No spiritual activity permeates Orthodoxy as much as veneration. For the non-Orthodox, veneration is often mistaken for worship. We kiss icons; sing hymns to saints; cry out “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” And all of this scandalizes the non-Orthodox who think we have fallen into some backwater of paganized Christianity. It is not unusual to hear Orthodox who more or less apologize for this activity and seek to minimize it. “We are only trying to give honor to the saints, etc.” What is lacking, all too often, is a vigorous explanation for the work of veneration and its central place in the Christian life.
The normal mode of “seeing” in our daily world can be called “objective.” We see things as objects, and nothing more. Indeed, we see most people as objects unless we have reason to do otherwise. Sometimes we see people as objects in order not to see them as otherwise. But this objective viewing is an extremely limited and limiting way of seeing anything. Veneration brings us to a different form of seeing.
It is carefully noted in the accounts of Christ’s resurrection that he is unrecognized at first, and on more than one occasion. Mary Magdalen mistakes Him for the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus talk with Him while they are walking but do not recognize Him until the moment at which He disappears. The disciples who are fishing do not recognize Him until after they have a miraculous catch of fish.
The silliest explanations of these failures to recognize are the ones that try to attribute it to grief. The stories clearly have something else in mind. That something else is particularly revealed in Christ’s encounter with Mary Magdalen. She thinks He is the gardener and wants to know where the body of Jesus has been moved to. But suddenly this “gardener” calls her by name, “Mary.” And she recognizes Him.
What has taken place is the change from an objective seeing to a personal seeing. It is only in the realm of personhood that we experience communion. We do not commune with “mere” objects. The Resurrection, among many things, represents the triumph of the personal over the objective/material. The Resurrected Christ cannot be seen in an objective manner, or, at least, He cannot be seen for who He is in such a manner. It would be more accurate, or helpful, to say that He is discerned, or perceived, rather than merely seen. Both “discerned” and “perceived” imply something more from the observer than simple seeing.
Veneration is far more than the acts of bowing, kissing, crossing oneself, offering incense or lighting candles. Those things become veneration when they are offered towards the person who is made present in an icon. An icon that becomes an object ceases to be a true icon and becomes mere art, or worse, the object of a fetish. The Fathers taught that an “icon makes present that which it represents.” The veneration of an icon is an encounter with a person.
It is worth noting that in the canonical painting of an icon, persons are not portrayed in profile (other than the devil and Judas). We always encounter them face-to-face. The impersonal, objective treatment of another person is an act of shaming and inherently hides our own face from them.
At some point, the Church’s use of iconography became distorted and became the Church’s use of art. Art is interesting and serves the end of beauty (when done well). But this development in the Church (primarily in the West, but then occasionally in the East as well, as certain styles were copied) represents a turning away from the icon as encounter and the objectification of human beings and nature. It is among the many serious steps that created the notion of a secularized world.
Jesus, as an artistic subject, is equally accessible to all. His use in art renders Him as object. Indeed, Jesus is frequently used to “make a statement.” But this is the anti-icon, the betrayal of the personal as made known to us in the Resurrection. Christ becomes historicized, just one object among many to be dissected and discussed.
Of course, Christians are free. We may decorate our lives with art as we choose so long as we don’t confuse art with iconography, nor religious sentiment with spiritual encounter. But our engagement with art can easily overtake our experience of icons. Our culture knows how to “see” art, but icons remain opaque. Only the true act of veneration reveals what is made present in an icon.
I can recall my first experience with an icon. I had bought a print from St. Vladimir’s and mounted it. I would have it in front of me during my prayer time. I would look and think, and look harder. I think I expected to “see” something or for there to be a trail of thoughts inspired by my looking. But it was simply empty. I was a young college-age Anglican at the time and had no idea how to find my way into the world of an icon.
Some decades later, I became Orthodox, having written a Master’s thesis on the theology of icons and come to understand them. The summer following my conversion, I visited St. Vladimir’s Seminary for my first time. I was surprised when I walked into the chapel to see that the icon of the Virgin on the iconostasis was the original of the small print I had begun my journey with. And then I could see her. All of the journey seemed intensely personal, without accident or caprice. She had brought me home!
This is something that veneration begins to reveal to us. We do not think about the saints or imagine them. In their icons and our veneration, we come to know them. We see them face to face and even learn to recognize them and their work and prayers in our daily lives. The world is not accident and caprice. It is deeply intentional and personal, and conspiring towards our salvation.
The “objects” in our lives are nothing of the sort. It is only the dark and callous objectivity of the modern heart that has so disenchanted reality. We imagine ourselves the only sentient beings marooned on a small, blue planet in space. We wonder if there is “life” out there, as if there were anything else anywhere.
The world is icon and sacrament. But it cannot be known until we see it face to face. Listen to these sweet words from St. John of Damascus (7th century):
I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.
To truly “know” a person, we must experience them. Not as objects, but as subjects, personal, living and acting. Veneration is one way to know a person. Prayer is another. Together, through veneration and prayer the process of knowing a person is magnified greatly. In my room I have stacks of theological books. On my walls I have icons. Even my desk top on this computer is the Icon, Xristos Pantakrator from Mt Sinai. As I spend my time in prayer, looking into the eyes of our Lord I experience Him in a way that makes my books hay and stubble. I have learned far more about Him as a person through prayer than I could ever learn by reading. Why? Because by combining prayer and veneration I have experienced Him in a very real and personal way. Thank you Father, for bringing this to mind by your article.
Fr. Deacon Nicholas,
When working on my thesis, “The Icon as Theology,” I began to understand how key veneration was to icons and to everything. It was life-changing. That was about 7 years before my Orthodox conversion. When I was doing my thesis defense at Duke, Stanley Hauerwas (who was on my committee) said, “Fr. Stephen, Do you believe the veneration of icons to be necessary to salvation?”
It was a life-changing question. Anglican priests (which I was at the time), take an oath that Scriptures of the “Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation.” So Hauerwas’ question was loaded, and we both knew it. I replied, acknowledging what my oath of ordination contained, but added, “However, I have come to believe that the veneration of icons is necessary to its fullness.”
The next morning, I knelt by my bed and asked God to “make me Orthodox.” How could I possibly want less than the “fullness of salvation.” The 7 years that followed were not easily, nor was the path straight. My soul underwent a lot of trials, and I failed more than a few.
But what I had seen and come to know, and the simple prayer I prayed remained. In His good time, the Lord heard me. I think that without icons, I would never have known, understood, nor come to the light of the Orthodox faith.
I give thanks without end!
Amen, Father. It seems to me that Icons are necessary in giving us the “fullness” of the faith, because they do so by giving us the persons in a way no book ever could. It is like the discussion of venerating and touching the Icon with the forehead. What better way to be face to face could there be? I actually saw someone (not Russian) do it in worship this morning. It was heart warming.
Seeing things now from an Orthodox perspective, I would say that it is truly essential. On this side of the 7th Council, the veneration of icons is not optional.
What better way is there of experiencing the Communion of the Saints than to see them, touch them and come to know them?
Thank you, Fr Stephen, for giving this explanation. I have wanted to know how to talk about icons to my non-Orthodox family members and friends. Your article gives me a starting point.
“So Hauerwas’ question was loaded, and we both knew it. I replied, acknowledging what my oath of ordination contained, but added, ‘However, I have come to believe that the veneration of icons is necessary to its fullness.’”
I’ve been pondering the “Glorious Unnecessary:” in response to Protestant claims that certain things are “unnecessary.” (Prayers to/with Saints, Icons, Eucharist? Baptism? ) In some sense, everything is “unnecessary”–even the Universe. But, Glory to God, the Universe is replete with billions of “unnecessary” stars, flowers, saints…and to see and venerate and give thanks for all of these unnecessary extants is to experience great joy. One of the steps into my Orthodox conversion was the Communion hymn (Praise Him Sun and Moon, Praise Him all you stars and light!) and the Prayer to the Holy Spirit–Who is Everywhere Present and Filling All Things.
