The Sweet Smoke of Prayer

lotofincenseLet my prayer arise in Your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.  Psalm 141

My parish has a fairly steady stream of visitors from outside the Orthodox experience. Among their first questions are ones concerning the use of incense. There is virtually no Orthodox service that does not include the burning of incense, with the priest or deacon making the circuit of the Church swinging the censer and offering the sweet-smelling smoke before the icons. Orthodox Churches are permeated with this smell of holiness.

Incense is largely foreign to the Protestant experience, and often minimized or absent even in Roman Catholic Churches. It therefore seems strange and exotic. For some, incense is associated with hippies, Hindus and Buddhists, making it highly suspect in a Christian Church. More interesting still is the occasional judgment that it is somehow “Old Testament,” something that should have disappeared along with animal sacrifice.

This last example is worth considering – for it is a sentiment deeply embedded in the modern mind that points to the strange world of the “Two-Storey Universe.”

We read, “Let my prayer arise in your sight as incense,” but what we hear is, “Let the incense be like my prayer…” In the inverted world of modernity, ideas are considered spiritually “real,” while actions and rituals are somehow suspect. “If incense is like prayer, then perhaps it is legitimate,” we reason. And this is precisely how its use is often explained to those who ask.

But this reasoning inverts the Scriptures themselves. For the writer of Psalm 141, the offering of incense to the Lord is spiritual reality. It is an obedience to the command of God and a fulfillment of His divine will. It is “prayer” that is suspect – so much so that he must ask that his prayer be accepted in the same manner as incense.

The modern understanding, in which material efforts are subordinate to mental ones, reveals a very fundamental change in how our relationship with God and God’s relationship to the world is perceived. During the early Roman persecutions of the Christian Church, among the most common demands made of Christians was that of the offering of incense before the image of the Emperor. It was perceived as an act of worship – an honor that belonged to a god. Christians did not disagree with this interpretation – and chose martyrdom instead. The modern Christian would today argue, “But it’s only incense.”

What our thoughts betray is a deep disconnect between the material world and the world of our thoughts. Ideas, with all of their abstract qualities, are seen as the stuff of reality, while material things are somehow superficial and devoid of content. What matters for us is not matter itself – but the ideas that we associate with it. Thus nothing has any inherent meaning – only imputed meaning. Things are only valuable and important because we think they are.

This creates an inner disconnect. We imagine that we live in a material world of inert, meaningless objects. Their worth, their value, their association with good or evil are completely dependent on our thoughts. As such, the entire universe depends on what we think of it. It is little wonder that we stand on the edge of an existential abyss! One false thought and the universe passes into oblivion!

It is entirely false to assume that God instructed Israel to engage in outward, ritual acts of obedience because they were somehow not yet ready for true, inward and “spiritual” worship. The Old Testament itself is replete with commandments regarding the so-called “inner life.”

So rend your heart, and not your garments; Return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and merciful, Slow to anger, and of great kindness; And He relents from doing harm. (Joel 2:13)

For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery for burnt offering; I will direct their work in truth, And will make with them an everlasting covenant. (Isa 61:8)

I hate, I despise your feast days, And I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs, For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. (Amos 5:21-23)

But such pronouncements are in no way an abolition of the ritual commandments of Israel. They are not “bad” because they are material. They are “bad” because the heart that offers them is “bad.” They are wrong because of the hypocrisy that surrounds them. Note that the quote in Isaiah lumps music together with burnt offerings and grain offerings. Yet the modern critique of “ritual” in worship never suggests that singing is a “ritual.”

Nor is there a valid critique of outward, material forms of worship and prayer in the “argument from silence.” “The New Testament never mentions offering incense…therefore we do not use it.” Of course the New Testament does mention the use of incense (Rev. 5:8) offered in heaven (!). There the incense is described in this manner: “Which are the prayers of the saints.” Again, it does not say that the incense is “like” the prayers of the saints. It is the material form that takes precedence.

