Praying with Icons


In one of our recent services (Paschal Vespers as I recall) we had a handfull of visiting Russian Nationals. I’ve noticed this before – it’s sort of a cultural distinction – but the women (they were all female) came in, and stood for extended lengths of time before the icons, as if waiting for something, and then lit their candles.

It is not universally true, but I have often noticed that we Americans, and maybe “we American converts” especially, tend to rush through our entrance into the Church. Managing candles and children at the same time is enough of a struggle, and so I will spare them. But frequently, greeting the icons and lighting a candle can seem like a chore that must be performed and done quickly.

I have no way to judge the piety of another person. But I was struck that Sunday by the time and attention that was spent before an icon. It seemed clear that something was passing – from parishioner to God, or saint, and from God or saint to parishioner. As I say, some of this is cultural, but much of that cultural difference comes from a culture that remembers to pay close attention and respect. These things can come hard to a culture schooled in democracy, where greetings are pretty perfunctory, at best.

When people ask me, “Why do you kiss icons?” I have to remember that we Americans come from a culture that does not kiss in general unless it is a very intimate relation (wife, husband, offspring, etc.). Hollywood is an obvious exception as are several ethnic groups within our culture. But we kiss icons for the same reason that two Greeks kiss upon meeting (or two Frenchmen, etc.). “Greet one another with a Holy Kiss,” the last time I checked, was a Scriptural admonition.

But it is more than the kiss. It is the time and concentration. I know all too well when it’s the last two minutes before the Liturgy begins and the vast majority of the Church is arriving at the same time, kids in tow, etc.  It’s hard not to want to rush because the lines are getting long and you want to let others make their greetings.

All of this simply argues for getting to Church earlier and being sure that I have time to collect myself and properly put myself into the place of prayer – to attend to God and to my heart.

Worshipping at St. Seraphim Cathedral this week, where the icons cover everything, there is very little excuse for me not to direct my attention somewhere. But the key is to direct my attention. Of course a great battle can ensue when I want to direct my attention somewhere and something else is forcing me to direct my attention somewhere else. Those parishes (like my own) where the number of young children is growing can be particularly challenging. And yet, with the noisiest of distractions, I can always pray for the source of the distraction (not praying for it to go away but praying for the richness of God’s blessing to be with them). And praying for others is always pleasing to God.

Our gathering for Liturgy can be many things. I can recall stories from Bishop Kallistos Ware in which he speaks of worshipping in the cave of the Revelation with 2 monks chanting, and three mice watching. That lends itself for one kind of attention. Where 90 or more souls are pressed into little space, and thirty of them are beneath the age of 8, some hyper, some with attention deficit, some autistic, concentration will have to be defined differently. But God surely does not judge us for our kindness and care for children.

We offer what we can in liturgy. But there are other times, both in Church (before and after services) and at home, when attention can be given – when my heart, the icon, and God can meet together and have the communion we have been promised.

Mostly I am convinced that we should not settle for living without that communion, somewhere, sometime.

May God multiply such opportunities in our lives and enlarge our awareness of their presence.

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.






17 responses to “Praying with Icons”

  1. Mimi Avatar

    Father, bless,

    I have seen that, and you bring up good points – especially since my kids are past the corraling stage, I have no excuse to rush.

  2. Philippa Alan Avatar
    Philippa Alan

    This is an interesting point especially since I noticed this occuring this past Sunday. Matushka stood in front of the icon of the Holy Theotokos for more than a minute. I was trailing right behind her venerating the icons, but hurried past her because I did not want to disturb her prayers.

    Because we have pews in our church I am also very concious of the lack of movement during Liturgy. Everyone is penned in so to speak. So I feel the need to rush and feel “obvious” when venerating and everyone is seated in their respective pews or standing when what I really want to do is stand there staring into Our Holy Mother’s eyes and show her my mother’s heart.

    I think I’m gonna slow down and work to forget everyone else.

  3. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    Just one more plsce to confront an Orthodox mindset that cannot be rushed or learned from a book.

    Perhaps my great grandchildren will possess this mindset.

    I, on the other hand, will spend the rest of my life trying to remember to slow down and be present where I am.

    Poor, poor converts. So much poverty. And yet, when I am weak, He is strong.

  4. […] with Icons Published April 19th, 2007 Orthodoxy , Liturgy Another fine post from Fr. Freeman:  some good observations on worship, arriving early enough for contemplation and […]

  5. November In My Soul Avatar

    Thank you again Fr. for your words of wisdom and for opening a discussion on an important issue.

    This inability to slow down and smell the proverbial roses is just another manifestation of our culture of instant gratification. Fortunately Our Lord is patient and his church is 2,000 years old. I pray that we can learn to follow the rhythms of The Church and to give our worship the time and attention it deserves.

  6. mrh Avatar

    I hope this is not too much of a tangent: it struck me this morning, as I was doing my best to pray at my icon corner, that a big part of what the Orthodox Church does is simply to confront us continually with holiness.