This is so beautiful. I am on the path to becoming an iconographer myself, and there is so much I don’t comprehend. I feel as if I have been only dreaming and am just beginning to awake, if that makes any sense? Thank you for these words, I will continue to ponder them in my heart. If I may be so bold as to ask your prayers, writing icons seems all the more awesome as I contemplate these truths.
Father, bless. Would it be correct to say that, as Orthodox, we need to not only look at the icon but see the Person (whether the Saint or God Himself) represented on it? If so, the icon is more that a photo of loved one, because if we were to speak to a photo, the person on it will not hear. Prayer in front of an icon, then, is not monologue but dialogue? Of course prayer is that in any case but the icon can render the other Person visible? And remind us that we are also seen and looked over at all times?
Yes. A fascinating notion: “the unnecessary.” It’s a sort of “least common denominator” form of Christianity. I would suggest, that ALL of Orthodox is necessary. And though someone might be saved “by less,” they are not saved, “because of less.” There is a sort of instrumentalism view of salvation among Protestants. If you define salvation narrowly, then you only need a narrow means. But a proper understanding of salvation would rightly say that salvation is everything. And that is the Scriptural witness.
This is a very fruitful line of thought…perhaps worth an article. Thank you for your thoughts!
Dr. Clark Carlton has a wonderful talk on Orthodox view of Salvation, where he compares it to a diamond…. I wish I knew how to find it…. Maybe you can ask him? 🙂
My area of research is contraception and abortion. As I have journeyed from Protestantism to Orthodoxy I have made an interesting connection between nominalism and abortion/contraception. Every time I read “venerate” the Other – it brings to mind the experience of deeply valuing the Other’s Presence: Honoring that which is to be revealed; honoring that which Is. I could go on and on about this, but won’t…suffice it to say that without the experience of veneration of icons we have lost a valuable experience of the Way to honor Life.
Like Nicholas, I was very impacted by the discussion on veneration and touching one’s forehead to the icon during it. I did this this past weekend, taking a few moments to try and recognize our Lord in the icon. It is an amazing thing to experience, even if I do not yet understand or partake in its fullness.
Thank you for this, Father.
I have been on the road to Orthodoxy for years. I have read many, many books and listened to many, many podcasts on Orthodoxy. My wife and I have been attending the local Antiochian Orthodox Church since leaving the (evangelical) ministry in September, where we attend the Inquirers Classes.
I have been surprised at the length of time it takes to become Orthodox. I assumed that we would be fast-tracked to chrismation because of my seminary training and 25 years in ministry. But no. I am not even a catechumen yet. I’m not frustrated about this, just surprised. Surprised until something like this article shows me that I have so much more to learn.
I have many icons in my home and have an icon prayer corner which I pray before. I have read the text of the 7th Ecumenical Council regarding icons. But they remain opaque to me. I perceive no encounter. I’m not even sure how to speak about this! Is it because I am an introvert and therefore tend to objectify most of the people in my world to provide some psychological space?
Forgive me for my denseness, but what does one do to venerate an icon? I know what to do physically, but what should I think? What should I say in my inner thoughts? What awareness / perspective change needs to occur?
I do hope you write more on this Father. I also find myself interested in reading the masters thesis you reference.
Wonderful reflection, Fr. Stephen, and the thread of comments too, especially the discussion of the “unnecessary.” This all brings to mind a remembrance of Hieromonk Ambrose (Young) concerning Fr. Seraphim Rose of blessed memory. The point was that Fr. Seraphim was venerating the Person of the Mother of God, not merely the icons; he was avoiding the path of ‘opinion’ in straining ahead to truly ‘knowing’. Fr. Ambrose (Fr. Alexey Young in the world) recalls:
“I remember once I was talking with [Fr. Seraphim] in the forest and I asked him ‘What’s your favorite icon of the Mother of God?’ Everyone has a favorite icon of the Mother of God, right? And he thought for a long moment and said, ‘Well I don’t have one’, and I said ‘But you must have one, everybody has one. You have a great devotion for the Mother of God’, and he thought again and said ‘Don’t you understand? It’s the whole thing!'” (Cited from a recent interview done by Jesse Dominick [http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/81732.htm], also found in Chapter 85 of the biography of Fr. Seraphim by Hieromonk Damascene.)
As I am active in Pro Life as well, I see the connection you are speaking of clearly. The very worst part of the abortion process is the utter denial of the personhood of the aborted baby. They are treated as trash, not named or acknowledged as even being a person. Their very Image of God is denied.
A sad corollary to this is the resulting denial of grief by the mother because she has no one to grieve the loss of. The mother is stuck in a life long cycle of unresolved grief even if she is unaware of its existence. I know several women who had abortions in the first year of Roe V. Wade and it took them over 30 years to realize what their real problem is.
The aborted babies are “Other” and when we choose “Self” over “Other” we deny the very communion we are called to. Unfortunately, as you say, Nominalism is the belief of the day and all other than the self do not matter but are merely objects. When we choose this path of thought, nothing good can come of it. Too bad that the vast majority of people cannot recognize an unborn baby as an Icon of the Lord and venerate the child instead of destroy it.
Icons are pregnant.
At first we can only see contours of a face, eyes, mouth (we can only see a swollen abdomen).
We know there is Life in the icon (we know there is Life in the womb).
It takes time and patience for the Life of the icon to be revealed.
One day we catch a glimpse of movement in our hearts in communion with the icon (after a long time of waiting, we see, sometimes, an arm – a leg move).
We wait for the complete revelation of Life. We sing to the icon, we sing to the Life in the womb.
The mystery of Life is delivered to us through greater or lesser degrees of the experience of suffering.
The Theotokos is with us, as Mother and Midwife.
Once Life is revealed, there is so much more Life to be revealed.
“The summer following my conversion, I visited St. Vladimir’s Seminary for my first time. I was surprised when I walked into the chapel to see that the icon of the Virgin on the iconostasis was the original of the small print I had begun my journey with. And then I could see her.”
Father, could you say a bit more about the “And then I could see her” experience? What changed, or how did things change, or ? – I’m not sure what I’m asking, just that I’d like to hear more about what was different, or how you were different, between not seeing and seeing.
I understand your struggle – believe me! Our habits of thought are deeply engrained in a Nominalist view of the world – so much so that we not only do not see it, but, unless instructed, cannot imagine that there actually is another way of seeing anything. The icons are opaque to us, because we keep waiting to see something other than the icon. This is very puzzling to say the least.
We read that an icon is a window, so we keep looking to see “beyond” the icon, etc. What we are really doing (without realizing it) is continuing to think that the icon is one thing, and what we are going to encounter is something else.
Imagine you are with another person. How do you “encounter” them? Do you look at them and strain to see something more than you see? Imagine, again, however, that you are with someone but you do not “encounter” them. You “see” them, but don’t “see” them. Does that make sense?
Well, the same is true of the icon. The Person represented is made present in the icon. A key is to understand that the Person and the Icon now occupy the same space (if you will). You’re not going to “see” anything other than the icon, just as we don’t “see” anything other than the person we encounter.
This can sound like a mind-game or a word-game, but it’s serious business. It’s an effort to describe something to which we’re sort of blind and immune.
I was once in an Akathist service to the Mother of God of Sitka, in her icon. As we stood around the icon, singing the hymn, it was as if the “gravity” in the room had shifted, and the icon became the center of gravity, everything was “falling” towards her. It was so strong, I had to step back for a minute.
Now that is an unusual thing, not common. But it was a small reminder that this stuff is not in my head. It is the icon. The Person is made present in the icon. We had a miraculous icon of the Mother of God visit the parish last year. The monk who was caring for it never called the icon “it” or even “the icon.” It was always “she” and “St. Anne” (whose icon this was).