There is also the prophecy in Malachi that can only be fulfilled after the coming of Christ:

“For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; In every place incense shall be offered to My name, And a pure offering; For My name shall be great among the nations,” Says the LORD of hosts. (Mal 1:11)

But these are simple historical arguments. I want to press the point of the mistaken notion that outward things, material things, have an inferiority to inward ideas and attitudes. The judgments in Joel, Isaiah and Amos are not judgments on actions themselves, but on the disconnection between outward action and inner thought or intention. The commandment to us is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your strength.” Heart is an inward matter – strength is an outward matter. Soul is the union of the two.

The experience of the Tradition is that all of these are necessary to a healthy spiritual life. It is a commonplace in the ascetical teaching of the Fathers to note that the body will inwardly do what the body does outwardly. And so they direct us to face the East when we pray (while offering clear meanings for such an action). They direct us to bow or kneel or make prostrations in the same manner.

The inward prayer would therefore be something like this: “May the prayer of my heart be like the prostration that I make before you.” It is an offering of humility. But human beings are constructed in such a manner that we are intended to live with integrity (which means with “singleness”). The prayer of a humble heart that is not matched by the actions of a humbled body can often be something less than it should be (and vice versa).

And so we do both.

Let my prayer arise in Your sight as incense and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.



  1. I enjoyed the post, Father. The late Episcopal priest Father Ben Lavey was known to have remarked to folks who complained about incense: “According to the Bible, there are only two smells in the afterlife — brimstone and incense. You need to choose which one you need to get used to.”

  2. Bless you Father Stephen for this post.
    These past weeks I have spent much time in a form of agony over the utterly abstract nature of ‘faith’ as practised (and I guess that word should also be in quote marks?) in the West. This post dropped into my inbox at just the right moment
    Glory to God

  3. Father, is there not an element of purification that the incense provides our prayers and our hearts as we lift them up together?

  4. Wonderful! I love the simplicity of understanding that both the physical and the spiritual are parts of the fullness of worship. Thank you Father!

  5. Michael,
    I can easily understand why that question would come up when we bow and “get incensed” by the priest…

  6. Father, would you be agree your argument also works for instruments in worship? They were clearly an element of the Temple worship (e.g., 1 Chronicles 25) and are mentioned as a part of the heavenly Liturgy that also mentions incense (Apocalypse 5.8). Not interested in introducing the praise band to Orthodoxy (Lord have mercy), but could we not use harps in worship by this logic?

  7. David,
    There’s functional and non-functional music. The type of Classical symphonic music you listen to in a concert hall without performing any other function to it is the best example of purely non-functional music. Functional type music is stuff like ‘war-drumming’ (psyching you up is their function), folk or even club music (dancing is their function), byzantine chant (prayer function). A key with functional music is that one can never truly appreciate it fully while not taking part in its function. So, for example, one who does not dance will never ‘get’ why one who is going quite crazy to a beat likes that monotonous thing and wants it to stay in that ‘zone’ for such a long time.
    Now, to the point: with harps etc in worship, my own personal thoughts are that as there are no words involved in instrumental music, in the same way as they obviously are a totally integral part of chanting, the functional element of this music [which ought to be functional ‘prayer-music’] becomes compromised. It wouldn’t be a problem if it was more of a non-functional type, but it cannot really become that, can it?

  8. David,
    Yes, musical instruments could certainly be allowed by this logic. That, of course, would presume that Orthodoxy arrives at such decisions by logic. The agreed usage of the church was restricted to the human voice in honor of the incarnation. After the incarnation, the human voice is now without compare as a musical instrument.

  9. The reason I ask about purification is that in reading the OT and the foundation of the tabernacle, it began to seem as if we are offering our sins along with the incense. Course I could be wildly off.

  10. Michael,
    I am not so sure about what I am going to say, but, when I am being “censed” in Church, I bow simply because I deem myself unworthy, and cross myself to say that it is the Lord alone who is worthy of incense. Please correct me Father if I am mistaken.

  11. A better question, I guess: if a community wants to use certain (perhaps biblical) instruments in worship without disrupting the Liturgy or drawing away attention from God, and by no means as a replacement for the human voice but in symphony under its direction, is there any good theological reason to deny them such a liturgical pleasure?

