Veneration and the Heart


No doubt, reaching for words where few exist, the Seventh Ecumenical Council made a careful distinction between “worship” (latria) and “honor” (proskynesis or dulia). Latria, it is said, has the character of sacrifice and is due to God alone. English, perhaps among the least precise of all languages, has used the word “worship” for both concepts. Thus, certain positions within the state are addressed as “your worship.” The old English service of Holy Matrimony has the groom saying to his bride, “With my body I do thee worship.” Modern ears, formed and shaped by a Protestantizing culture, recoil when the Orthodox say, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!”

Ours is a culture formed and shaped by the ideologies of democratic notions. It has become a national habit to hate politicians and any in authority if we disagree with their politics. St. Paul said, “Give honor to whom honor is due.” Generally, we withold honor according to our moral whims, largely disregarding the notion that any mere “office” carries with it a level of respect and regard. Of course, criticizing leaders is as old as leadership itself.

My thoughts are not about our political life, but the life of the heart. There is a right instinct in the teaching of the Church regarding worship and veneration. Worship (that which belongs to God alone) is utterly essential for our well-being. That we are – inherently includes that “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” In the same manner, our well-being requires the presence of veneration. It is an acknolwedgement of the structure and shape of the universe. Mathematicians cannot ignore first principles, even as they perform the most subtle and speculative calculations.

Our cultural history has largely made us tone-deaf to any hierarchical structure in the world around us. Indeed, I think some are deeply troubled at the thought that God Himself is somehow greater than we are.

In is in light of such realities that I have come to see the veneration of saints, and of relics, and the honor given to hierarchs and holy things, to be essential for the well-being and healing of the human heart. The spiritual disease that afflicts us, can primarily be described as a lack of love. We are imprisoned by our passions so that we are a mass of desires. Passions are disordered desires. It is of great note that the rejection of veneration is a rejection of order – and an invitation to disorder. We simply cannot bear the shame of inequality. Loved equally by God, we resent the excellence of others, as though their excellence came at our expense. Our envy can be heard as we rejoice at the fall of every great one. All of them, “Had it coming.”

Veneration is given to us within the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother.” They are the first persons in our lives to whom we owe gratitude. The commandment also adds this: “…that your days may be long in the land.” Veneration is thus noted as essential for our well-being.

Whether we wish it to be so or not, the universe has structures within it, on the physical level but also on the psychological and spiritual level. Social relations are deeply marked by inequality, creating both occasions for shame and frequent injustice. We make protests of equality as though the only proper structures were straightforwardly horizontal.

It is possible to “kick against the goad,” and rebel against the structures we encounter. It is also possible, and more salutary, to see in them inevitable structures that serve to form and shape the inner life towards the image of its Creator. It is certainly the case that structures within the world create boundaries and ample occasions for shame. It is also the case that we can never remove such obstacles in sufficient amount so as to reshape the universe. Those who begin by suggesting that all animals are equal inevitably begin to say that some are more equal than others. And just like almost everything in the universe this can either be for our destruction or our salvation.

The God who appointed a handful of men to be Apostles, is the same God who warned them against abusing that position by “lording it over” others. Instead, He offered Himself as the pattern. He washed their feet. He came among us as a servant. He did not, however, come among us as an equalizing bulldozer. Our refusal to acknowledge the “uneven” character of creation is also a turning away from what it is within us under the false notion that the problem is outside us.

Veneration is a movement of love. The rejection of veneration is a movement of management (that always fails).

St. Paul’s simple admonition, “Give honor to whom honor is due,” is of a piece with the self-emptying love of Christ.

In my years as a High Anglican, I held, theologically, that the veneration of saints was a good and permissible thing (yes, I know that violates the 39 Articles – they were not binding in America). However, the nature of Western liturgical piety (even in Catholic practice) generally has very little opportunity, outside of private devotions, for the veneration of saints or relics. Orthodox liturgical practice, I discovered, is full of acts of veneration. We do not simply paint icons, we honor them, and do so as an integral part of the liturgical service. You do not enter the Church and ignore the icons.

Thus, what had once been an approved idea in my life became a steady practice. And it was only in that practice that the truth of the matter became clear. The icons taught me what I had not known: how to give honor where honor is due.

I discovered in my marriage, for example, that I was not only to love my wife, but to hold her in veneration, to honor her (the traditional Western marriage service has always contained an oath to “love, honor, etc.” I remember in our early Orthodox years saying to my wife: “It might sound silly, but when I pass you in the hall or kitchen, I have this instinct to bow and cross myself.” It’s not the normative form of showing honor in a marriage – but my heart was only just beginning to learn that mystery.

In our culture, love has often been reduced – even abused in its over-definition. Almost totally lacking, however, is a practice of honor. I recall a retired colonel (WWII) in my first Anglican parish. He had a deep sense of honor and held matters of the Church in a regard that seemed rare. I enjoyed being with him. I trusted him. On reflection, I can see that he learned honor in the same manner as the Centurion whose servant Jesus healed. The military of his day carried a deep culture of honor.

