When an Icon Finds Its Home


I’m not sure you’ll find any of this written in books about the Orthodox faith – it’s only an oral tradition, and I’m not sure you can exactly call it a “tradition.” All I can say is that I’ve “heard” it more than once. And I’ve seen it’s truth.

It has to do with icons – with them finding us – which is not to be confused with us finding them.

There is a common tendency, not surprisingly, to want to rush out and buy lots of icons when you first discover Orthodoxy. At one point my icon corner at home looked busier than an ecumenical council, with at least as many saints in attendance! I enjoyed the company, but most of the icons were there simply because I owned them. If I liked one, I bought it.

This, of course, is a function of icons (mounted prints) not being expensive – and – if you learn to decoupage, less expensive still.

What I heard once, was, “Don’t look for the icons. They’ll find you.” Now, of course, this is not a rule and is not written anywhere. But I started paying attention to the advice. I cleaned up my icon corner, gave many icons away,  and left up what seemed important to me.

Over the years icons have “found” me. Some were icons of saints I did not know but needed to know. One was an icon of Christ, quite small, that I found in a junk shop in South Carolina. I say He found me, because all of the junk around the icon seemed to disappear and I saw Him. There was nothing for it but to buy the icon and take it home. It remains among my favorite icons of Christ.

I’ve heard many stories since of icons “finding” people. Not all the icons I own have such stories – but there are many with such stories – stories of relationships – in this case between sinner and saint. And it is such stories that say more about why we pray with icons than the theories of “hypostatic representation” that I could lecture on should you like.

If you read the stories of some of the great icons – many have just this quality. One is found floating in the ocean, another at the root of a tree. One seems to insist on being hung on the doorway rather than in the Church. Others have fled countries during times of revolution only to return to massive crowds and adulation – like a returning monarch, or Christ on the road to Jerusalem.

None of the little icons in my “beautiful” corner have such large stories, but many have their own small stories – each of which binds me ever deeper to the company of heaven, drawing me out of my all-too-willing sojourn in hades – calling me home (“higher up and further in!”).

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





21 responses to “When an Icon Finds Its Home”

  1. Fatherstephen Avatar

    The picture is of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God during its return to the Tikhvin monastery. The crowds that greeted it throughout its journey in Russia have no real counterpart in America. There is nothing religious that we feel this way about.

  2. Stephen Ullstrom Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I have to admit I tend to shudder when I see pictures of icons in processions, though I think that the problem is me, and not the icons. I grew up in Taiwan, where the dominant religion is a mixture of Buddhism/Taoism/Animism, and there are lots of idols which are processed through the streets, much like in the picture above, though with more pomp and firecrackers and gongs and even sometimes blood, so that the idol can see its territory. Growing up in a Christian family, it got rightly ingrained that idoletry is wrong. But along with that everything associated with idol worship, ie incense, bowing, processing, praying to any other but God, etc… was also seen as wrong. With icons and the saints, I am slowly learning to understand and appreciate them, but I still do flinch when I see pictures like the one above.

    I am assuming though that the Orthodox do not walk in procession with icons for the same reasons that the Taiwanese walk in procession with idols. I am not totally sure why the Orthodox walk in procession, so I was wondering if you could explain that?

    Also, what about the Catholic, or even perhaps WR Orthodox use of statues instead of, or along with icons. (I’m actually not too sure if WR Orthodox use statues, and whether or not they are used the same as icons. Please forgive and correct me if I’m wrong on this.) Is this icon/statue difference just a cultural difference? Why do the ER Orthodox not use statues? Are there times when devotion to icons or statues become too obsessive? Thanks.

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    The original prohibition in the East to statues was precisely because they were too reminiscent of pagan statues. The theology, highly developed, of icons, saw them as “Windows to Heaven,” as making present (hypostatically) what they represent. Processions are done many times in Orthodoxy (they’re called for far more than we do them in the West). Originally, they were very popular parades through the streets of the city, that included stops (stations) for prayers. It was a means of blessing the bounds (something done in England with holy water and prayers). During some battles, icons were marched along the battlements of Constantinople, more than once witnessing the defeat of enemies. No different than the use of the ark of the Covenant.

