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Why the Orthodox Priests wear black Clothing?

With respect to God's priests, who daily offer for us the solemn and bloodless Sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ, we will write today about a sacred topic - namely, about the clothes of our bishops, priests, deacons, and monks. In the life of the Church, priestly clothing – mantle (zostiko, or cassock) (undercoat), waistcoat, rasso (upper mantle) and camisole – are not only symbols of the divine grace given to a person who performs the glorious and divine sacraments in the Church of Christ, but also means for maintaining and promoting sanctity and spiritual order.

Therefore, the importance of priestly clothing should not be underestimated. It is a means of strengthening our respect for the Divine, a bridge that connects the worldly with the spiritual life and a constant reminder of the sacred mission of our priests.

Priestly clothing and appearance have roots that go back to the early Christian times, so, we would say, even from before the New Testament era. The divine prophet and king, the psalmist David, solemnly exclaims that the Priests of God will be clothed in justice (Ps. 131:9), referring here, above all, to the inner garment of holiness, but also to the outward appearance of God's priest who derives from it.

Even in the early Church, those who were consecrated in the three sacred ranks: the episcopal, the priestly and the deacon, were obliged to wear different clothes from the laity, modest, serious, and directed, with dark muted colors. Later, such external distinction of the priests from the rest of the people was also legalized by the sacred canons of the Church. Thus, for example, the twenty-seventh canon of the Fifth-Sixth Ecumenical Trullian Council of the year 691 prescribes: "Let no one belonging to the clergy wear indecent clothes, neither when staying in the city nor when traveling, but let him wear which has already been determined for members of the clergy." The sixteenth canon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council from the year 787 in Nicaea provides for the same, which adds that it is forbidden to further decorate the priest's clothing with various additions, embroidery, etc.

So, from the very beginnings of the Christian Church, the people who were chosen to serve the council of the faithful in a sacred capacity, the bishops, priests, and deacons, wore special humble and dignified clothes, to show their devotion and service to God.

Each part of the priestly vestments has a special meaning, revealing their deep spiritual and theological dimension.

The mantles and cassocks worn by bishops, priests, deacons, and monks are symbols of devotion, humility, seriousness and sacrifice. With this garment, sanctified by the deeds of thousands of saints, the devotee shows that he does not conform to the passing fashion and splendor of this world, but that he is clothed in divine grace, as a mediator between God and man.

  1. The mantle (the cassock), or underclothes (zostiko), which is usually black in color, symbolizes the clothing of spiritual mirth and joy, as well as sacred dignity, instead of the nakedness and shame that entered the human race after the disobedience in Eden. The mantle is also called the garment of justice because justice implies every Christian virtue, and consequently the monk, deacon, priest and bishop who wear it should be prepared for a virtuous life. The black color signifies the sorrow due to sin, but also the wandering for the spirit of this world. Of course, the seriousness and chastity that should adorn a servant of God. The underdress should be simple, without special decorations, embroideries, etc. – something that has been observed in recent times – because, as pointed out above, such unnecessary decoration is not allowed either by church canons or by tradition.

  2. The priest's robe – Raso (upper mantle) originates from the ancient cloaks - mandias, that is, from the long and wide robes worn by prominent and official persons from the imperial court, administration, education, etc. From there it spread among bishops and priests. Monks, on the other hand, originally wore mantles without open sleeves, as a symbol that the body and hands of the servants of God are covered for the works of this world and that they are completely in the service of God alone. Today, the cassock is uniform for all priests and usually has long and wide sleeves that evoke seriousness and respect in the onlookers. In fact, in the past, the wide-sleeved frock was worn by teachers and distinguished and managerial figures in our society as well.

  3. The vest, which is worn over the minor, signifies the spiritual shield and armor of faith and covers the torso and waist of the priest, calling for decency and modesty.

  4. The Kamilafka, this sacred hat, symbolizes the spiritual wisdom and divine consciousness of the priest. When the priest wears the chameleon, he reminds us of the call we all must develop our minds towards God, to seek His height, truth, wisdom, and love.