  12. David,
    There’s no such thing as “theological pleasure.” The liturgy is not for us but for God, something we offer Him. Nor is the Tradition subject to a sort of “wouldn’t be ok if” kind of treatment. It is true that a few Churches in the Greek Archdiocese use organs. If their bishop blesses it, then it is what it is. Though there is widespread thought within Orthodoxy that this is an innovation that should disappear. What I would note is that, according to my understanding, new organs are not appearing. This was more of a 20th century phenomenon that for various historical reasons took place but is not spreading but receding.

    The good theological reason is as I have noted: the voice is the sublime musical instrument. The Tradition directs its usage. That’s subject to all kinds of pastoral and cultural change – Africa is quite noteworthy. But America, to my mind, would not fit the same or similar pattern.

    But I’m only a parish priest with theological training. What a Bishop would say is known only to a Bishop. I can’t think of any Bishops in my Synod who would bless such a thing. But, who knows?

  13. A question, Fr. Stephen.

    While I am certainly not at odds with the overall direction of your article, the question of imputed meaning is, to me, an interesting one and not without significance.

    While I do not view matter inert and meaningless, the meanings we humans give it with our thoughts/beliefs can be very important. (Contrast how in our culture one feels about a beloved pet dog while, in another culture, one might consider the same creature a delicacy for consumption.)

    Since cultures vary, sometimes greatly, with regard to their imputed meanings, how does one distinguish among spiritual practices to discern what are acceptable cultural variations vs. what falls outside of “Truth”? This would seem particularly complicated when Tradition, arising in certain cultural contexts, begins expanding into very different cultures.

    As much as we might like to believe otherwise, none of us is really capable of viewing life outside of our cultural exposures.

    A somewhat related question/comment has to do with music, as raised by David above. While I see the beauty of honoring the incarnation, to me (poor RC that I am), I do not see how musical instrumentation dishonors it in any way. I am not raising this issue to defend the RC use of such (which ranges from sacred to fiasco) but rather to bring that into the question of acceptable cultural variation vs. outside of Truth. You mentioned Africa…how is the pastoral/cultural operative there? This is a facet of Orthodoxy with which I am not familiar.

    As always, thanks for much to ponder.

  14. Mary,
    Yes. The matter of imputed meaning is quite the point. There is, of course, imputed meaning, as you noted. But that is not to say that imputed meaning is the actual end of the matter. Matter is capable of carrying meaning within itself. This is true of the sacraments, for example. They are not just the Body and Blood of Christ, etc., because I think they are. They are the Body and Blood of Christ regardless of what I think, else sacrilege would be nothing at all. I could slowly multiply this on out.

    Discerning meaning that transcends culture is not easy, but is certainly possible – for meaning is – ultimately – the “logos” of something – which is the gift of God – not simply in the mind of man.

    As to music.

    I did not say that musical instruments dishonor. First, acapella music is the received Orthodox Tradition. It is what we do and have done throughout our history. The reasoning behind it (which is more like a commentary than a canon law) is that the use of the human voice exclusively is done in order to honor the incarnation.

    Another example of such a thing was done at the 6th Ecumenical Council in which it was forbidden to portray Christ as a Lamb any longer, out of respect for the Incarnation of Christ as a Man. It did not have to be ruled that way – but it was ruled that way – and we keep it because it was so ruled. We sing for the same manner. It is what the Fathers have taught us. They could have done it differently (according to a different reason), but they did it in the manner they did.

    In hindsight, it has been, I think, a great wisdom. For though there is much beauty to be found in a musical instrument – the “wordless” quality of such sounds (versus the verbal quality of the voice) “disincarnates” music and reduces it to sentiment rather than sense.

    Then there is, of course, the ample “nonsense” of so much silly music found in Churches today – a point I’ll not belabor. On the whole the Tradition has served the Orthodox very wisely.

    I cited Africa because I have seen videos of Orthodox services in Africa (and quite anciently in Ethiopian Orthodoxy) where rhythm (drums) play a very important role. But that is quite important in the character of much of African culture and is an “economy” a “permission” that seems to be extended in the growing missionary work in Africa by the Orthodox. The heavy influence of Protestant and Catholic missions in Africa are quite possibly a factor as well.

