All-night vigil

Every Saturday evening, (more generally, every evening before a divine liturgy) Orthodox churches of the Slavic tradition hold a service called the “all-night vigil”. This is a long, solemn, beautiful service, one that has served as an inspiration for some of Russia’s greatest musical composers. Both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff  have produced celebrated choral compositions based on the hymns of the all-night vigil.


As proof of the enduring appeal and beauty of this service, Rachmaninoff’s version (performed by the Phoenix and Kansas City chorales) won a Grammy in 2016!

The all-night vigil is actually a combination of two services: vespers and orthros (matins). Traditionally, vespers is the service on Saturday evening, and orthros occurs early on Sunday morning, before the divine liturgy service where communion is served. This is still how the weekend services are organized in Greek churches. However, in Slavic churches both of these occur consecutively on Saturday evening.

I don’t intend this post to be a theological study on the all-night vigil service. There is a tremendous amount of depth in its liturgy, to the extent that I don’t feel I am knowledgeable enough to discuss it well. Visit this page if you want to learn about the theological elements of the service. Instead, in this blog post I will talk about why I, as a layperson, consider the all-night vigil an indispensable part of my weekend.

The word “vigil” has the connotation of someone waiting expectantly. In this way, the all-night vigil is well-named. Firstly, it is a long service, usually longer than the “main” Sunday morning service. But more importantly, in this service one gets a sense of the desperate yearning of Christ’s first followers after the crucifixion: huddled together, wishing, waiting for a miracle on the promised Sunday. So many elements of the vigil dwell on the wistful yearning of fallen humanity for deliverance- “Lord, I have cried to thee, here thou me!”- begins a hymn early in the service.

“Having a Vigil last for two-and-a-half hours may seem long. Yet, the spiritual life of us modern folk – and I’m speaking just as much to myself – is collapsing because of our impatience to achieve results. It doesn’t work like that, we need time and effort, consistent effort, to achieve the results we need. Our Vigil service takes time seriously, and relates to the history of salvation. Christ taught that we should ‘watch and pray’, not knowing the hour of his return, training ourselves to live in expectation of His coming again .”

Father Andrew Smith, Holy Annunciation Orthodox Church, Brisbane

Impatience is a great sin of our age. We have become so accustomed to getting what we want instantly, that the slow deliberate work of Christian salvation becomes unappealing. The all-night vigil is a balm for this malady.

A large part of the all-night vigil service is the reading or singing of Psalms. In a typical vigil service we go through more than 20 of them. The service starts with  Psalm 102: “Bless, the Lord, O my soul!”  

The first half of the service (the “Vespers” half) focuses more on the fallen nature of humanity, and our desperate need for God’s help. When that half ends, we enter a series of Psalm readings, known as the “Six Psalms”. All the lights in the church are turned off at the start of the Six Psalms, and all candles are extinguished. The darkness lends solemnity and intimacy to the occasion, and  it feels like we are staying awake all night, praying over the grave of a loved one.

When the lights are turned on at the conclusion of the Six Psalms, it is as if we have completed  the transition from Saturday night to Sunday morning.  We proceed with the “Matins” half of the vigil. Here, the texts capture the wonder, and bewilderment the first disciples felt as word of the Resurrection leaks out. There is a gospel reading which covers one of the chaotic, joyous first moments when the disciples encounter the newly-risen Christ: the road to Emmaus, Peter’s miraculous catch of fish,  Mary Magdelene’s discovery at the tomb, etc. (Wikipedia has an article on the Matins gospels, with a full list of the gospel readings) . Immediately after the gospel reading, we sing this stirring hymn, as an expression of how we today share in that wonderful moment two thousand years ago:

Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship, the holy Lord Jesus, the only Sinless One! We venerate Thy Cross, O Christ, and Thy Holy Resurrection we praise and glorify; for Thou art our God, and we know no other than Thee; we call on Thy name. Come, all you faithful, let us venerate Christ’s Holy Resurrection! For, behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world. Let us ever bless the Lord, praising His Resurrection. By enduring the Cross for us, He destroyed death by death!

Near the end of the vigil service, there is a series of prayers known as the canons. These prayers contain are long, beautiful, and contain a rich depth of theology, regarding the person of Christ, the cross and the resurrection, and the saints and commemorations of the day. The prayers sometimes go to a lot of detail with regard to the theology: here is a not-too-atypical example, from the Canon of the Resurrection, Tone VII:

Our flesh, which was assumed by the Creator, was not incorrupt before His suffering; but after His suffering and resurrection it was rendered untouchable by corruption, and restoreth mortals, who cry: Hymn the Lord, all ye works of the Lord, and exalt Him supremely for all ages!

Here is an example of a canon for Saint James, the brother of the Lord, chanted for his feast day on October 23rd:

Thou didst manifestly adorn the choir of the apostles as the first hierarch, O most wise one, anointed by the Word’s own action, in that thou art the disciple and brother of God, O most sacred preacher of sacred things.