Last Saturday evening I was trying to replace the center icon in the Church for a new icon appropriate to the day. I found what I wanted, but then, seemed to have misplaced it. I reshuffled the many prints in the stack many times, not finding the icon. After about the third time, I began to wonder if the icon “didn’t want to be found.” Now that’s a strange thought, but, believe me, after some years, that’s not an unusual thought. Icons have a way of “finding you.” As it turned out, I had set her aside in a place that I was not seeing. All of the exercise could just be attributed to my aging brain. But I do not choose to do so. What I came away from the experience with was, “Pay attention to me! I have something to show you!” I did. She gave me that evening’s homily and the next morning’s sermon. And she was like a weight in the center of the Church.
The particular icon was given to us some years back by our then Metropolitan, in remembrance of the Sunday of the Sanctity of Life (which was yesterday’s feast). The will of God in this matter is indeed very, very weighty. Our sins are going to crush us if we do not soon repent!
Dear Fr. Stephen and All,
Here is the link to Dr. Carlton’s excellent interview:
Around min 34 is where he starts the diamond analogy for the Orthodox view of Salvation. But the first part is wonderful too, the discussion starts with veneration of icons and involvement of the whole of a person in Orthodox worship… A beautiful conversation…
Well, to begin with, the icon was mostly just a symbol. As a young Anglican, of “high church” sentiments, I had a theological commitment to the Virgin, though within an Anglican context, it almost felt “naughty,” like you knew you were doing something you shouldn’t do. I prayed the rosary, but often kept enough of a “cover” on my thoughts about Mary so as not to upset others around me. That’s a really deadly attitude when it comes to devotion and veneration. It creates a “double-soul” (that’s the Greek expression), and nurtures problems within the soul.
My understanding, intellectually, about icons changed considerably as years went by, and particularly after doctoral-level studies and my thesis on icons. But that was still not enough. My family and I began Orthodox devotions in the home some 4 years before being received in the Church, and that began to change things. When, at last, we were received into the Church, a healing began in my soul – no more double-souled existing.
I can recall an Anglican friend asking me about a year after my conversion if I ever thought of going back. I looked at him with incredulity. “And leave the Mother of God?” I asked. It was unimaginable.
I think that once I had given up all reservation, she gave up all reservation as well. I have no idea about the metaphysics of all of that. But in that visit to St. Vladimir’s, standing in the chapel, I could see about 20 years worth of events, all connected like a single thread. I could see where I turned aside and where I had been unfaithful. Where I had thought about turning back – and where there had been crazy rabbit trails. But I could see a steadiness that never left. The icons (and this one in particular) had been there throughout all of it. I never put them away.
A similar experience happened to me when I was chrismated. I had nurtured a devotion to St. Seraphim of Sarov. On the day of my chrismation, I remember looking across the Church at his icon. I had a profound sense that I was now in communion with him. That the smell and fragrance of the chrismation was a fragrance that he knew precisely, as had so many of the saints through the centuries. It was the One Chrism and the One Cup. He was no longer “their saint” by mine.
The day of my chrismation, my older brother attended the service. He had been instrumental in several spiritual decisions in my life (whether he knew it or not). But standing in the dark church, incense, candles, the whole thing, he whispered to me, “This is everything we were ever looking for!” He was right. He is not here, yet. But he was right.
The difference between Orthodoxy, even in the blue-collar storefront version where I was received, and the Baptist Church of my childhood (very rural, culturally ignorant and devoid of beauty) cannot be overstated. I first found Christ in my childhood, but I think I would have lost Him had I never found something different than what I knew as a child. There was too much darkness and evil within it (the racism of the past was very, very present there). ‘
To my mind, there is within non-Orthodoxy, very much of the soul-stifling ignorance that rejects the fullness of the Christian experience. It is why I look for an expression like “flatlanders” to describe it. And the flatland doesn’t even have trees or rocks of note. Just flat land.
I am not naive about Orthodoxy. There’s plenty of darkness that lurks in various places. I never need to go any further than my own heart to find it. It’s not magical either – it’s not automatic. The first and greatest change that has to occur is within the heart. I’ve met Orthodox who had Protestant hearts. It’s weird, but I have seen it.
Father, please comment, if you will, on the question of how does a physically blind person venerate an icon? From all of the above discussion, it seems that seeing is a requirement, so I am feeling a sense of loss for the blind among us.
I suppose it would present great difficulties. But, the icon still makes present what it represents. So, I would not be in the least surprised to hear someone blind speak about a profound experience with icons.
A friend once shared this about icons:
“Gdzieś też przeczytałam , że ikony ” wybierają ” ludzi a nie odwrotnie i pojawjają się w życiu wybranych aby im pomagać, to nigdy nie jest przypadkowe.”
“I once read that icons “choose” people, not the other way around, and appear in the lives of chosen people to help them; it’s never accidental…”.
She was relating a story of how an icon of St. Xenia of Petersburg came into her life long before she needed the Saint’s help during difficult pregnancy. When a friend suggested praying to St. Xenia, she remembered a paper icon given to her years earlier…
I can’t help thinking that blind have found their sight through venerating icons they cannot see with their eyes yet perceive as they perceive any personal encounter.
Relics that are often fragrant are similar, though a little more sensory ‘help’ is there too…
A number of icons have “found” me over the years. I put great store in the proverb.
I have two icons that were painted. When I let my fingers brush across the surfaces, I can feel edges of the parts–the hair, the eyes, the nose, the hand, the robes.
Some icons are covered with a riza, an engraved metal covering. A visually impaired person could feel that covering.
A carved icon or an icon created with embroidery would provide a great deal of sensation.
I also have had a similar experience with an icon. In the very early days of my conversion to the Orthodox Church, I was in the sanctuary venerating a large icon of St. Basil (It was about 50 years old, hand painted in a monastery in Patmos). I was distracted by the way Basil was hanging slightly crooked, so when I was ‘done’ venerating I reached out my hand to straighten it, contacting the corner. The instant I touched the icon, Reality shifted. I can find no words to describe it, except to say that Basil became the center of ‘straight’ and the entire rest of the world was ‘crooked.’ I mean the rest of the world was ACTUALLY crooked – I lost my footing and fell over because the floor was suddenly slanted. No sooner had my hand lost contact with the icon than everything ‘snapped back’ to the way it was before.
I cannot describe the profound impact on my soul. I began to weep, making prostrations, asking forgiveness. In return I felt love. And I respectfully left St. Basil ‘crooked.’
(But Basil and I know what is REALLY going on, lol).
As a post script, I began to see differently from then on. For instance, I had always noted as I walked into Church that one of the 3 crosses on the roof had, in its state of its dilapidation, begun to lean towards the center cross. It was the cross on the center cross’ right side. Suddenly I somehow KNEW that dilapidation was not the ‘real’ cause of the leaning cross – the REAL cause was the thief on His right inclining towards Him. Prior to this I had not even noticed that the leaning cross was to the right of the center one. [The Parish Council eventually got around to ‘fix’ it. And I must confess to having a sense of loss when I behold it now.] Another example – I had been wondering for years what the raven and bread meant in Elijah’s Icon. He just seemed to be intently contemplating them. After this incident I suddenly just KNEW the Raven is the Theotokos and the Bread in Her mouth is Christ. [Honestly, I’m kind of wondering how I missed THAT before, lol.]