    Processions, in one sense, are similar to certain aspects found in some pagan areas. In non-liturgical Christianity, the faith has become completely a matter that takes place between the ears, mentally. This is a completely new phenomenon of sorts – a “gnosticizing” tendency. That Christians bow or close their eyes for prayers, or use rosaries, or icons (rightly understood) may look very like the kinds of things that other religions do. Other religions pray – which does not make it pagan.

    These outward forms of pagan religions are upsetting to protestants because protestantism doesn’t look like anything else (other than a lecture series with music).

    Obviously Orthodox mean something completely different than pagans, just as you mean something completely different than pagans when you pray, despite the fact that you are both praying.

    Orthodox in the West use fewer processions. Usually only around the outside of the Church on certain occasions. They do not seem to carry near the heart or meaning as they do in Eastern Orthodox countries. Modernism has changed processions, doubtless for the worse, such that even the Orthodox aren’t sure why we do them. Which to me is all the more reason to do them and learn why. I might add that parades are disappearing in the West. Our public life is slowly atrophying and it’s not a good sign in my book. To a degree, processions carry the faith into the world (physically) and pray there. It sanctifies the world, in a sacramental way. Our modern tendency to only seek to sanctify the space between our ears is the truly dangerous activity. As I said, this is a gnosticization of Christianity, turning “spiritual” into “mental.”

    Interestingly, when we go down to the local marina in January for the blessing of the waters, we also like to go down the day before, and pick up all the trash we can find in the area. It makes sense. It is also a stewardship of what will become for us a place of worship.

  4. Alyssa Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Its funny that you should write about this now as I have just put up a small shelf in my bedroom and a cross above it, but have been wondering how to go about acquiring icons for veneration at home given my upcoming chrismation. I have been looking in our church’s shop, on-line, etc, but have felt weird about just buying a bunch of them. I know that there are some I “should” have and others I might like. However, I started to feel materialistic and greedy and impatient at the thought of filling up my wall all at once.

    I have heard that icons are common gifts at christmations, so I will wait until after the new year to see what, if any, I “should” purchase on my own. But what you wrote here seemed very much in line with my spirit (given the fact that I am new to Orthodoxy and know so little about much of the nitty-gritty details of this new life).

    It seems appropriate, too, that one should wait for icons to find us as waiting and patience has been an ongoing theme in my move toward Orthodoxy 🙂


  5. Stephen Ullstrom Avatar

    Thanks, Father.

    I do appreciate that the East uses icons, and not statues, for the very reason you said above.

    I hadn’t made the connection between the ark of the covenant and icons, but that is a good one.

    What you said about going out into the world to sanctify it is something I have never really thought about before. But it makes sense, at least in the context of Orthodoxy. I’ll have to think about that more.

    It seems to me that Satan has taken these good things, like icons and processions and physical pray, if I may phrase it that way, and has twisted them into idol worship so that the idol worship looks similar but is very different. And Prostestants have reacted though not knowing its past by rejecting the idol worship instead of correcting it back to what it should be. So we end up then less than what we should be.

    Thanks again.

  6. Athanasius Avatar

    To Stephen Ullstrom,

    I think you may benefit from reading Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s book: “The Historical Road of Orthodoxy”. If I remember correctly he addresses the development of the use of icons in Christian piety in a very honest, forthright way. What I drew from Fr. Alexander’s writing is that God, through His Son, has “made all things new”; he reconciled (is reconciling) all things to Himself. So yes, there are elements of worship in general that are common to many religions; however, Christ reconciles them to their particular use: the glorification of the One True God. Yes, Satan is particularly good at imitation, as are his minions, as per St. Paul. If you have never read any of Fr. Alexander’s work, I suggest you start with “For the Life of the World”, which really introduces the reader to sacramental/liturgical theology.

    In some of my more unpleasant conversations with those who oppose the use of objects in worship, and liturgical worship in general, I remind them that the Jews were not the first to use temples, incense, altars, etc. in worship. Therefore, if Orthodox worship is corrupt for it’s similar usage, what of early Jewish worship?

    I wasn’t really able to articulate that line of argument until after having read the absolutely priceless work of St. John Damascene: “Against Those Who Decry the Use of Holy Images”. You can easily find this text on the internet, read it, and keep re-reading it. I think it is absolutely necessary in the neo-puritan milieu of American religious thought.