  • Today's priest's cap, a cylindrical camel's hat (made of choy, cardboard, lining and leather around the head opening), with a crown on the top (round and short eaves), was domesticated in the Orthodox world as early as the 17th century and its origin is from the regions of Wallachia and Moldavia. As a noble's hat, it began to replace the bishop's and priest's hats that were not unified, gradually becoming an official part of the dress code of the clergy of the Orthodox Church. At that time, this hat was considered a gentleman's hat and, apart from church dignitaries, prominent nobles, social figures, and teachers also wore it. Since bishops and priests were considered people's leaders, benefactors, and teachers, it became natural for them to wear this hat, which is why it prevailed as a recognizable and generally accepted part of the priest's appearance in the entire Orthodox world, until today. Thus, the black tall camel hat with a wreath on top is today the bishop's, priest’s, and deacon's hat in almost all local Orthodox churches: the four ancient patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem), the Archdiocese of Cyprus, the Orthodox Churches of Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Ukraine, but also in the Uniate churches with Eastern rite, as well as in some pre-Chalcedonian’s churches.

  • Only bishops and priests in the Orthodox Church of Russia wear different hats, the so-called. hats. These are rather high hats, in the form of a truncated cone that expands from the bottom up. These hats were a feature of the Russian boyars, from where afterwards, at the time when the Church of Russia was governed by the secular authorities, they were transferred to the bishops and priests, and even to the monks. The old woolen monastic cap - skuffia - was pushed out, at the expense of the caps, on which the pana is sewn. Russian caps were also imposed in some churches that were under the strong influence of the Russian authorities, such as, for example, in Ukraine and Georgia, but there, too, in recent times, the generally accepted Orthodox kamilavki with eaves have prevailed.

  • An exception to the generally accepted bishop's, priest's and deacon's vestments in the last century is also seen in the local Church of Serbia. There, as an official priest's cap, a hard cloth skuffia with lining and cardboard, in a cylindrical shape, similar to the camel's hat, but without a eaves on the top, similar to the monastic woolen skuffia, characteristic only of the monastic order that places a pana on it, became home. This Serbian modified cap replaced the secular hat worn by priests in royal Yugoslavia under the influence of Austria-Hungary, which, in turn, had previously replaced the classic Orthodox kamilavka. In Serbia, bishops, to distinguish themselves from priests, put a shiny belt of black moiré around the skuffia, which is also a phenomenon that in our conditions was particularly present from the Ottoman practice - namely, the belt, as well as the hat itself, comes from the fez signified the judicial-civil authority of the bishop in his millet, just like the turban of the chimney. However, in recent decades, even in Orthodox Serbia, there has been an increase in the use of the usual generally accepted kamilavki with eaves among the clergy, i.e., their return.

A frequent and widespread occurrence is the wearing of the unofficial soft monastic skuffia (everyday soft monastic cap made of light fabric, for performing work activities) by bishops and priests. It should be noted right away that this practice does not represent something wrong, but we will emphasize that this hat is not intended for religious services and for official appearances in public but is a light hat for carrying out everyday tasks. After all, because according to church tradition, monks and priests always wore a hat, when performing physical tasks, they wore a light cloth covering on their head, so as not to dirty and ruin the hard woolen hats.

A somewhat different type is the so-called "Romanian" scufia, a cylindrical cloth hat with a hard lining and with two notches, which is quite widespread throughout Orthodoxy, but again as an unofficial priest's hat, which has a practical application in everyday life, but not specifically the property of a priest's hat in worship and in general the priestly official service. A special type of scuffia is the so-called "Russian" skuffia, a soft cloth hat with a cross-shaped top, also for informal everyday use.

The Kamilafka with eaves is the official sacred symbol of bishops, priests, deacons, abbots and hieromonks who are in the service of the Metropolis (proto-singles, priest-preachers, parish priests). In some places there was a custom that the bishop's camel was slightly taller than the priest's.