For 20 years after being received into the Church I tried to become Orthodox as opposed to acting Orthodox. I read and read and read. I “prayed” the Jesus prayer; I attended services; I prostrated; I fasted; I venerated icons. Then, one day, I began to lose everything I had. Within a week I had lost a great job, financial security, possessions, a home, and a dog I loved more than God. All I had left was my truck and what I could get into it. On Sunday I went to church as always, approached the icon of the Mother of God, leaned my forehead against her and wept. I was so weary and depleted. And everything began to change. After the liturgy, when everyone was gone, I went back to each of the icons I was so used to seeing but venerating them had radically changed. The icons hadn’t but my relationship to them had become a relationship with them. In reading all those books about icons I had acquired a lot of information but it didn’t result in anything authentic; I couldn’t get around the persistent feeling that I was just going through the motions. Like all the other things I did to be Orthodox, I kept looking for that “something” I could do to make it authentic. In the back of my head I often recalled something Otche (my spiritual father) had once written in a letter: “Quit blaming Satan for everything. The biggest obstacle in your path is you. Quit trying to make things happen; quit trying to micro-manage the outcome. When you reach the end of your rope and give up God will take over. Trust Him! Get out of the way! When that happens you will see that the answers are really very simple and that they were right in front of you all along. He will reveal to you what He in His infinite wisdom knows you need; one thing here, another there. But be careful. If, as God is acting, you try and grab hold of it to try and control it, it will vanish and you’ll be back to square one. Unfortunately, you will have to hit rock bottom first. It’s very painful but it won’t last. Strange as it may sound, you will then see how much God loves you. Living your life in Christ is a struggle but it’s not so hard to understand. But first you must encounter Him, His Mother, and the saints. Everything will begin to slowly fall into place; a little here, a little there. But first is the encounter.”
My witness is that the veneration of icons is an act of affection and the result is consolation. For some it may be more. But it is at least that. When God decides to show you how much you need Him and you accept that you have made a mess trying to make it happen according to your “wisdom”, I believe you too will understand when you see believers-tired, weary, defeated, lonely believers-slowly make the sign of the cross and rest their head against an icon. To venerate an icon “succeeds” when it becomes, in your brokenness, an encounter with our Lord, His Mother, and all the saints and martyrs. No mortal loves you more than they.
Do you “know” St. Peter the Aleut? I know you have a relationship with various saints. I ask about St. Peter because I have read that his biography is not accurate, and suggestions that his canonization was perhaps premature, if not altogether inappropriate.
I don’t mean to be offensive with that description. I include it to give some background info about my question. I was particularly interested in St. Peter the Aleut because the vast majority of Orthodox saints I’ve seen in icons are Europeans, and he is not.
Please share your thoughts.
When I read this I sighed the deepest sigh I have in quite some time.
We really do get in our own ways. Thank you for your boldness to share this. Many be will helped.
Thank you all for sharing such wonderful icon stories…. The Saints really step into our lives when we ask for their help.
If I may come back to the veneration question, in relationship to the conversation Karen and Dino had……
Karen suggested that touching the forehead (the Russian custom discussed) was a bit like putting foreheads together between husband and wife, or mother and child, in a tender, intimate way… But I think that this gesture is more of an abbreviated full metanoia (and in fact a very considerate and concealed way of doing something much more important and grand they are internally doing)….
If we suddenly found ourselves in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ (or any Saint for that matter), we would not dare approach Him in such familial, presumptuous way (touching foreheads), we would simply fall to the ground, on our face, unable to lift our eyes, acutely aware of our nothingness and unworthiness (as Peter, James and John did on Mount Tabor – and they knew Christ, they just did not know Him in His full Glory – some of the icons depict them almost in terror…).
I think it’s similar with this gesture of touching the forehead, internally we are making the bow all the way to the floor, “falling down before Christ our God”, and staying there for some time..
But with the relics, it might be a little different. I think relics are a little bit like encountering somebody we knew well at their funeral. We would not kiss them (unless it’s the most close relative, and even that is an Orthodox custom that is disappearing), but we would touch their cold hand in a gesture of a final goodbye and an expression of our love for them. That’s my feeling on relic veneration, from the limited experience I have had. And sometimes the Saint responds by allowing us to perceive their fragrance… Many Orthodox teachers say that the reason relics appear more fragrant in Great Lent is because we are a little more prepared to notice it.
As for looking at icons, I always loved how Fr. Meletios Webber said to look at…. actually everything, people especially. Not with our mind (head) but with our heart. There was a discussion on this blog about it a while back, someone even said they tried it in a business meeting and it made such a difference. But that takes practice. It’s learning to use a faculty/organ/muscle we don’t even know we have.
Fr. Stephen, isn’t it wonderful when the icons find us? Such stories are often so “specifically for us”, they are impossible to share with anybody…
A quick note on the epistemology of bare necessity mentioned above – obviously a self-negating one, as those who invoke this cannot defend anything they themselves do as ‘necessary.’ (Someone one said “By the standard you measure it will be measured back to you”…)
Here’s a good analogy of what has occurred over the past 500 years or so (in the West, anyway): the Faith is a forest. Bare necessity only works theoretically, as a generality. But life is particular. So the epistemology must be lived by approaching each tree in specific, asking, “Is THIS tree necessary to the forest?” And of course, the particular answer can never be “Yes.” So it goes. Then the next generation takes up the ax. Repeat. Until, that is, one arrives at the penultimate tree. For, only when the second to last tree is reached, can the answer ever be “Yes, a generic multiplicity of trees will not exist if THIS particular one is removed.” Even the most brazen generalist can discern that the forest has been long gone by that point…
By contrast, in Orthodoxy, the forest is never a conglomeration of trees in generic; rather it is these particular trees. EVERY specific tree is necessary to the forest. Yes, the forest will be diminished and incomplete if this particular tree is removed.
But wait, there’s more. Here’s a scandalous thought: Life reproduces. Twelve disciples become 70. Then hundreds. Then thousands. Not only are the ALL of these specific trees necessary to the forest, but also the ones that will come into being. Looks like the ‘bare necessity’/death crowd is going to need a bigger ax if they are going to take on the Forest/Life…
Wow. What a post. Usually it’s Fr.. Stephen that knocks my socks off….but this time the profound love and faith of each person here is shining through!
Thank you all for your experiences! Gregory, Justin, Agata….everyone…really.
Glory to God!
what sound advise!!
I have been Orthodox my whole life. I found this article very interesting because venerating icons have always been a part of my life and worship of God. Living in the South (or maybe just my family), everyone who comes to our house is usually greeted with a hug and sometimes a kiss on the cheek if they are a close family member or friend. I have always thought of venerating icons similar… As my way of greeting/meeting Christ and knowing He is with me. Or some times looking through them to your own heart to meet Christ. It is love that is felt in the heart as you venerate an icon. This may be the simplistic childlike explanation, but it is my experience. As I watch my 3 yr old grow in the Church, it all becomes clear how perfect it is. She sees Christ and his saints in the icons and shows her love by kissing them. She is growing and learning through her whole person because the Church using all 5 senses during worship. While some may find icons and veneration unnecessary, I see them as necessary.
I do not “know” him. And I’ve not followed the particulars of any debate about him.
Wordsmyth, Peter the Aleut was certainly a real person. I venerate him, not only for the specific story of his marytric witness, but for the fact that the Aleut peoples and other native Alaskans have suffered for their faith without abandoning it. Personally, I don’t worry about the “historical accuracy” of the life of St. Peter the Aleut or any other saint. Perhaps, he was brought forward by God and the Holy Spirit?
There are several icons of all the saints of America not one of whom is western European. There are other Alaskan Native saints among them. Of course, the most recent of those for consideration is Matushka Olga. There are many proto-icons of her out there. She is already being venerated even though not an official saint.
I have met one of her great-granddaughters who is married to a priest here in Kansas so Mat. Olga’s life is still quite present in the Church.
There is much more to the story of Orthodoxy in Alaska and in this land than is often told.
St. John of San Francisco and Blessed Seraphim Rose often talked about the importance of venerating the local saints of a land. If the saints lived and worked and died here, they are out saints even if they were not indigenous to this land.