From constantly participating in these prayers, someone regularly at the vigil service will emerge with a great familiarity of the nuances of Orthodox theology, and also a rich knowledge of the life of the saints and the history of the church.

The vigil is a service that I always look forward to, and on the occasions when I cannot attend it always feels like my weekend is incomplete. I especially need it in the moments when I feel most frustrated with myself and with the world, when it seems like I am struggling pointlessly in my life, or when I see all the violence and injustice in the news, and find myself asking why God is so slow to intervene.   The vigil reminds me that while Christ’s work of transformation is slow and painful, there will be fruit from this suffering. The vigil reminds me that while God’s deliverance can seem like it is never coming, his promises are true.  We will see their fulfillment, as Christ’s first followers did two thousand years ago



Today salvation has come to this house

I just got my new house blessed! We had a nice short ceremony.

Photo credit: Charity Choy

We started with the priest censing the inside and the outside of the house.


Photo credit: Charity Choy

The priest was very thorough. He even censed the inside of the storerooms.

Photo credit: Charity Choy

We then had a short prayer before the icon stand. This included a gospel reading, the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10:

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

I thought it was a very poignant choice of a gospel reading-  a broken man invites Jesus to his home and is restored. “Today salvation has come to this house”.

Next there is sprinking with holy water. For this purpose we scrounged for a small branch outside. The priest dabbed it in holy water and used it to sprinkle every room of the house.

For the last step, the priest placed four little stickers in the house, facing north, south, east and west, and then blessed them with holy oil.

Photo credit: Charity Choy

The stickers were supposed to be over doorways or windows, but I did not have an eastward facing entrance to the house, so the last one went over my bed instead. The design of the sticker is pretty cool: the usual Orthodox cross in gold, with Adam’s skull underneath.


The whole service took about an hour.  I thought it was a very pleasant and meaningful ritual. I am glad how in this way, the Orthodox tradition allows us to make God the center of our big life transitions.

The Orthodox Faith (T. Hopko)


These were the first books on Eastern Orthodoxy I had ever read, and it was through these books that I first learned the basics of Orthodox doctrine. The author, Father Thomas Hopko, was the Dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in the United States, and was very well-known and well-regarded among Orthodox Christians in America and beyond.

Luckily for us in Malaysia, all these books are available online for free! The Orthodox Church in America hosts them on their website here.

This series contains four volumes: they cover doctrine, worship, church history, and spirituality. The books contain short, focused chapters on various topics in Orthodoxy. The typical chapter is only about a thousand words long.

The books are written for the reader who comes in with zero knowledge of Orthodox Christianity. The volumes all start off with very basic ideas, and they only get moderately more challenging at the end. The language style is very simple and clear.

Don’t expect this book to cover the nuances of dense theological topics in great depth (I don’t think that is possible to do in his 1000-word essay format!) but Hopko covers the essentials of the faith really well. I consider these books to be an ideal resource for someone who is curious about Eastern Orthodoxy but knows nothing about it. The short, to-the-point chapters make it very easy to digest, and Hopko skillfully explains complicated ideas in ways that are simple, yet accurate. Plus, the version available for free on the OCA’s website is very mobile-friendly. This is an essential series of books, a primer on Christianity by one of the most respected English-speaking Orthodox writers in our time.



Prayer Books given in the name of Daniel Holland

The Orthodox Christian community in Malaysia was given a dozen Jordanville prayer books by Father Seraphim Holland, a priest at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in McKinney, Texas. Our community really needed these prayer books, as quite a few of our members did not have any, and understandably they are hard to obtain in Malaysia.

These prayer books were given in the name of Father Seraphim’s son, Daniel Holland, who reposed on the Sunday of All Saints, June 11, 2017 at the age of 20. It is requested that all the Malaysian Orthodox Christians who receive these prayer books remember to pray for Daniel Holland.


Father Seraphim has helpfully provided a webpage with instructions on how to pray for the dead. Father Seraphim’s homily at his son’s funeral is also very instructive in explaining why and how we Orthodox Christians pray for the dead. Text and audio is available at the Ancient Faith Ministries Website .

May his memory be eternal.

The Brothers Karamazov (F. Dostoevsky)

“… we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature- capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation.”

The first time I had heard of this literary classic was from the leader of my college small group when I was going to a protestant church. Having read it, I am a little surprised at the wide appeal of the Brothers Karamazov- I thought it was a thoroughly Orthodox Christian book, and a lot of its themes resonate most deeply to someone fully immersed in Orthodox life. It speaks to the author’s skill that this book has become an enduring favorite nevertheless, even for people completely unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Brothers Karamazov is a story set in late 19th century Russia, centered around the dysfunctions of the titular Karamazov family.  The main driver of the plot is a dispute between the father, Fyodor and his eldest son Dmitri, a tussle that escalates quickly into tragedy.