All the above points to the fact that in the Orthodox world, as well as in our immediate environment, there is no form of camel coat that was not invented or that is not worn in parallel with other, conventionally called, models. It indicates the freedom of choice that is allowed, which, in fact, is also a feature of spiritual living in faith - the freedom that leads to truth, in this case to beauty and respect for tradition. The unification of these things is also a particularly useful thing, which should follow the general unification, based on the already established tradition, but also the justified choice, and not the tendency to create local traditions just because of the need for separateness and distinction, which are often motivated by the disease of ethnophiletism, from which the wrong and even inappropriate naming of priestly caps with national names originates.

  • Kukul or Pana (Epanokalimavko). Bishops and hieromonks (monks who are in priestly rank, this includes archimandrites) also wear a pana (epanokalimavko) on top of the camel during religious services and at some official events, as an indication that they come from the monastic order. The Pana is, in fact, the monk's cocoon, which symbolizes the innocence and hope of salvation in which the head is wrapped, as a shadow of God's grace, but also the elevation of the mind through humility and contemplation, as well as God's protection and care for the head with all the senses. Unlike monks, bishops and hieromonks in the service of the Metropolis can wear a panna which is tied to the camisole, while for monks the panna is only imposed on the woolen cap.

  • Of course, in some Churches, both bishops and archimandrites wear the panna imposed on the chasuble, without binding.

The monks in the monasteries wear a characteristic monastic cap, a hard skuffia made of pressed wool, in a cylindrical shape without a eaves, and with it they are distinguished from the priests. During religious services and obligatory meals, the monks also wear a pana (kukul) on top of the hard skuffia. The abbot of a monastery may wear a chameleon with a fringe, as a symbol of his dignity. This phenomenon is common in Romania and Moldova, but it is also found in other places. Unlike the abbot, all other monks wear only a skufia.

Wearing priestly clothes is not just a formal act, but a spiritual necessity and a clear indication of the priest's commitment. It is indisputable that bishops, priests, and deacons, dressed in their appropriate clothing, represent the embodiment of holiness and the divine presence among us and radiate both spiritual and physical physiognomy with the grace of the rank they wear. In that way, they witness to us and call us to a deeper respect and love, both for God and for the sacred clergy of the Church. Because the robe and camellia show spiritual beauty, dignity, and nobility.

Therefore, we invite all the faithful to support our priests with our prayers and love, recognizing their sacred mission and respecting the sacred symbols they carry. It is a service that unites Heaven and Earth, the Divine and the human. In the embrace of the Orthodox faith, priestly clothing not only adorns the appearance of the priest, but also contributes to highlighting our pure and true faith, as formulated through the sacred canons and the decrees of the Holy Fathers. It is a blessing, a beauty, but also a sermon on the streets of our cities, in fact, everywhere in our everyday life, to see and meet priests who wear the clothes prescribed by the tradition of the Church. It will mean an opportunity for the faithful people to receive a blessing, to ask for advice, to beg for comfort, without specifically going to the temple, but also just by simply seeing, to be spiritually satisfied by the beauty of Christ's servant. For the priest, on the other hand, sincere persistence in the tradition means constant zeal in the endeavor, which will undoubtedly bear fruit with gracious gifts from God. Ultimately, it means responsibility towards the act, which we have voluntarily taken upon ourselves and towards the tradition, with respect to which and in whose persistence, we make present all the previous experience of generations of priests and monks.

Our tradition is full of examples of holy and respected priests who humbly and lovingly wore the priestly robes and through them emphasized the importance of external and internal harmony, humility, and holiness.

Finally, we want to make it clear that with this research and explanation of ours, we do not aim at persuasion or - God forbid! – to anger someone, because we ourselves agree with the logical conclusion of popular opinion that clothes do not make the priest. But rather, we agree that observing the traditions means "standing well" in the faith and that God blesses such work with His abundant blessings. Our intention is pious and in the conditions of democratic living, where the exchange of opinions and arguments is useful and welcome, we want to contribute with the attitude that the renewal of traditions should be in accordance with heritage and order, as well as be in the spirit of the council unity, expressed even in small and less important things.

Source: Sacred Monastery of St. john the Baptist - Bigorski Monastery,

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