    In truth, instrumental music in Churches is relatively new – very much a Medieval invention. The Orthodox are simply adhering strictly to a common part of our common Tradition. There might be more than a few Catholic thinkers out there who are aware of this and would agree with it (especially if it meant getting rid of the nonsense).


  15. Father, bless: Very interesting article. The frequent use of incense is one of the things that brought back memories of my RC childhood and attracted me to Orthodoxy. I really hate it when people call liturgical churches “smells and bells” as it it were meaningless or anachronistic. It’s interesting to ne how some will criticize the use of incense (and candles) in church but they have no problem with using such materials for secular functions like dinner parties or for seductive purposes like one sometimes sees in those over-the-top Romantic movies. Sure, incense is bad to worship, but perfectly ok for getting sex? Puhleez! Question for you though, Father. What do you say to those who say churches shouldn’t use incese due to fragrance allergies? I hear the Episcopals stopped using it for that reason.

  16. Father Freeman,
    What are your thoughts on burning incense during prayers in the home in front of the family icons? Are there “rules” about this? Thanks

  17. Mary said:

    “As much as we might like to believe otherwise, none of us is really capable of viewing life outside of our cultural exposures.”

    To which Fr. Stephen said:

    “Discerning meaning that transcends culture is not easy, but is certainly possible – for meaning is – ultimately – the “logos” of something – which is the gift of God – not simply in the mind of man.”

    I hesitate a little to call what Mary said a good example of “nominalism”, as there is a truth in what she says that goes beyond the nominalist vs. realist view. Still, there is something a bit foreboding about the idea of being quite literally “trapped” by a culture or “age”. How would we ever break out of the zeitgeist (currently, a Godless materialism)? Despite it’s power, surely culture is not determinative of truth itself (thereby relativizing truth because plainly there are a multiplicity of cultures)?

  18. Here in Kenya, drums aren’t (normally) used during the Liturgy itself but may be used during the “praise and worship” time that follows in most parishes. More problematic to me is the fact of rich parishes buying electric keyboards and blaring a beat during Communion, for example. This is justified by saying, “Well, people like contemporary music and dancing; if we don’t give them what they’re looking for they won’t come to our church.” I mostly keep quiet, avoid parishes with keyboards as much as possible, and wonder if I’ll ever find the right words to express my discomfort with this practice.

  19. Having lived in the US for most of my life before moving to Cyprus, I can honestly say that when I do return to visit family, I find the organ used at my parent’s church to be out of tune, jarring actually, with the Liturgy – especially when I compare it to the magnificent chanting we are blessed to listen to in various churches and monasteries throughout the States, and of course, here, in Cyprus. I sincerely doubt whether you would find any Orthodox Christians from traditionally Orthodox countries in favor of using instruments during Liturgy. I am glad to read that its use in the Greek Orthodox churches in the US is on the wane.

    To the questions raised about using incense in the home, I would answer that it depends on where you’re from and how it’s used. My Greek grandmother used to burn incense, first before the icons in the house, and then before each of us every morning, and then she would cense the entrances. She said prayers as she did this. Since I grew up with it, I never questioned it.
    I suppose however, that what she did was similar to the manner in which we cense the icons, people, and our homes here in Cyprus…the only difference being that we use olive leaves that we bring to church on Palm Sunday – and then dry until Pentecost – in place of incense. As we cense, we pray the Jesus prayer throughout, or when censing before icons, we invoke their intercessions. My mother-in-law had explained that we do this for protection and for blessings. It is not looked upon as usurping the role of the priest, but rather as being of the “royal priesthood” to which we are all called.
    As to the use of the olive leaves in Cyprus, I would say that this probably stems from traditional, cultural practice, and is most definitely related to the dove bringing an olive leaf to Noah. Here, before couples are married, at the homes of the bride and the groom where a “stolisma”/dressing tradition takes place at each, special silver censers are used – with olive leaves – to cense in a clockwise motion over the heads of the prospective groom and bride 3x – in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The parents, grandparents and godparents and other close relatives do the censing.
    Censing also takes place at each grave, where a votive olive oil “cantili”/lamp and a censer with olive leaves, matches, olive oil are kept in a special storage compartment in the back of the tombstone. It is expected that anyone visiting the grave will light the lamp and cense the grave.
    I write all these things, because I know, growing up in the States, I was witness to only some of them – and am aware that most of the readers have been witness to none of them. I think windows into traditional Orthodox life are very helpful to those willing to live Orthodox. I know, I, for one, am grateful for all I have been blessed to learn and always look forward to learning still more.
    Living now in a country that is traditionally Orthodox, I can see how prayers – and incense – are with us – everyday, from birth (prayers are offered at 3 days, 8 days and churching takes place at 40 days) until and including after death.
    Blessings to all!