I believe that we cannot rightly perceive the world around us until we gain a heart-knowledge that grasps the practice of veneration. It is also a practice than can only be voluntary. It has the capacity to reveal hidden wonders. Its absence has the capacity for great swathes of misery.

The world around us is sacrament and symbol. It means that anything and everything can serve to reveal God to us, and to reveal ourselves to us, as well. It is, however, a world that only gives itself to us in love. We cannot see what we do not love and honor.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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22 responses to “Veneration and the Heart”

  1. Katherine Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen, your post clarifies, quite wonderfully, something I have felt for a while now but have been unable to clearly articulate. (I’m sure my inability to express myself clearly when discussing spiritual matters is mainly due to my woeful lack of both education and knowledge – but I suspect having “the least precise of all languages” as my mother-tongue doesn’t help.)

  2. Cliff Avatar

    It seems there is a tendency to pick and choose what we venerate and what we condemn Father. Looking for social justice, we tend to condemn everyone. When we venerate the imperfect we uplift or hearts towards love and not hate. When I first became Orthodox, I remember thinking how could the Church make a murderer into a saint? Of course in terms of social justice saints are always made to be murderers. So we are left believing that nothing is worth venerating, nothing is sacred, nothing is holy. No wonder we have so many psychological problems. We seem to be constantly looking only for the bad in others, but never the good. If we look for the good, that is what we will find.

  3. Jennifer Adams Avatar
    Jennifer Adams

    Thank you for this reflection. I am reading “Spiritual Awakening”, one of a series of books of Spiritual Counsels of Elder Paisios (now St. Paisios) of Mount Athos. I think this attribute of veneration/honor that you are speaking of is somehow encompassed in what he calls “devoutness” (I do not know what word is used in the original Greek). Please correct me if I’m wrong in this assessment. From the book, “Devoutness is the fear of God, modesty, spiritual sensitivity. A devout person may strain to make great efforts, but this straining drips honey into his heart. It does not turn his heart into a martyrdom; it is an enjoyable experience. The actions of a devout person are refined and careful. He strongly feels the presence of God, the Angels, the Saints. He senses his guardian Angel nearby, watching over him. He always keeps in mind that his body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit, and lives a simple, pure and sanctified life. His behavior is always well thought-out, marked by modesty and awareness of all that is sacred. For instance, he is careful not to turn his back on the holy Icons. He does not place the Sacred Scripture or any spiritual book where he sits, and so on….Even when he merely sees the name of Christ written down somewhere, he will bow reverently and kiss it, his soul overflowing with sweetness”.

    He further states that a devout person attracts the Grace of God, becomes a receiver of Grace and it remains in him.

    Interestingly, St. Paisios says that devoutness is a transmittable virtue that is acquired by associating with devout people and observing how they behave. Perhaps the veneration and honor you speak of is so absent in our culture because its lacks begets in an even further lack, and so on. We have so few examples to learn from.

  4. Byron Avatar

    This echos something I read recently from St. Chrysostom:

    There is no difference at all between the priest and the those under him; for instance, when we are to partake of the awesome mysteries, for we are all alike counted worthy of the same things….”

    I realized, upon reading that passage, that though we are the same under God’s grace, we do not fulfill the same roles. The Church provides the priest as an authority over the laypeople. But the power of the Church is not a worldly power; it is always rooted in love–and the authority of the priest is always authority empowered only by love. We venerate the Image of God (the Icon of Christ) in them, we ask for their blessing, we humble ourselves to the authority they are given. But if we do not do these things out of love, as they have authority over us in love, it is all nothing more than vanity.

    The roles we are given are important and should be honored in love and humility.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Our protestantized culture long ago tended towards rejecting most practices of veneration. It is, I suspect, why we are so over-the-top in our treatment of celebrities and sports figures. Having rejected veneration for the worthy, we have come to give to the merely notorious. Our “selfie” culture also seeks to place ourselves among their number – sort of using Twitter and Instagram, etc., as a silly means of theosis.

    The heart is so constructed that it will always venerate something, or someone. But our culture lacks the virtue necessary to teach proper veneration. That said, it underlines the importance of these practices in our lives. May God create a clean heart within us and renew a right spirit.

  6. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    “It is of great note that the rejection of veneration is a rejection of order – and an invitation to disorder. ”

    Wonderful insight. Words to ponder.

  7. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Human language is always an approximation in that we are trying to communicate a thing with a symbol representing the thing. In this sense, English is better equipped than most other languages because the vocabulary (toolbox of symbols) is so large. After all, English has both “worship” and “honor” (as well as “venerate”)…but speakers and writers of English may not be as exact with their diction as their language allows!

    What is signified is of greater importance, moreover, than the word we use to signify it; that word may not, in fact, have the same nuance of meaning to the receiver as the sender intended. In the “life of the heart,” do we know the difference in what we feel and express for God versus what we feel and express for the saints, whether or not we can articulate the distinction? Others see and hear only the outward manifestations of that internal life and consequently may be unable to distinguish how, for example, crossing yourself when passing your wife is different from crossing yourself at the altar. To try to put that subtlety into words and explain can make you feel silly because the gesture sufficiently (and perhaps more accurately?) communicates what you intend.

