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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reading Signs From Above

By the standards of Moscow's Orthodox churches, the Christmas Eve congregation at the Church of Our Lady of Tikhvin was small: about 100 men and women. But it was a special congregation, mostly made up of people who could not hear elsewhere the inspiring beauty of Orthodox liturgy.

"Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has dawned upon the world, the light of knowledge," the small choir sang for those who could hear. For those who couldn't, there was a woman in a headscarf standing next to the choir, in a brightly lit small chapel decorated with holiday fir trees, who with her vigorous gestures translated the hymn into sign language.

Standing behind the unusually low Royal Doors, which in Orthodox churches separate the altar from the rest of the chapel, Priest Pyotr Kolomeitsev said his prayers in both voice and hands, frequently pointing on high to signify the word "God."

In another break from Orthodox practice, Kolomeitsev frequently faced the congregation rather than the altar, so that sign readers could follow his service.

Ministry for the deaf is well established in Western Christian denominations. But in Russian Orthodoxy, a small group of devoted activists at the Church of Our Lady of Tikhvin are blazing a new trail. They have developed, almost from scratch, an Orthodox liturgical sign language. And according to Kolomeitsev, they measure their success against the depth of involvement of their churchgoers, rather than the sheer number of them.

Many Western Christian organizations that work with the deaf focus on providing humanitarian aid, Kolomeitsev said. He said Baptists in Russia are particularly active in that regard, with deaf-friendly congregations in about 50 cities.

"We distribute aid too, but that is not the most important work for us. We too had many who came to receive humanitarian aid and then left," Kolomeitsev said. The larger goal, he says, is to help the hearing impaired to be "full-fledged Christians." To that end, members of his congregation take part in services, make group pilgrimages around Russia and abroad, teach in schools for the hearing impaired, and even work in an embroidery workshop for the deaf.

"Russian is hard for [the hearing-impaired], like a foreign language," Kolomeitsev said. "Ordinary deaf people don't usually read, [instead] they watch videos — mostly action movies, porn and comedies where cakes are thrown into faces, so that everything can be understood without translation. Our parishioners have begun to read, and this is very good.

"When I talk to my Western colleagues, I see that they have many things which we don't have, especially as far as the technical equipment is concerned," Kolomeitsev added. "But when they hear that our parishioners read the Synodal [standard Russian translation of the] Bible and not a 'Bible in Pictures,' they are very impressed."

Sweet Incense, Holy Rain

With the visual beauty of ritual and the theological depth of iconography, Orthodox liturgy appeals strongly to senses other than hearing. In recognition of that, Kolomeitsev, an architect by education, ensures that his church has on hand only the highest quality icons and best-smelling incense.

When he sprinkles parishioners with holy water, he is generous with it — it is as if the congregation were under a heavy rain. When he anoints them with oil during vigil services, he doesn't spare it.

But it is rendering Church Slavonic — a language so full of complicated, ancient words that even its adequate translation into modern Russian remains one of the church's unmet challenges — that is perhaps the greatest hurdle facing any church for the deaf.

Luckily, amid the religious revival of the late 1980s, there was Archdeacon Pavel Troshenkin. Troshenkin lost his Soviet-era job as a professional interpreter for the deaf because of official objections to his faith. He became a clergyman and started to organize and translate lectures about Christianity for the hearing impaired and even to invent liturgical hand signs.

In 1991, he won permission from the church leaders to turn his back to the altar and sign parts of the services at Moscow's Novodevichy Convent, where he served.

Soon, two young men — architect Kolomeitsev and physician Andrei Goryachev, who were sacristans at Novodevichy Convent — became involved with Troshenkin's work. They studied sign language and were ordained as priests.

By 1994, it was time to start their own church. They selected Our Lady of Tikhvin, which was part of one of Moscow's largest and richest monasteries, St. Simon Monastery, before St. Simon was mostly destroyed in 1930. Our Lady of Tikhvin's main attraction was that the building did not have pillars or partitions that would obstruct the view of the altar.

Troshenkin, though active in the deaf community of Our Lady of Tikhvin, has stayed at Novodevichy Convent.

Only a few of the main prayers of Russian Orthodoxy were translated in the pre-Revolutionary era for the deaf. So rendering Church Slavonic into sign language has been a major undertaking. Over the past 10 years, the task has been pursued by a team of priests and also by sign-language interpreters, including Maria Danilevskaya, Pavel Afanasyev and Yekaterina Berezina.

Some sign gestures were borrowed from Western European churches, others were simply invented along the way. Kolomeitsev said the team is now ready to move on and systemize its work in books, videotape dictionaries and CD-ROMs.

The Deaf Lead the Blind

To say "Lord, have mercy," Kolomeitsev first raises two fingers high in the letter L — which can stand for Lord in English, or if seen upside down as a Russian G, for Gospod' — and then makes a motion as if caressing one palm with the other.

To say "Patriarch Alexy," the interpreter makes a round motion around her head and rests her hands on her chest, as if outlining the kukol, or patriarchal white headwear. A round downward motion with both hands before one's chest, followed through in a lifting circle, means "salvation." And when the priest says, "Peace be unto all," he first clasps his hands to signify "peace" and then spreads them inclusively toward the congregation.

Speaking through an interpreter, Sacristan Dmitry Balashov recalled how he began to attend Father Pavel Troshenkin's Novodevichy lectures and services in the early 1990s. "He guided me in my faith and opened the beauty of Orthodox liturgy to me," Balashov said. "I can say that since then, I have become a different man."

Balashov was one of seven hearing-impaired men in a special group organized by Kolomeitsev's congregation to study at the St. Tikhon Theological Institute. Today, he spreads the congregation's mission by teaching the "basics of Orthodox culture" in a school for the deaf in Elektrostal, a town outside of Moscow.

Do the deaf have a favorite saint or icon? No, Balashov said — but he has collected more than 20 cases in which the hearing-impaired were healed through prayer.

A small network of hearing-impaired Orthodox parishes has begun to emerge. Kolomeitsev often travels to St. Petersburg to celebrate services for a community there, which is still awaiting its own priest. Occasional interpretation is provided in several churches in the Moscow region where deaf people live or work.

A special partnership exists with a community of blind deaf mutes in Sarapul, Mordovia. Groups from Sarapul sometimes come to Our Lady of Tikhvin, and then the liturgy goes through two translations. Moscow parishioners who can see imitate the signing gestures of the priest or the interpreter; the blind deaf mutes then hold them by the hands, trying to follow sign language by touch.

Unlike the biblical parable about the blind leading the blind and both falling into the ditch, in these situations a man who can see but not hear guides in prayer another who has lost practically all sense but touch.

Kolomeitsev says that one of his small community's main achievements is that it refuses to be pigeonholed as a church exclusively for the deaf.

"The deaf live in their own world, in their ghetto, in their own sub-culture," he said. "They have their schools, their theater, their clubs. Here, people all feel that they are in a normal church. We have not created another ghetto for them. We simply let the hearing impaired into the Russian Orthodox Church."

Those interested in learning more about or contributing to the parish can visit its Internet site,