moment, with the signing of them with the sign of the precious cross, is given with the curtain closed. The action in no way diminishes the Blessing or the Peace.

Having said all this by way of instruction, I do make the following qualifications for some parish practice. In parishes where the Faithful have not been taught or, for one reason or another, are not convinced of the Orthodoxy of what I have taught above relative to the Orthodox meaning and significance of Iconostasis and Doors, THEN, if the Holy Doors are quite solid and extend entirely over the opening so that not even the top of the celebrant's head is visible when he stands before the Holy Altar Table AND IF NO DEACON IS SERVING the celebrant MAY open the Holy Doors (in addition to the places cited by the Typikon) at "Blessed is the Kingdom..." and until the beginning of the Litany for the Catechumens. Thereafter, in addition to the opening allowed by the Typikon for the Great Entrance and WHETHER OR NOT A DEACON IS SERVING, the Doors may be opened during the period when the tolling of a bell is prescribed: from "Let us give thanks unto the Lord" until the conclusion of "It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos..

I have observed outside our diocese that some Presbyters, perhaps feeling relieved of their burden of following the Typikon vis-a-vis doors and curtain, also allow themselves to face the people, in the style of an hierarch, for the opening phrases of the Anaphora: "The Grace of our Lord …" "Let us lift up our hearts …" and "Let us give thanks unto the Lord …" This practice is not followed by nor has it been authorized for Presbyters of the Diocese of the West. The Presbyter, in accordance with received practice, DOES turn to the West only when he blesses the People with his hand at the conclusion of the phrase "The Grace of our Lord Jesus Chris, the Love of God the Father, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit BE WITH YOU ALL." This is the same style he follows when he blesses at the end of the phrase: "And the mercies of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, BE WITH YOU ALL."

With regard to such QUASI-hierarchical emulations, I wish to point out that for some time our Local Church has left off following the practice (introduced from above very late in the history of the Russian Church) of permitting AS AN AWARD OF DISTINCTION some distinguished Presbyters to serve with open Holy Doors "Up to the Great Entrance," and "Not only up to the Great Entrance, but through the Lord's Prayer." There is, of course, nothing ESSENTIALLY hierarchical about open Holy Doors. In fact, relative to, especially, the curtain, the practice of keeping the Holy Doors open all the way to the time of the Holy Communion of the clergy would appear obviously to conflict with the ancient practice of the curtain as prescribed in our Typikon. No such practice is followed, for example, at an hierarchical celebration of the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts.

I would like to underline the directions of the Typikon relative to the Hours. The Typikon and received practice make no general distinctions amongst the different Hours nor any distinction relative to the curtain particularly, even when some are celebrated just before the Divine Liturgy. The Hours are, in fact, services of the Narthex, and they are to be served, save for those exceptions quoted above in chapter 23 of the Typikon, with CLOSED Doors and Curtain. The Curtain is opened for Divine Liturgy at the point when the Deacon's censing of Altar and Church begins, after the conclusion of the Dismissal of the Service of the Proskomedia. This censing, like the censing done before the Blessing that begins the All-Night Vigil, is done (at least theoretically) in silence, although in our times we permit it to be done before the Hours are concluded. Therefore, at the time the Deacon goes before the Holy Table and begins to cense, repeating quietly the troparion, "In the grave with the body but in Hades with the soul as God; in paradise with the thief, and on the throne with the Father and the Spirit wast Thou, O Christ, filling all things, Thyself uncircumscribed," THEN the Curtain is opened for Divine Liturgy, NOT at the beginning blessing of the Hours.

Another instruction I wish to give is relative to ORIENTATION. For most of the Divine Services, whether the Divine Liturgy or the Services of the Office, the essential unity of the entire People of God, including Deacons, Priests, and Bishops, is realized in many ways, and one of them is in orientation. That is, by and large all prayers in our services from beginning to end are said with all facing the East, including Deacons, Priests, and Bishops. In the last ten or so years, I've noticed here and there, but not yet in our diocese, a, to me, alarming tendency to dally with this salvific and time-honored practice. For example, I've noticed some Deacons who turn to the faithful in order to repeat the phrase, "Let us love one another that with one mind …" This is inexplicable. EVERY petition of the Great Litany contains the phrase "LET US …" "LET US pray to the Lord …" Other Litanies contain the phrase "LET US ask of the Lord" And so forth. If the Deacon turns to the People, it would seem to me that he is separating himself from the people in his posture, or that he is addressing them AND NOT HIMSELF. It is as if he were a specialist following this kind of rubric: "When the specialist or professional is addressing God (on behalf of the layman), then he faces East: when the specialist or professional is addressing the layman as their director, then he faces them." Let Deacons in the Diocese of the West avoid this novelty and, by so doing show forth the CONCILIARITY of the Church, not only in their posture, but in following the consensus of not only our short time on earth, but the consensus of those who went before us.(7)

Sending an archpastoral blessing and assuring you of my constancy in prayer for you all,


With love in Christ,



(1) These "epistle" readings (more correctly, "apostolic readings," since the Acts are included) are at the Hours of Great, Good, and Holy Friday, at the Royal Hours of Theophany and Nativity, and at the daily Sixth Lenten Hour during the Great Fast. In practice where the curtain is opened at the daily Lenten sixth hour for the Prokeimenon, Apostolic reading and second Prokeimenon, it is closed after the second Prokeimenon, and not left open until the Dismissal.

(2) I.e., after the Communion of the clergy.

(3) This is applied to those Moliebens sung in the center of the Church, where the clergy bring out the Holy Gospel and Cross and place them on an Analoy at the beginning of the Molieben, and to the Solemn Molieben at the New Year (the one that begins with "Blessed is the Kingdom …" because of the habit of the [Byzantine] Emperor of being present at it).

(4) "nikogdazhe"

(5) This title continues: "This same sequence is followed also in the rest of the honorable Jerusalem communities, as likewise in the rest of God's Holy churches."

(6) However, the following rationale has been put forward by some, and I understand it. It goes like this. The Iconostasis, the Doors and the Curtain do not protect the Holies from observation by the profane: they protect the profane from the Holies, which are a light to the Faithful, but a burning flame to the profane.

(7) I hope no one will feel that the ancient practice of our Church where the President of the Eucharist and his assistant Elders go and stand at the High Place, in pious imitation and recollection of the Savior and His Apostles, and face the people in order to give the Peace and to impart the teaching of the Scriptures conflicts in any way with the aforedescribed orientation for prayer. There are also some special prayers that are composed to include didactic elements, such as the Kneeling Prayers at Pentecost and the concluding long collect at the end of the New Year's Molieben. These are, exceptionally, said by the celebrant while he faces the Faithful. Such exceptional prayers are read kneeling.