  20. Quick correction: Under your set of quotes from the Prophets, you mention that the Isaiah passage also references music, but it’s the Amos one that does this.

  21. Unyielding though it may appear, I appreciate Elder Paisios’ stance on such things – which includes a much wider context than just the music. He would, for instance, right to the very end of his days, always be taken back to his hut riding on a mule (after a ‘synaxis’ at a far away Monastery such as Simonopetra) rather than be driven back in comfort, as he did not want to condone the (perfectly acceptable for the vast majority) innovation of ‘cars in Athos’…!
    There are Elders who even make do without electricity on Athos today, and the funny thing is that the “if we don’t give them what they’re looking for they won’t come to our church” notion works the other way round for their visitors who are far more engrossed by the Spiritual rather than the sensual aspect of the services.
    There is a fine balance to be achieved in all this. Especially within the Church, were the balance between hesychastic compunction and celebratory exaltation needs to be of a priestly, sacred, solemn character rather than a worldly, secular, popularly mellifluous character. It is very similar to all the rules than need to be adhered to in sacred iconography so that it does not just become –as it did in the West- an art form that has the same realism as the art of this world.
    I struggle to comprehend some (few) secularised cradle-Orthodox who hanker after sweet harmonies and instrumentations during services, without recognizing whence,/i> these affections and influences come from…! It’s not just that they are a “turn-off” due to their lack of solemnity and priestliness, (which is the main point of course) but they also make ecclesiastical music enter into a sort of competition with what are essentially wordly, secular attributes. (As someone who majored in composition, I see that this would be a losing battle anyhow).
    I recognise it might sound a little strong, but I think that all deviations from the standard of tradition ought to always be understood as an “economy”/permission (even including those fairly stark harmonies found in the Russian tradition – which were western influences to start off with).
    The “if we don’t give them what they’re looking for they won’t come to our church” notion speaks volumes of secularisation and westernisation… The Church is about the ‘
    ‘otherness’ rather than “giving them” what, in any case, they can also find elsewhere. It is the reverse of St Isaac’s famous [quality rather than quantity] sayings that a single person who truly ‘knows’ God -even if they are hidden in a cave-, is infinitely more valuable for the entire universe than others who return thousands upon thousands to the faith.

  22. Father Stephen,

    A brief comment on the use of drums in the Ethiopian church… Drums, lyre, and other instruments mentioned in King David’s Psalms are only used _outside_ liturgy. The use of these instruments and the music itself is traceable to the 5th century and even before to Judaism in Ethiopia.

  23. I appreciate the comments on incense and instruments and particularly those that clarify the place of instruments and drums in the African Churches.

    I only had hearsay to go on…the comments of those who live there are quite helpful.

    All of these things will seem almost like quibbles to the non-Orthodox, as though we were advocating some extreme puritanism viz. music. But it is not so. Again, I need only point to all of the surrounding Churches, including our Catholic neighbors, to illustrate the wisdom of the Fathers.

    A shift occurs with the introduction of instruments, it seems. The shift is towards those worshipping rather than the One who is worshipped, and all of the arguments for their use depend on the pleasure of the people. With that, the wrong questions are introduced and only wrong answers can result.

    I have written a great length before about the mystery of music – probably nothing in the life of the Church is more important. It is still too easily taken for granted when it should be approached like the mystery that it is.

    There is obviously a place for entertainment in people’s lives and for singing and dancing and making merry 🙂 Tragically, particularly in America, music has been highly sexualized (as has almost all of our culture). True folk music and folk dancing are non-existent for the most part. Modernity is deeply post-human – in that very normal, once universal human customs and practices, have been forgotten and replaced with contemporary consumer versions that are destructive to true culture and what it means to be human.