God is glorified in His saints.
Don’t forget St. Raphael of Brooklyn, Shepard of the Lost Souls of America. He is not European either. My home parish has a special connection to him, because it was he who sent us our first priest. There is a gentleman of our parish, recently reposed who, as a boy, met St. Raphael in person.
There are many others, you might check out the icon of The Saints of Africa as well.
The well of holiness is still being dug in this land to be sure, but it is not empty.
There are Orthodox saints for every land. There is even a German Orthodox saint from World War II, St. Alexander Schmorell, recently canonized. Martyred by Hitler because of St. Alexander’s participation in the White Rose Society.
If you pray and look in faith, you will find saints everywhere the Church is even though most of them are hidden. There’s that word again!
Agata, what you say about the meaning of the forehead veneration sounds very right to me. My point about it being reminiscent of a tender familial gesture was in contrast to something perfunctory, such as a brief kiss in greeting or leave-taking. As Gregory said, veneration is at the very least reverent affection, and rightly becomes very much more.
Thank you all for your stories of encountering Icons. Gregory, I was especially moved by your testimony.
Thank you for commenting on my thoughts about forehead veneration. I sort of regretted posting it after thinking about it some more, especially since I like your idea of reverent affection much better. But I know that with Russians, there is a lot more going on internally that meets the eye… (a lot of it I cannot even imagine, even if I am closer to the Russian tradition than any other…). It’s enough to watch them make the sign of the cross sometimes, to wonder what they are thinking…
The mention of “reverent affection” also makes me think of the icons of Christ and His Holy Mother. I don’t know if you have ever been to Jerusalem, of course there are thousands most beautiful, even miraculous icons everywhere. But my most favorite one, the one I long to go to and stand in front of at least one more time in my life, is an icon in the church of the Prison of Christ. It is not even in the church, it’s on the right over the stairs in the entrance to the downstairs chapel. The Theotokos is holding His body (after the Crucifixion, since there are nail marks on His hands) in such a gentle way, their cheeks are touching, she leans into Him and He also leans into Her. It’s the most tender, loving embrace ever depicted, I think. Whenever I hear the prayers in the Church reminding us to Love God, I think of this possibility, that maybe we could behold Christ just as She is: He is letting Her and reciprocating….
Agata, thank you. I have never been to Jerusalem and have not seen that Icon as far as I know (in reproduction), but I do know the form.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory Forever!
I am a student of Iconography and am about to write an Icon for my church, so this article was very timely and encouraging.
Thank you, Father!
God bless you
In my experience, the “simplistic child-like explanation” you pointed out is the best one precisely because it is child-like.
As a child I routinely got into trouble, would get caught, and receive my just rewards. But sometimes I didn’t get caught but the circumstantial evidence pointed strongly towards me. Nevertheless, in the absence of concrete evidence, I escaped punishment and mistakenly believed I had gotten away with it. Eventually, the guilt and shame of it would weigh me down and I would go, in tears to one or the other of my parents and confess my sin. Though they could be quite stern, if I approached them in weakness, they were always forgiving and consoling, and nothing, nothing felt better than the consolation of that forgiveness. I relate this because I once was showing Otche a collection of photographs I had retrieved off the internet-all related to Orthodoxy. One broad category I entitled “Church Life” had a sub-category entitled “Confession”, photographs of believers at confession. Otche singled out three of them and asked me what I saw. I said that two were photographs, each with a grown man crying and the other was a teen-aged boy, also crying. “So it would appear. But those are actually children crying. Adults won’t cry. Adults go to great lengths to protect themselves from feelings which would make them cry. Men are the worst. They believe crying is a sign of weakness. Only children cry. Those are not grown-ups crying; they are children.” Some years later I heard Fr. Hopko relate the observation of a priest that when he sees someone approaching for confession and they are already in tears, he knows that repentance has already begun.
There are two icons of the Prodigal Son I’ve seen; one is the traditional rendering with an old man in the place of the father. The other, presumably more contemporary, has Christ in place of the father. The subject of the prodigal son is my favorite and I have replaced the traditional rendering with the more contemporary because I believe Christ is the Father to whom all of us, as prodigal children, seek, in our hearts, to return. Likewise, our Lord’s Mother has become my true mother. From the moment I enter the church and approach the icons, I feel the comforting consolation I felt as a child. No matter what storms are brewing in my life, here I see that I am truly safe and that there is no reason to worry about tomorrow.
A final thought. Ever notice how frequently certain monastics are described as having “child-like simplicity”? I used to assume they were simple-minded to begin with. I was very wrong. Go back and re-read. Many came from former lives that would have crushed the likes of you and me. By any ordinary understanding, they should have ended up as tougher and “stronger” men and women. But no-“child-like simplicity”. What happened?
A long time ago I met a man who said he was a lapsed Roman Catholic, didn’t go to any church now, and didn’t trust what he perceived as mental and emotional manipulations by priests and ministers. Yet he still carried a rosary in his pocket. He pulled it out without hesitation, saying that touching it every time he reached in his pocket for money was the only way he could make it through the day.
He was popular, lively, had a good job, a family, health–sort of the epitome of success. Yet he needed this small object to remind him that life contained far more than what he was, what he had achieved, even what he had been given (faith) but was unable to keep safe.
I never forgot about him. partly because I too was raised RC, but was so put off by rote prayers, sentimental hymns, flowers placed in front of Mary’s statue on May Day or during weddings, and stories of burying little statues of St Joseph in order to sell a house, or doing other strange things with statues–so put off that I turned away from church activities, and looked for God in philosophy and poetry. Yet this man whom I admired had retained a sense of mystery that I had traded for words.
Many years later, after a lengthy instruction period, I love attending liturgies at a local Orthodox church. But I still do not know what it means to venerate icons because everything I read here makes me think about the statues and the stories. I even think about another man whom I saw once down on all fours in front of a life-size crucifix (he didn’t know the concept of prostration; he was simply overtaken). The best I can do right know is to bow, make the sign of the cross, and kiss the corner of an icon–signs of respect, reverence, faith. Perhaps the day will come when I don’t close my eyes when I see someone staring at an icon, leaning against it with forehead, or doing a full prostration. I am not dismissive about this, just left out, at least for now.
I am at a similar place concerning icons. I don’t disdain any of the experiences here, and my heart begins to believe them in a way my mind can never understand. It’s my Western mind – and I don’t disdain that either. It’s what I was given and what I have grown up with.
But I am slowly learning to step out in faith concerning things God shows me, even when I have absolutely no understanding of it. The Western mind wants to full examine a thing from a distance before approaching it, but as valuable as analysis and reasoning are, they are only part of life.
This doesn’t mean I’m going to bold enough to lean my forehead against icons all the time now. That feels false. Perhaps I will do it when no one is around just to try it out. Or maybe I’ll start talking to the Mother of God instead of just Christ.
One very basic lesson I’m learning over again at this point in my life is that if you want to know something, you have to spend time with it; examining from a distance will only take you so far. Like learning a language in the classroom vs. spending a year in a country of native speakers for a year.
Another basic lesson is that God always has something to tell me or show me. If He wants to encourage me to revisit the use of icons in my life through the compelling witness of these commenters, I would be wise to listen. I know that you are listening already; I’m just reminding myself here. (grin)
Very appreciative of you thoughts, Drewster. Very helpful. The part about starting alone, yes. I will start there. Baby steps.
Also, one of the hardest things so far is to stop watching myself praying (because, as my priest said to me early on, no one else in church is) and keep my eyes on the icons. Thoughts may follow, or disappear,or turn into real prayer–beyond words–if that could be given. Or turn into feelings, even experiences, as I have read sometimes happens.