I enjoyed greatly the strong characterization in this book. In particular, the four Karamazovs are very different people, and Dostoyevsky fleshes them all out beautifully. The patriarch, Fyodor is an amoral old rascal. His eldest son, Dmitri, is a hot-tempered and passionate young man bound by a quixotic sense of honour. The middle child, Ivan is a reserved, cynical intellectual coping with some deep neuroses. Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov, is a sensitive, thoughtful novice at the local monastery. The interactions between these four thoroughly different people create some delightfully memorable scenes.

Alyosha Karamazov is the main character of the story, and we see the events of the story mostly through his eyes. This works a little strangely, since he is the Karamazov brother least directly involved with the central conflict of the book. He influences the story in subtle but decisive ways, and his interactions with the elderly monk Zosima form the spiritual heart of the novel.

The scenes at Alyosha’s monastery are based on Dostoevsky’s visits to the real-life Optina monastery, and Elder Zosima is based loosely on Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk. My favorite passages in the book are Elder Zosima’s homilies, which delve rather deeply into Orthodox thought and theology. These, at the surface rather unrelated to the principal plot of the book, but we see later how they drive Alysoha’s actions in important ways. The monastery scenes contain beautiful discourses on love, forgiveness, refraining from judging others. These discourses are ever more beautiful and necessary given how dark other parts of the book can be.

“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love…”

“Brothers, love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time. Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance.”

There are other very strong philosophical discourses in the book.  A chapter where Ivan Karamazov explains his objections to Christianity, the Grand Inquisitor, is prominent enough to get its own Wikipedia page. It is a credit to the author that he is able to articulate compellingly both Ivan’s arguments against the existence of a benevolent God, and Zosima’s stirring homilies on the necessity of Christian faith.

The story itself feels a little incomplete however, and most of the character arcs seem unfinished.  Apparently people think that this book was supposed to be the first in a series that Dostoevsky was unable to continue before he died. But this is not to say that the novel ends without resolution. We are treated to a wonderful epilogue at the end, at the funeral of a young child, where Alyosha and the dead boy’s friends talk of the hope that they will see him again in the resurrection. This hopeful ending, rather unrelated to the main events of the book, nevertheless ties all the themes of the book together.

This novel is a classic, with a very profound portrayal of Orthodox thinking, and of Christian lives lived well. I think Orthodox Christians especially would get a lot out of the Brothers Karamazov.





Beginning to Pray (A. Bloom)


Anthony Bloom (also known as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh) is a prominent and prolific Christian writer and broadcaster with a fascinating life story. He was a Russian émigré,, whose family fled during the horrors of the communist revolution. They escaped to France, where he became a medical doctor, and participated in the French Resistance when the Germans invaded. He ended up becoming the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland.

His book, Beginning to Pray  starts with an interview where he explains this life story. The rest of the book consists of short essays containing reflections on prayer, or more specifically, on learning how to pray. The focus of the book is pastoral rather than theological.

Beginning to Pray is a brisk read: around 120 pages or so, and the language is clear and lively. There were multiple times, when reading Anthony Bloom’s books that I had to turn back  to the front cover to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up something by C.S. Lewis instead. I felt that their writing styles were very similar, in that both have an uncanny ability to explain difficult concepts with simple and engaging language.

“You remember how you were taught to write when you were small.  Your mother put a pencil in your hand, took your hand in hers, and began to move it.  Since you did not know at all what she meant to do, you left your hand completely free in hers.  This is what I mean by the power of God being manifest in weakness.  You could think of that also in the terms of a sail.  A sail can catch the wind and be used to maneuver a boat only because it is so frail.  If instead of a sail you put a solid board, it would not work; it is the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind.  The same is true of the gauntlet and the surgical glove.  How strong is the gauntlet, how frail is the glove, yet in intelligent hands it can work miracles because it is so frail.  So one of the things which God continues to try to teach us is to replace the imaginary and minute amount of disturbing strength we have by this frailty of surrender, of abandonment in the hands of God.”

The essays are organized around addressing practical obstacles that Christians face in prayer. For instance, the first essay is about the challenge of praying when God feels absent, another is about being “in the moment” and avoiding the impulse to rush through prayer. He relies heavily on example to explain his points: stories from the Bible, from church history, from folklore- he even makes reference to The Little Prince.

There is an emphasis throughout the book on the importance of humility in prayer. When we pray we are encountering God, in all his transcendence and power. A lot of the obstacles to prayer that the Beginning to Pray deals with are a result of regarding this encounter too flippantly. There is also a sense of humility on the part of the author. I did not get the sense that I was getting a lecture on prayer from someone who has figured it all out, but rather that I was reading reflections from someone who has spent his life trying to learn how to pray better himself.
I would add that while the ideas in Beginning to Pray are firmly Orthodox, I think Christians of all denominations would enjoy and appreciate it. As evidence, note that the book is currently being published by Paulist Press, a Roman Catholic publisher. Thus to everyone who struggles with the idea or the practice of prayer, this is a book I would highly recommend.