    When Zorba’ heart is full – he can dance (from sadness or joy). Modern man just gets drunk, high, or hires a therapist.

    The cultural argument – particularly in the modern context – is not actually about culture. Modernity is the “anti-cultural.” It is not a true cultural product but a consumerist invention. At the moment there can only be “remembered culture” because the contemporary world has almost nothing to offer.

    And we are exporting this consumerist version as quickly as it can be manufactured. The Beast is not conquering us, we are paying it to devour us.

  24. Father,

    This is all very true indeed:

    “Modern man just gets drunk, high, or hires a therapist […] At the moment there can only be “remembered culture” because the contemporary world has almost nothing to offer […] And we are exporting this consumerist version as quickly as it can be manufactured. The Beast is not conquering us, we are paying it to devour us.

    Moreover, it is a great pity that, for those few that do actually yearn an “escape from the Matrix”, the options that they stumble upon are already pre-provided from within the same “Matrix”, and are not the truth of Orthodoxy; they’re the many specious substitutes – which I’ll try and circumvent listing here.

  25. To the point about functional music and the use of instruments in Orthodox Churches, I completely agree. This is a topic I have been reading about for my Sunday School class.

    My first choir director of blessed memory, a beautiful woman – 40 years my senior – always taught that the hymns of the faith are intended to focus our thoughts on the of a feast or saint – the theology of that day. The hymns are sung/chanted, unaccompanied, through voice and contain the theological teaching of the Church.

    I have even heard that it might be true that sermons were once sung too. 😉

    Orthodox chanting/singing embosses our theology into our memory and consciousness and just as important, it also links any emotional response – be it joy, compunction etc. to the words contained in the hymn.

    So we don’t use instruments because music bereft of words can create an atmosphere or emotion, but it is an emotion unbounded – without movement or direction – because there is not a theology or idea behind it. If there is an emotional reaction to Orthodox hymns it is brought about not by a mood created by music, but by a reaction to the words expressed by the song/chanting.

    Saint Basil the Great writes about music being bound with words in our services and says: ” Inasmuch as the Holy Spirit knows that it is difficult to lead mankind toward virtue, that because of our inclination toward pleasure we are negligent of the path of righteousness, what does He do? To instruction He adds the pleasantness of sweet singing, so that together with what is delightful and harmonious to the ear we might receive in an imperceptible fashion that which is beneficial in the word. To this end harmonious hymns and psalms have been invented for us…”

    Father, please feel free to correct me on anything I may have misstated.

  26. “And we are exporting this consumerist version as quickly as it can be manufactured. The Beast is not conquering us, we are paying it to devour us.”

    This reminded me of something Saint Nikolai Velimirovic’s said in his homily from Oct 19th (Prologue from Ochrid)

    “…Is not everything around us infirm? Does not everything around us quickly decay? We grab at shadows, we embrace corpses. We pay today for tomorrow’s stench-we pay with gold and silver, sometimes with our honor and conscience, and at times even with our life-for the stench of tomorrow’s decay! This is not love but animal lust…”

  27. Indeed all public prayer was ideally ‘intoned’, in a restrained musicality so that there is no ‘expressionism’ of my emotions [as a chanter, priest etc.] but like the Baptist once said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” We certainly see this in iconographic ‘regulations’.
    This restraint is exceptionally wise for many reasons. Neither pedestrian-spoken, nor overtly musical with harmonies and counterpoint, there’s a dignified solemnity that has a clear purpose. The general advise to those who are responsible for music/chanting is that we do not primarily express our emotion –even if it is a ‘spiritual’ emotion-, we serve a ministry for the congregation’s profit.

  28. My experience with Orthodox chanting and music is that it takes time to get used to it, and it takes getting used to it for the explanations to begin to “feel right.” That said, I think it is one of the most prominent aspects of Orthodox worship that are not well understood. And yet, the directions Dino cites are part of the instruction that should be given to all readers.

    My first Divine Liturgy as an Orthodox priest was the Liturgy of St. Basil. I was ecstatic to be standing again as a priest (having been an Anglican priest for 18 years before) and to offer the bloodless sacrifice. My Archbishop was sitting in the altar observing me, and occasionally shuttling a comment or two to me during the service.