  7. Stephen Ullstrom Avatar

    Thanks, Athanasius, for the suggestions. I have read what St. John Damascene has written, and it was very helpful. Haven’t read much of Fr. Alexander’s books, though I know people who quote him extensively. I will have to start finding those books.

    Just to clarify, I’m not really against icons or other aspects of Orthodox worship. I know that they have a long history, and that OT worship is full of images. Indeed, one of the things that attracts me to Orthodoxy is that it is very physical in its worship. And as I learn more about icons and the other aspects of Orthodox worship, I am coming to understand and appreciate and embrace them more and more. On the other hand, I also have my past, which rightly or wrongly does influence how I see things. I guess the trick is learning how to see things properly, which I am trying to do. Slowly but hopefully surely I’m learning. Cheers.

  8. Athanasius Avatar

    “I’m not really against icons or other aspects of Orthodox worship.”

    My brother, that was never my impression! 🙂

    Nevertheless, I recognize as a former protestant myself, the need after the initial conversion to come to terms with our new confession.

    Forgive the geeky example, but I call to mind the scene in Indiana Jones and Last Crusade (I think that’s the title) when he is faced with a great expanse, and his map shows a knight crossing the expanse. Indy knows that he must cross the gap but he can see no bridge. He closes his eyes and steps out in faith. After his initial shock, he proceeds joyfully across, but stops and turns and tosses some pebbles over the formerly “invisible” bridge, so as not to experience his former doubts that the bridge is there.

    So also do we, once we have made the commitment to Orthodoxy without completely understanding the fullness of the faith, step out in faith and then turn to understand and reinforce our new beliefs.

    Keep learning, keep asking questions!

  9. Jack Avatar

    This might be a tad off topic, but the “sacrament of the procession of the icon,” as I will call it, is precisely why I dislike the attempt to number the sacraments, something that I see has been done on the official OCA website. I think this is a really dumb, bad, modern schol-gnostic idea. I have been to Christian processions, both Catholic and Orthodox, and they can be deeply powerful experiences.

    This schol-gnosticism is the source of our peculiarly modern hyper self-consciousness and the culture built upon it. It does not come from Descartes. Descartes is only a symptom. Rather, it comes from the decay of our religious tradition into abstractions having little to do with full-bodied Christian praxis.

  10. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    I think it was one of the films on the life of Jesus that shows him, walking into our out of a house, and kissing the mezuzzah (spelling), the required OT script that is nailed to the doorpost of every home. It was a little reminder that Jesus said, “I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Orthodoxy is the fulfillment, some forms of Christianity are the abolishment. And there is a huge difference. Despite any abuse that ever took place, the abolition of such things has done far more damage to our faith and our culture. It gave us secularism which is emptying Churches in Europe the way Communism and Islam never did. And it has changed Christianity in America into an almost unrecognizable hybrid. The temptations we face are far more insidious than the ones our ancestors faced.

  11. mrh Avatar

    I’m pretty sure this advice — to not buy icons but let them come to you — is repeated in Jim Forest’s book Praying With Icons which I liked a lot.

    I was skeptical of this advice before my chrismation, but I now have a very rich and full icon shelf despite having only bought one icon for myself ever.

    I have also had the pleasure of giving a couple of icons and I find it even more blessed to give than to receive. I don’t think that thought’s original either :-).

  12. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Thank you for you confirming testimony! (to use evangelical-speak). I think part of the entire joy is to discover that it’s all about relationships and not about acquiring. What joy! What unmitigated joy!

  13. Athanasia Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    It is interesting that you posted this because yesterday I was just conversing with my spiritual big brother, Fr. Seraphim, about my patron saint, St. Athanasius.

    My very first encounter with Orthodoxy was through the required reading of “On the Incarnation” for a history class I was in. I fell in love with St. Athanasius at that moment. I went on-line and printed a copy of his icon which I found on the OCA website and framed it.

    My next icon was part of a goodie bag at an icon conference I attended. It was Rublev’s Trinity.

    The next two icons I purchased at another icon conference. They are of the Holy Theotokos, and Christ Pantocrater.

    All of the above icons have been blessed in the altar for 40 days.