And why should I fear feelings and “revelations” in church, except that I learned to distrust them as less reliable than understanding and will power–the legacy of growing up with a father who taught and modeled duty over sentiment, and was strongly influenced by some good priests of the same type. Fortunately there’s still time to change. I believe. That’s the main thing right now. Deo gratias.
“Fortunately there’s still time to change. I believe.”
That’s the good news I’m discovering in my middle age. In fact while God is constant and unchanging compared to us, ironically life in Him is constantly full of change, similar to being on a journey: the movements are the same “pick up the left foot; put it back down; watch the path, the sky, the weather” but these repetitive actions should actually lead us – not to a life bound by duty, but rather experiences that become layers of growth and blossoming, each one stretching our ability to believe and comprehend.
Using icon veneration as an example, we have to be open to meeting the Lord there – even though currently the air around us is cold and damp and it might take many tries before God reaches down and helps the flint light the dried twigs we’ve gathered. Study fire building, readjust the methods, keep asking God for help, and it will happen. We are told to knock – and then promised that the door will be opened to us. God is always as good as His word. Our challenge then is to be willing to believe the miracle of the door being opened.
My understanding is that Orthodoxy teaches that icons are venerated, not worshipped, since worship belongs only to God. The question I keep having is, “If you were going to actually worship the icon, what would you do differently? ” It seems to me that the behavior would be the same. You are familiar with the old statement, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc. . . . it’s a duck.” That’s just how veneration looks to me. What are your thoughts?
It’s an understandable question and not a surprising reaction. In point of fact, almost everything that you see in a service is actually veneration and not worship. The technical terms in Greek are: latreia (worship to God alone) and proskynesis (veneration that is given as honor). We never worship an icon, not even an icon of Christ. At the most, we offer proskynesis. There is lots of proskynesis in the Church, and we would see it as the equivalent as the honor given to something or someone honorable. In American culture, honor is given to the flag, etc. Many Christians honor the Bible.
So, then, the right question is what distinguishes worship that belongs to God alone? In the OT, there’s plenty of proskynesis given to things that are not God and those things are good. When the prophets inveigh against idolatry, it primarily means that a sacrifice is being made to a false god of some sort.
In Orthodox worship, sacrifice is offered to God alone. That sacrifice is the one, complete, unrepeatable sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. In the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist, we offer God that sacrifice – that very self-same unrepeatable sacrifice. The crucified Christ is made present on the altar in His Body and His Blood, and this we offer to God: “Thine own, of Thine Own, We offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all,” we say in the Liturgy of St. John.
It is sometimes referred to as the “bloodless sacrifice,” meaning that no new blood is shed. What is offered is the blood which Christ Himself has shed and made present to us in the sacrament.
A huge hurdle for me is the idea that saints somehow, mysteriously, work in our life. As a protestant, I was taught that those coincidences were the work of the Holy Spirit. Why is He not sufficient, and why are saints used instead?
The work of the Holy Spirit is real and true, and I think it is right to say that the lives of the saints are themselves an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. But God is the “Lord God of Hosts” and His works are “manifold.” God seems to delight Himself in creating all sorts of things and then He uses them. It would be more efficient and American, I suppose, to cut out any middlemen. But it’s just how love is. We are bound by love to this great cloud of witnesses and them to us. They delight in “doing” love as much as we do. We do not believe that the Holy Spirit is insufficient, but God is not limited by sufficiency, nor is doctrine guided by necessity. We are trying to describe a fullness, not a leanness. Protestantism, in my mind, is too thin.
Bill have you ever met someone who just overflowed with kindness and generosity so that she gave without thinking often without being asked?
There are deep aspects of the faith that our human minds cannot penetrate but the work of the saints need not be one of them: men, women and children transformed and empowered by the Holy Spirit full of love and compassion who respond to us in our need and embrace us as fellow lovers of God and children of God.
They are real just as we are but even more.
God is the God of the living not of the dead. Where two or more….
Like Fr. Stephen says, love doesn’t operate on terms of efficiency. Instead of asking if it’s enough, it just naturally wants to do more. Why would God not allow the saints to be involved in the work of our lives? Both they and we are still on a journey and the relationship furthers the work in both.
Imagine if your wife told you she didn’t feel cared for. Would you turn around and say, “I give you flowers on Valentine’s and a $30 gift on your birthday and Christmas; isn’t that enough?” It probably wouldn’t go over too well.
Love isn’t about what’s enough; it’s about the overflowing of God out of our own lives and into that of others. We simply give and let God manage the flow.
Bill’s comment reminded me of a talk I long ago heard by a Protestant minister against the RC practice of praying to saints, i.e., intercessory prayer. At the meet-and-greet afterwards I was looking over the bulletin board and I see a “Prayer Request” sign-up sheet. Presumably, certain kinds of intercessory prayer are in fact O.K.
Some Protestants may also (mistakenly) believe that, since the saints and martyrs are no longer among the living, they are dead and, presumably, useless. Makes you wonder how they understand the afterlife.
Here is how the Holy Spirit actually works.
In people united to Christ. Whether they are with us or asleep in The Lord is irrelevant. This is not a barrier to our unity in Christ.
Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart..
Those who have gone before us as saints in the Church are united to us by the Spirit in Christ. They have shown themselves as epistles of Christ, “living scripture” and we honor them as runners of the race who follow Jesus Christ from death to life. Do we deny the Spirit worked in them? God forbid. Were they still sinners? Of course.
The unity of the Church does not end at death…for the saints are truly alive with Christ in the Spirit, just as we are alive in Christ.
The Holy Spirit is enough…it just so happens that the Holy Spirit is in all of us and brings Christ’s brothers and sisters along so that we may love one another and with “one mind confess.” Growing in this unity and love is salvation….being made whole…like God…loving behind measure, beyond time. Part of the depth if salvation is the return to our created nature of selfless love for the other in Christ, and to the unity of faith. Is that unity only for the living? Is Christ’s power bound by space and time as we know it? Oh we of little faith.
How our Love becomes non-existent for our brothers and sisters fallen asleep in The Lord is beyond me. We are one in Christ! Veneration reflects this timeless truth in Christ.
I would change the “some” in your comment to “most.” Remember that the fundamental premise of Western theology is that of a two storied universe. As a Protestant Seminary graduate I was taught that the dead were cut off from the world and prayer to the Saints was impossible. In many many discussions with fellow Pro Lifers who are Protestants I am constantly faced with this concept. I have been told that the only way to pray is directly to the Father and closing with the invocation of Jesus’ name or the phrase “through Jesus Christ our Lord” as if marking our message to the Father with a special postage stamp. I have even been told that I cannot pray to the Holy Spirit.
I always ask if I am allowed to ask for their prayers on my behalf and the answer is always in the affirmative. I then inquire why I should not ask someone far more righteous (the prayer of a righteous man avails much….) than any of us to pray for me and the nearly 100% response is: “They are dead.”
Gregory, the departed are either asleep or, as Nicholas said, cut off note completely that they neither know nor care what is going on “down here”.
It is a basic denial of the Incarnation and the Resurrection.
I recently ran across an interesting photo with a quote from Machiavelli on it on a gentleman’s facebook wall warning against judgement. I think you might be familiar with it…and him.
The caption reads “everyone sees what you appear to be….few experience what you really are.”
Now try to square this with your “looks like a duck….acts like a duck” meme. I hope that, as one who was once quite opposed to Orthodoxy through Protestant indoctrination, can help you see the beauty of the gift God has given us and the freedom of the law of Love.
Orthodox do not recognize death as being able to separate us from the Love of Christ and the unity that He creates in His Body, the One Church. This unity in selfless love is part and parcel to what it means to be saved….made whole…healed…into the “image and likeness” of Christ who has defeated death. Our limited perception of time and space have no bearing on those united with Christ.