    My first “rebuke,” delivered ever so gently, was to drop the emotion out of my reading of the Anaphora. My enthusiasm had been booming all over the place – such that I forgot what I was doing. Sobriety returned and I “monotoned” in the Orthodox manner the rest of the prayer. There’s a lot of “on the job training” in Orthodoxy. 🙂

  29. Interesting. Reminds me a bit of Merleau-Ponty, who John Milbank has described amusingly as a “decapitated catholic theologian” who furthered Heidagaar’s point that the world never has meaning added to it, but meaning is there already found, especially in the doing. Which is also to Charles Taylor’s point; it’s as if modern man stripped the entire world of it’s previously assumed to be inherent, embedded meanings, and then placed them in this mysterious invisible thing called an “unconscious” whose center is the individual, who then merely projects said meanings onto a neutral dead world….

  30. ” it’s as if modern man stripped the entire world of it’s previously assumed to be inherent, embedded meanings, and then placed them in this mysterious invisible thing called an “unconscious” whose center is the individual, who then merely projects said meanings onto a neutral dead world….”

    Indeed, as Fr. Stephen points out in his “Christian Materialism” essay from a few weeks ago, nominalism is one of the giant unexamined presuppositions of the modern mind. Think of all the permutations of this idea; neo-Freudiasm as you point out, cultural determinism, “the medium is the message”, etc. etc. etc….

  31. Thank you for posting. I have a curiosity question. In the picture, the thurible lid is open several inches. Does the priest lift the chain to open the lid to allow more air across the coals, thus more smoke released when censing? Or, is this a mere photo-styling by amateurs?

  32. Steven,
    Yes. The lid of the censer is lifted some to allow more air to flow. In my experience, if the lid is down, the coal is likely to die. Of course, swinging a censer with the top lifted is also part of its danger. Normally, centrifugal force keeps everything okay. But, for example, when I serve Vespers, I am wearing a very large-sleeved garment (Riassa). More than a few times the censer has gotten caught on the sleeve and dumped is red hot content on the floor! There are techniques to avoid this – but sometimes accidents still happen! Every Orthodox Church I’ve been in has burn marks on its floor or carpets (except where the floors are stone, etc.).

    Interestingly, there are symbolic understandings of the live coal (it is Christ in most of the meditations I’ve seen). So, it’s worth a little danger. As CS Lewis said of Aslan, “He’s not exactly a tame lion.”

  33. Father Bless,
    I have been quietly following your blog for a few years..and have read your book. Both have been extremely helpful on this journey!
    Forgive me for re asking what may seem to be a silly question, but
    I was given incense from a Serbian friend who insisted I needed to burn it at home… She purchased it from a monastery. Our parish is full of zealous converts that are very particular about the ” how it’s done” rather than the ” it’s done to unite me to Christ” that I am shy to even ask what to do with the incense.
    Without trying to be nit picky but to show you why I ask…there is so much talk about holy trash and what belongs in it…or crumbs from the blessed bread getting on the floor and each one being picked up so carefully that it can make one so nervous about using incense incorrectly. (thankfully I have seen Greeks just relax enjoy the blessed bread)

    I hope this makes sense.

  34. The incense is burnt usually by placing on a coal. The ashes may be disposed of in any general manner. I understand about the “holy trash” fastidiousness. It sometimes goes too far –

    If you have a censer (for burning incense in the home) that’s what I’d use. I use it in the home in my prayer corner and in my prayer corner in the office in that manner. In truth, any thing that can safely hold a coal can be used for burning the incense.

    Many people would benefit spending a month or two in a small village in Romania, Serbia, Greece or Russia and watching the simplicity and naturalness of Orthodoxy in a normal, organic manner.

  35. All I can say is, “Wow.” It’s a great post, and a great set of comments. Thank you to everybody.

    A couple of things. I grew up in an Episcopal parish in Vermont. In the 1970s, the rector introduced the use of incense at major feast days (Christmas, Easter, etc.). It was of poor quality, excessively smoky, and handled overly theatrically. It came across as an self serving innovation — sort of a self-referential statement (i.e., “Look how liturgical we are”). The handling of incense in the Orthodox parish I attend in others I have visited appears normal, an organic part of the liturgy, and makes sense in a way it did not back in Vermont. A comprehensive understanding of the tradition, and immersion in it, is clearly different from an a la carte adoption of superficial aspects of the tradition.