    My next, and most precious icon, is a photograph of the Myrrh Streaming icon of St. Anna, which was given to me by a friend. The icon was being brought to the icon conference I attended but its arrival was delayed and I needed to leave. Fr. Athanasy had the photos made and each was blessed with myrrh from the icon. My friend got me the copy. Since I do some scrapbooking, I framed the icon and decorated the edging with flowers. It is beautiful.

    My last icon is a small one mailed to me by a friend during a difficult period of my life. It is of St. Xenia. She is framed and resides in my icon corner.

    I had a small photo of the Sitka Icon which was just beautiful but gave it away to a friend of mine who was deathly ill after surgery. She contract MSRV (flesh eating disease) and I thought the icon would be a benefit to her. She is fully recovered and in good health now. I told her to keep the icon and should another person need to be touched by the Mother of God, to pass it on to them.

    I have only 6, but each is very special to me. Thank you for posting this entry. It was very nice to think on these things.

    Kissing your right hand, Athanasia

  14. Benjamin Andersen Avatar

    Very interesting post, Father Stephen! I have also found that my collection of icons has likewise shrunk quite a bit since I joined the Church. My little prayer corner is now almost (but not quite) Cistercian in its simplicity.

    FYI – You will find statues in many WR Orthodox churches; and this article explains that statues are not entirely foreign from the Eastern Orthodox tradition either:


  15. SparrowRose Avatar

    I stumbled across this post while searching for something else. I wanted to thank everyone for their words.

    I know that there are some I “should” have and others I might like. However, I started to feel materialistic and greedy and impatient at the thought of filling up my wall all at once.

    This is exactly what I have been going through! I am a catechumen and my prayer corner looks so bare to me (though it is slowly growing.) I keep making lists of all the things I want to get and then feeling bad about lusting after all kinds of material goods, purchased with the thought of being “more spiritual.”

    So I don’t yet have a matched set of Christ and Theotokos, though I keep thinking “I will get that set.” I know I need them and I know I will get them . . . eventually. And Saints Perpetua and Felicitas (I’m strongly inclined to choose Felicitas as my patron saint) and Saints Augustine and Mary of Egypt for their roles in bringing me to the Church. And I want icons of the myrrh-bearing women and a guardian angel.

    And then I start hearing myself saying “I want . .. I want . . ” and I back away again.

    So right now I have framed the welcome card my priest mailed to me when I first started coming to church. It has the Theotokos on it. And I put up a little card with Rublev’s Trinity on it that has a business card for a Catholic bookseller on the other side and was included as a bookmark in a book I bought on Amazon. And I have some candles and my Orthodox Study Bible and a devotional book (Through the Year with the Church Fathers).

    And I wanted to thank you, Fr. Stephen, and all of you others who posted here, for letting me know that it’s okay to have a nearly-bare prayer corner while I’m waiting for the right icons to find me.

  16. bastrix Avatar

    It exists a translation into Romanian of this text since today.It is a homage for Father Stephen form Father Dorin.

  17. Happy New year Avatar

    Wanted to thank you for the post and also with you a happy new year. I am trying to get more involved with some projects online but darn work keeps getting in the way hahaha. Happy New year!

  18. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Father Dorin,

    Many thanks! I hope it edifies many!

  19. Jazz Avatar

    Lovely post. We are catechumen and have bought a few icons but I love the idea of letting them come to us. My five year old daughter asked for an icon of the Theotokos for her birthday this year and we were so happy to have been able to buy it at our parish store for her. I don’t think any gift I have ever given felt so meaningful. I hope even after she is grown she will remember receiving it and it will be special to her. I guess this is in the same vein as when they say your patron saint will find you.

  20. Nicole from VA Avatar
    Nicole from VA

    My mom runs the bookstore at her parish in DC. She told me about the delight of a doctor visiting the Church when he discovered an icon of an Unmercenary Physician. He bought the icon for his office and it is so joyous to think of them in practice together.

    I really enjoy reading lives of the saints for days that are birthdays or anniversaries in our family. I remember the brightness of his icon in discovering St. Euthymius (Takaishvili), Man of God, who is from Georgia. The style of Georgian icons just amazes me. I consider St. Euthymius one of my closest friends, a gift from my Heavenly Father and also in a way a gift from my dad because his birth date was part of how I discovered the saint.

    Jazz thank you for sharing the beautiful story about your daughter’s birthday gift.

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