In Orthodox worship we believe and affirm by our actions the truth that God has united us all. What is the kiss of the icon? It is the same “kiss of peace” we give to those have not yet fallen asleep. It is a greeting, a Reverent acknowledgment that Christ is faithful and you are alive in Him. In Orthodox worship we know and affirm that the body and blood of Christ dilates time and space – and that we all are present in the upper room.
Think about it this way. When you are gathering with your brothers and sisters in Church….how do you grEet them? Do you ignore the, and pretend they don’t exist? No. You greet them, with a hug or a kiss or and handshake. Maybe you wash their feet? Pour perfume on them? Feed the,? You tell them you are glad to see them and to worship with them. You ask them to pray for you and offer to pray for them. You share the gifts God has given you with them. Is this worship? If so, you better stop interacting with your fellow Christians.
Given that we do not believe that we are separated from the “departed” since they are alive in Christ, we know and affirm through our worship that they are present with us and alive….worshipping with us as we gather….because Christ Himself is with us and alive…and they are united to Him, just as we are. Where He is they are.
We walk in the Church and are happy to see them, to give them the same greetings we give those with us in body. The icons make this reality an living truth as the icons bring to both mind and body the remembrance (anamnesis) of this unseen truth in Christ. We do not pray to them but with them! asking them to pray for us at the throne and altar of God, just as we continue to pray for them. Orthodox priests cense icons AND the living faithful in the same exact way, honoring the image and likeness of God which is being sanctified in all of us, not by our works, but by His power working in us in Love.
The question of what “worship” actually is becomes relevant…but is another can of worms. This would go more to your question of what one would do differently…but is another conversation for another time. A general Protestant understanding of “worship” is and produces is not compatible with traditional classical Christianity, Rest assured, worship is centered on love in communion. If your “worship” can’t reflect the truth that Christ has defeated death and become incarnate and that we can honor and show respect and love for other Christians, then you have robbed yourself of a deep pedagogical and sanctifying gift from God.
I took me a long time to recognize that I was limiting my faith and not allowing the Spirit to show me the truth that God has destroyed every middle wall of separation and triply united us in His Love.
These are things that only the eyes of faith can see through the “eyes of the heart.” Those with little faith will continue to “see a duck” and will be unable to “experience what we really are” and the depths of what we have been given in united life and love in Christ. May those with eyes to see…..see. I hope someday you will be able to experience this gift in joy in faith. Until that day –be it in this life- or when it is revealed to you upon falling asleep – May God bless you on your journey, and bring you closer to the unity of faith which only He can provide in the assembly of faithful.
Onesimus, thank you. That is a wonderful explanation. Maybe you can answer a question for me? I do not under stand the wall that so many Protestants put up around themselves that as you say limits their ability to experience the full bounty of God in the Holy Spirit.
Can you help me understand?
Nicholas hit the issue, which I gather is termed a “2 story universe”. In Luke 16:26, Christ, using Lazarus, Abraham and an unnamed rich man, teaches that “that there is a great gulf fixed between us (the dead), and the living, so that they who would pass from here to you cannot”.
I can’t find any instance in the Bible where a Christian prayed to someone dead, or where an apostle taught that such prayers were to be offered.
Yes, those who have died, their souls are in heaven. If they could interact with us then I could see why icons are treated as they are.
One question–why just saints? Why not any Christian who has departed this life?
You set parameters for belief that are problematic. The absence of something in Scripture does not prove it isn’t true. But there is something you overlook:
Prayers to the saints and their help for us belongs particularly to the oral tradition of the Church as given by the Apostles. Such things as making the sign of the Cross, etc. also go back to that source (which source is clearly noted by St. Paul). St. Basil the Great makes reference to this in the 4th century and describes a number of things received from the beginning. The Orthodox Church is also the original Church, and her life has been a continual stream. We have never known a time that did not include prayers to the saints and their prayers for us. In the Apostles’ Creed, which was also handed down from the Apostles, it is specifically referred to as the “communion of the saints,” and has been explained and taught that way from the beginning.
The life of the Church is filled with stories and accounts of the truth of the prayers of the saints.
In the Book of Hebrews (12:1), we are told that the saints constitute a “great cloud of witnesses” to our lives and actions. How could they witness if there is no communion between us? In Rev. (6:10), the martyrs cry out for God to avenge their blood and say, “How long?” If they have no knowledge of us, then how can such a statement have any meaning?
No, the Church is one, living and true. Those who have died remain living and part of the life of the Church. Their prayers for us and ours for them are the fullness of the prayers of the Church before God.
As to “why just saints?” Well, it’s not just saints. Privately, I speak with many whom I knew in this life, and continue my relationship with them. They generally “don’t talk back,” but there are things that sometimes break even that silence. The “saints” are those whose holiness and sanctity the Church recognizes and points to for particular honor and help. There is no prohibition of the others, only in the Church we only pay attention to those who are of the best example for us and our children.
But devotion to a saint generally occurs long before they are “canonized” and recognized as such by the Church. And there are even icons of them, but they are generally not set in the Church before their canonization. There are even exceptions to that. There is an icon of my departed Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas in the new chapel in Dallas. The Elder Sophrony is depicted in an icon on the wall of his monastery in Essex. Etc.
Rest assured I am sensitive to your concerns. Not only did I spend the bulk of my life as a Protestant, I continue to go to a Protestant seminary. But let’s not become careless in our exegesis…much less our reading of Scripture.
Please slow down, go back and read the text of Luke. What does it say?
It does not say that a great gulf is fixed between the living and the dead. You have bootlegged that into the text. Perhaps read too quickly, assumed something, I don’t know. Abraham says to the rich man that there is a great gulf fixed between “us and you”. Both Abraham and Lazarus are in the afterlife, in the bosom of Abraham, as is the rich man who is torment in fire. The gulf fixed is betwen those two…groups in the afterlife…(and yet they still communicate.).
Then after this, the rich man asks for Abraham to send Lazarus (who is dead mind you) to his brothers to warn them. So much for a great gulf. Abraham says no they have Moses and the prophets, and the rich man says what? But if someone from the DEAD tells them they will take heed, to which Abraham says their hardness of heart will not even change if the dead rise.
Where on earth did you get the idea that Abraham was speaking about those alive and those in the afterlife? This is simply nowhere in the text.
Onesimus, my understanding from the church I grew up in, was that the phrase ‘neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence’ referred to the dead going to the living.
The answer of Abraham which ignores the plea to send Lazarus is an acknowledgement that the dead can’t go to the living. Instead, the living had Moses and the prophets to rely on, as those are persuasive enough that if they aren’t believed, then neither would they believe someone from the dead. And so, the gulf is fixed, and the Scriptures are what our faith is based on…..or so I was taught.
I do see your point though, and agree that your reading of the passage seems to make more sense. However, there are Old Testament passages that warn against communication with the dead. That’s what got Saul in trouble with the Witch of Endor. But if there are Saints alive and working on our behalf, why not contact them via a seance? Why is that so much different than prayer?
Protestants were spiritually abused by the RCC and the circumstances of Western history that cradle Protestants like me are essentially told anything slightly resembling Catholicism is evil. Growing up – I was essentially defined as a Christian by what I was not – Roman Catholic. When I was in high school I heard about the Eastern Orthodox and asked my youth pastor what they were. He said, “they’re essentially Roman Catholics…but without a pope. But they still pray to Mary and pictures.” That was enough for me, I didn’t need to hear another word. They were “lost.” Saying anything in conjunction to Roman Catholic is enough for many Protestants to just turn their ears off completely.
Converts to more contemporary churches may or may not have this attitude…they may be more agnostic…but by and large…all Protestants are taught to reject anything not Protestant. My family in particular had been involved in the hundred years wars, and that consciousness had passed down from that generation to mine. My mom didn’t know why but her parents said she could be anything she wanted except a Roman Catholic or a Lutheran.