    I was thinking about this in connection with my observation that the church sometimes seems relatively lightweight on moral and ethical teaching, that is, the OC doesn’t seem to produce lots of detailed ethical or moral manuals compared to some other churches. And yet, I thought, I have learned more about sin and righteousness just standing before my icons then I ever did pondering learned books before I was Orthodox.

    It is often said, if you don’t want your kids to listen to bad music, expose them to a lot of good music; if you don’t want them reading bad books, make sure they read lots of good ones. For once you know the good and the beautiful you just recoil from the bad and ugly.

    And so, I’ve noticed, being constantly exposed to holiness makes it obvious what is unholy. Soon after doing, saying, or thinking certain things it is almost unbearable to go to the icon corner or to church and have to face Him and His mom and His friends. And then I know it’s time to plan on going to confession, and that I will know what to say when I get there.

  7. Jeff Lee Avatar
    Jeff Lee

    I have to echo the sentiments on the pews. When we’re at one of the monasteries, there are a number of sensations different than our local parish. One of those is the sense that when we are in the Liturgy we are engaged in something that is bigger than just what is going on in that Church, and that is always going on.

    This comes, I think, from the freedom of movement within the Church due to the lack of pews. The littlest ones move from Mom to Dad when they need to (across the room). One friend of ours sat down on the floor with our littlest close to where the Nuns were chanting, so that she could see what was going on. People came and went to the Narthex – perhaps to pray, perhaps to light a candle.

  8. Fatherstephen Avatar

    We are mostly pewless at St. Anne. There are pews along the wall for seating when necessary. Mostly people stand, children move about (sometimes a lot!). But most of my experience, of course, is in the altar and there are distractions there of a different sort – but by and large, the liturgy is designed for even the priest to pray with attention (this is especially so if he has a deacon).

    I took much more time this morning with the icons in Church, before entering the altar to greet it for the day.

  9. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    At Holy Theophany, here in Colorado Springs, there are no pews, but some chairs in front for the infirm or elders. We had a visit from a Serbian bishop, and Father Anthony noticed a cultural difference between the Serbs and this applies to I think most Eastern European countries and the Americans, the Serbs all stood as close to the front of the church as they could, to be as close to the altar and the Bishop as they could get.
    Father Anthony has asked us to do the same, to be as close to God as we can be when we come to church.
    It is an interesting cultural difference, that Americans all hang back as far as they can, I have seen it in many churches. I don’t know if we think we are going to get burned or if this is humility or what, but it is an interesting difference.
    So if you come to Holy Theophany, we are trying to change our ways and move to the front of the church!
    Christ is Risen!
    the handmaid,

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    There are definitely cultural differences – I think sometimes many Americans, converts especially, do not necessarily feel comfortable in the front, because they feel uncertain of what to do – or other sorts of thoughts. When the Bishop comes, he brings us all very close to him around the ambo for the sermon. It is one of my favorite things in his visit.

  11. Kyra Avatar

    I recall thinking, “This is the church for me! (and my family)” my first Sunday when a small one was busy during the sermon putting a stuffed turtle in ‘timeout.’

    Our children, as two with acute problems with ADHD, and the other two just having not learned yet the dicipline of standing patiently, without moving about are all working to grasp the “Be still and know that I am God” concept of church.

    I have found that stillness before God, or a saint take training. No one seems to be able to stand and focus for 15 minutes the first time.

    Pews use to be able to pin my kids into a more controllable area…but then I was not aware if they were getting anything out of church…now as time progresses I see little things here and there that show that they are picking up small bits and pieces.

    Baby steps…for all of us.

  12. Alice C. Linsley Avatar
    Alice C. Linsley

    I take this to heart, Father. I need to and desire to slow down and be still before the Lord to adore Him. I will renew my efforts, with the Lord’s help.

  13. Visibilium Avatar

    I like pewless, and I like being as close to the action as possible. Passive adoration from afar isn’t healthy–for me.

  14. Alexander S. Avatar

    Father, Chris is risen!
    I enjoyed reading all the comments and especially the initial posting. I’m Russian and belong to Russian OC, so what you described as something “different” is just typical for me, so I wouldn’t have noticed the differences without someone pointing at them. It is interesting to see things from a different angle.
    When I read an online journal like yours I feel sorry that we’re not geographically near each other and thus can’t meet face to face. I’ll definitely read your blog from now on and I’m wishing you and your loved ones eternal happiness with our Lord and Saviour!
    Please pray for me and my family.

  15. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Alexander, indeed He is risen!

    Thank you for the note! I think many Americans are not aware of how American their Orthodoxy is – partly because Orthodoxy seems so different from the major forms of Christianity in our culture, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism – and yet Orthodoxy here also takes on some cultural aspects of the people. This is true all over the world.

    But we have much to learn from those with a longer history of Orthodoxy – all of the “native Orthodox” in my congregation are very precious to me. They often know things that others don’t and are also frequently unaware that they have this knowledge!

    I look forward to hearing more from you!

  16. Gina Avatar

    At the risk of sounding utilitarian, I am wondering what it is that people “do” when they linger at the icons? Are they reciting prayers or psalms, meditating, both?

  17. fatherstephen Avatar


    One or both or even just being quietly in the presence of God. But I think generally the answer is “praying.”

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