    As for the music, I probably stayed in the Episcopal Church I did because of the music. I sang in choirs, and loved singing Bach, Handel, Haydn, Rachmaninoff and other great choral works, accompanied by an organ (or even a small ensemble). But, over time, I realized that I loved the music more than anything else, and that, in a very real way, my priorities were misplaced. I looked down on “praise music” because it did not conform to my taste, but I was blind to the fact that I thought that Bach, Handel and the rest were acceptable primarily because they conformed to my taste. I was viewing the offertory anthem essentially as entertainment — a pleasant interlude to be sure, but not truly worship.

    I started attending an Orthodox parish, and the priest there observed that Bach and Handel were great, but in the concert hall, not in the liturgy. He was right, of course. The and the simplicity and beauty of Orthodox chanting is integral to the liturgy — it cannot be confused with entertainment. The closest I have seen in the Western tradition was at a visit to a Benedictine monastery about 50 miles from where I live. They use Gregorian chant — without accompaniment, naturally.

    Now, the absence of Bach et al. in the liturgy has, for me, exposed the poverty of my faith and understanding. I cannot rely on the emotional “high” I get from certain forms of music to confuse me into thinking that I am doing anything but struggling with faith. But, in the end, that is not a bad thing. It is, after all, a beginning.

  36. Music will always have to power to sway the soul one of the many reasons it should be approached carefully especially in a liturgical context. It must seamlessly interrelate with the rest of the liturgy.

    I have participated in Divine Liturgies in which there was a single chanter besides the priest. I have participated in Divine Liturgies a well practiced choir for 30+ members. Frankly, there is no significant difference to me. I either pray or I don’t. I enter into the mystery or I don’t.

    The music helps me pray (one or many chanting); the music helps orient my heart to a specific direction that is appropriate for the day and season, but it is only one part.

  37. The smoke wasn’t so sweet for my wife the first time she came reluctantly with me to an Orthodox church. It was summer in Fresno and the church A.C. was out. My wife doesn’t wear perfumes as the essence bothers her. The incense was thick that particular morning hanging limp in the stifling air. My wife’ s face was growing redder with each passing minute. At the end of liturgy I asked my wife if she’d like to go forward and greet the priest…to which she responded, “Dean, get me out of here , get me out of here right now!” I did. Now nearly 20 years later she gladly smells sweetly of incense following each liturgy.:)

  38. Dean, I am a scent-sensitive person. I have to avoid candle stores, etc or I end up sneezing and wheezing. I can’t stand most perfumes either. Occasionally the incense will ‘get me’. My solution is to relax and breath deeply. Usually the ‘sensitive’ reaction goes away.

  39. Metropolitan Anthony used to relate that when he was an adolescent before his conversion on being taken to church he would take advantage of the incense to breathe in very deeply until he fainted and was carried out of the church…

  40. Stuff is just Stuff. All things have a Moral and an Immoral use: Knife, fork, baseball bat, drugs, etc. Therefore, instruments as well. The problem is how can we use them to Compliment the Atmosphere and The Message we should have in worship. Music itself must be described. The Evangelicals have fled the subject since the RockAndRoll days. I heard pastors fold, under the pressure of the Desires Of The Teens in the 1960’s. I finally got some answers from a professional in Orchestral music. The problem is that no one wants to hear it. When it comes to music, people lose their minds and say, “But I like this!” Well, there are a Lot of things I LIKE that are not good or Right!!!. Best wishes on using music properly. It is a struggle that Few want to define! It is Work. It is a Technical field AS Is Any Profession.

  41. Stuff is not stuff. Stuff is made to hold and release the life of God. It is the elements of sacrament.

    Of course there are ways to desecrate what God has made making it “just stuff” or even the agent of evil but that is not simply a matter of utility.

    Approaching things from a utilitarian manner already is going in the wrong direction from the beginning.

    Stuff should always be approached with awe and thanksgiving.

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