There is a deep memory of spiritual abuse here….and Protestants know it. And they’re right…they were abused. They simply confuse us for Roman Catholics and shut down anything which was rejected by their flavor of the Reform. Like John said “if it looks like a duck…and walks like a duck…” That’s as far as they’ll ever get. A mile wide and an inch deep.
Scripture – BOTH testaments – are chock FULL of communion between the living and the dead.
In the Rev 6 passage Fr Stephen just mentioned, what happens to the prayers of the decapitated saints regarding those still living on earth? They are gathered into the golden bowls, which are emptied out upon the earth (ch 8 I believe), where the prayers of the departed saints cause things to happen to those still alive on earth.
The Apostles, if asked “where” they ever taught communion of saints, may well point dumbfounded fingers in the direction of Tabor, exclaiming with their Master, “Are you yet so dull?”
[“He who has an ear, let him hear” Moses and Elijah joining in]
Rachel’s voice is heard in Ramah – thousands of years after her death – “weeping for her children, for they are no more.”
Saul speaks posthumously with Samuel.
Paul prays for departed Onisephorus.
Christ’s enemies – eager to trap Him in a mistake – are totally cool with Him praying to Elijah from the Cross. (and yes, if the pharisees heard correctly then Christ would indeed have been “praying” to Elijah, since the word “pray” simply means “to ask”).
Those annoying bits in the Maccabees.
Habbakuk feeds Daniel in the lion’s den. (OK, technically they were both alive, just not at the same time).
At the Resurrection, 500 departed interact with the believers.
In Hebrews, the departed are actively engaged in cheering on the living ones still in the race.
Etc, etc, etc.
If a living human cannot have contact with any human who has suffered death, then nobody alive can have contact with a certain Human (catch my drift?) who has, undeniably, suffered death.
In Christ, death’s “middle wall of partition” between the “living” and the “dead” has been obliterated. Both are in Christ. One must wonder, then, what tortured anti-christ this is within whom the twain are unable to have any communion with each other to the point of being unable to ask (“pray”) each other for anything. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Forget “ask the rocks and they will tell you” and “the heavens declare the glory of God,” these folks don’t even think they can ask anything of a PERSON alive in Christ, nor that a PERSON alive in Christ can declare anything. (Yikes).
Forget “the [living] mouth cannot say to the [departed] ear, ‘I have no need of you,’ ” according to some the mouth cannot say anything at all and the ear cannot hear it.
You want “proof” of prayer to the saints? Alright, gird your loins, I’m about to take off the kid gloves and punch you straight in the face with it:
CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD
TRAMPLING DOWN DEATH BY DEATH
AND UPON THOSE IN THE TOMBS
CHRIST IS RISEN
TRULY HE IS RISEN
Justin, eloquent and true. Unfortunately those who deny the prayers of the saints tacitly deny the saving work of Christ as ongoing and living.
He came and went and if we “believe” we will get to go where He went. Our “ticket will be punched”.
Anything else is irrelevant including repentance.
In the strictest Calvinists you are either born saved or born damned.
Such things are the poison of heresy that corodes the soul and cloaks the mind in self-fulfilling darkness. Heresy defines truth out of existence and so is armor against it/Him.
But He is patient and His love works to gradually disolve the armor unless it is constantly reinforced.
“Proofs” don’t usually work because the premise upon which they are built is denied by those to whom the proofs are directed.
Justin, thank you for your thoughts. You’ve given me much to think about.
Well done Justin.
My experience is that these will be explained away. They don’t comport to the heresy…therefore they must be dismissed.
Lord have mercy.
As far as the Church sees it, The difference is necromancy versus communion in Christ.
One seeks the dead as the source of power apart from God, I.e it seeks to USE another soul. Communion in Christ only acknowledges them as alive IN Christ, and part of an inseparable communion IN Him.
One is Godly the other is not.
Just as there is sexuality that is perverted and sexuality that is blessed. Warnings against sexual immorality do not proscribe sexuality in a context of committed love. (I.e. Communion in sacramental unity headed by Christ)
All things come down to reflecting love and unity IN Christ who makes unity between the Church militant(alive) and Church triumphant (“asleep”) a reality.
In Christ all things are sanctified and put in their proper context.
Just as there is sexuality that is perverted and sexuality that is blessed. Warnings against sexual immorality do not proscribe sexuality in a context of committed love. (I.e. Communion in sacramental unity headed by Christ)
Within God’s Will and Design. One must be careful not to speak too generally on these things as that is how our society conflates heresy and holiness. Even within the context of committed love, if it is not reflective of God’s Will and Design, that love is little more than a form of idolatry.
I have a few thoughts which you (or anyone else reading this) may find helpful when contemplating this issue (it certainly was for me).
The burden of proof regarding communion of saints is not on us to explain why we continue to ask those in Christ with us to pray for us after they pass through a Christ-defeated death into new life in Christ with us. We aren’t communing with the dead – in Christ, they’re NOT dead, but alive with us in the living Christ.
Rather, the burden of proof is upon you to explain why you suddenly QUIT asking those in Christ to pray for you just because they pass through death? [And why you suddenly quit praying for them?]
There can be only one possible reason: You must ACTUALLY believe – despite the common self-deceptions to the contrary which we all have as humans – you must actually believe that, in the mortal combat between Christ and death, that death has emerged the victor. You must actually believe that death is stronger than Christ, able to separate those alive in Him. Otherwise, there can be no reason at all to cease asking those in Christ to pray for you (or your praying for them).
The real issue in communion of saints does not revolve around “saints,” but rather around “communion” – specifically, the One in Whom that communion takes place, and his relationship to death.
“Communion of Saints” in simply a synonym for “The Resurrection.”
If prayer is a righteous thing to do, why would you suppose that those in Christ cease righteousness upon reposing? If someone has Christlike love and prayer for you before their repose, why would you think that disappears after repose? If you believe Christ Himself receives your prayer to Him and prays for you and is involved and concerned for you and loves you – and this AFTER His repose – do you really suppose those reposed in Him are UNLIKE Him? Do we become less Christlike when we repose in Him, or more Christlike?
“The fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” – where is there any indication that the righteous man must not have traversed death? In point of fact, aren’t those who are reposed in Christ MORE righteous than those still here struggling with sin? According to this passage, we should ESPECIALLY be seeking the prayers of the reposed!
Bill, we now pray for you, and you now pray for us – Christ has rendered death powerless over that. Praise Christ with us!
Fr. Stephen, could you help give some clarity to the proper understanding of miracle working icons and myrrh streaming icons. How do you not objectify an icon of the Mother of God, for example, where people have received healing, and then everyone flocks to it expecting the same, or the icon travels around to other places for people to venerate? Isn’t my icon of the Mother of God the same person? Do I need to leave her in my prayer corner and fly to a Greek monastery somewhere as an act of faith?
A while back a myrrh streaming icon was visiting a relatively nearby parish. I thought about going to venerate it, but I was and still am confused by it all. I do not know how to approach such a situation. To me it seems like the icon was streaming myrrh for the people and place where it was originally at. If you bring it to other places aren’t you taking it out of context? Couldn’t it easily become an object and not a person that is being venerated? But yet it was still streaming as it traveled. How do we not seek after signs, but act out of love and faith.?
Please give your thoughts.
I find the article very well explaining the purpose, meaning, and function to pray before an icon. A year or two ago a Protestant Pastor shared that every once in a while he is prying and trivia thought come and attack his mind and distrack him from prayer. He gave example with problems such as auto-tires, àuto-mechanik problems, credit card bills, other bills etc. I listened to him, and remembered what Fr. Stephen said in his article about icons and fervent prayers. I was thinking if the praying person looks constantly at icons probably will stay more focused in prayer and communication with the Holy Trinity and the Saints!