    The Gospel of John says the Word was made flesh. That seems to me one of the most profound verses in the Bible and intricately related to this discussion. One small part of what I try to understand from the incarnation is the idea that we are better able to understand instantiation better than symbol alone (faith *and* works).

    I suspect that for the Christian any pious feeling is using the particular as a means of glorifying the Creator. If we feel gratitude toward our spouse, that can only enhance our gratitude toward Who provided our spouse to us. Similarly, any devout feelings of respect and honor we offer others, by transference, accrues to the Name above all Names.

  8. Jordan Avatar

    Haven’t finished reading yet because I am really just struck by the distinction between veneration and management as two basic orientations to the things of this world. That distinction really seems to carry so much significance.. laying out a choice between life and death even.
    I often feel so stuck in viewing my life as something to be managed. It brings so much despair, envy, jealousy, shame, and all the rest. I am reminded of the parable of the exorcised house that was in order and become a habitation for 7 more demons. A forest with trees is much more expedient for our purposes, but if we don’t keep managing it weeds will start growing. So we are trapped.
    Anyway, hope to finish the post someday!

  9. Leah Avatar

    I have recently realized that I don’t love well. I have been asking Christ in my heart to teach me what it means to love others, to truly see His image in each person. This article gives me insight and seems to be the beginning answer to that prayer. Thank you.

  10. Lawrence Avatar

    Thank you for this reflection, Father. Veneration (giving honor) to holy things is something that can be instilled in the modern era, even if it is the exception. I remember once as a child, I placed an empty water cup on our family bible because the table was crowded, and my mother (who was Catholic) said, “Don’t put your cup on the Bible!” “Why?” “Because it’s holy!” She would not have been able to articulate the worship/veneration distinction, but she got it instinctively.

    Like you wrote, if I am comfortable honoring certain things as set apart/holy (the Bible, the Gospel Book, the cross, icons), and if I can see certain persons as especially holy (the Theotokos, the saints), then that can rewire my heart to see -every-thing and -every-one as potentially holy, as something or someone in whom I can encounter God.

  11. Sarah Avatar

    I would also say that sometimes people who have seen abuse of power or institutional failure have become cynical as a result. Sexual scandals, misappropriated finances, etc. It can make it hard to trust “right” authority.

    I’ve changed my name for confidentiality but when I first joined the church, there was a priest who had been a very divisive figure in the parish. I did not want to go to confession as I felt unsure of how this person would respond and confession is very personal. Eventually he was “reassigned” by the bishop, but there were a number of problems before he left. I still joined the church, but it took me a while longer. I’m sure others have experienced similar circumstances.

  12. Robert Avatar

    It could also be said that “We cannot see what we do love and honor,” as far as the saints go; however, we do possess icons of them, which may help the ‘venerative’ process. Just a thought.

  13. Dino Avatar

    That realization is key. Only God is love in truth. We are all –from Adam to the last human one on Earth– narcissistically self-absorbed in our personal interpretations and exploitations of everything, all that exists, and this inevitably taints whatever love we think we might have.
    Christ, from the very start has been teaching us, knowing full well that we perpetually function narcissistically and self-servingly.
    This is why He says, ‘love your enemies’, because everyone is an enemy to the narcissist; this is why He says ‘take up your cross and follow me’, because the crucifical death that leads to life is our only release from this utter self-centerdness, (the Cross being the mode of being that we have been called towards from the start); this is why he says ‘repent!’ because we have one, default, way of being, and He shows us a wholly different way of being.
    We come from nothing, ‘non-being’ is our very nature in this sense, yet, in time, we are created into the image of the uncreated Eternal one, Love Himself, who is beyond all being and Whose mode of existence is the utter paradisial crucificial love we can only admire.
    This love/Cross is the ‘mode of existence’ that He teaches us from the foundation of time, knowing it is the solution to all problems of all created ex-nihilo beings, forever. And because this can be so inconceivably hard for narcissistic beings terrified of their return to nothing (which we all are outside this ‘mode of being’), He initially gives us reasons to be thankful, myriads of reasons, and to thus, more easily, through gratefulness, start to enter that divine ‘mode’ of existence He has.
    Combined with the realization that –as Father put it– “the world around us is sacrament and everything can serve to reveal God to us in love”, we have a great aid in becoming created vessels that will one day be able to emanate His uncreated love.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Unfortunately, the confusion between vereration and worship is in the Latin as well and according to The Etymology Dictionary exists in even older languages. It does not comment on the Greek.

    Worship is difficult and ego busting. The primary distinction for me is I worship the God who creates. I venerate the created things and people who most clearly demonstrate the activity of our Creator.

    When I have trouble with veneration it is because I have lost site of both the fact that God alone is my Creator and that Creator is PERSON. He is not a “cosmic force” or some non-personal overlord.

    That reality was, by Grace, shown to me the first time I set foot in an Orthodox Church and entered the worship of Divine Liturgy. It has take the next 36 years and counting for the reality of His Personhood to begin to sink in to my sin filled
    Mind, Body and Soul.

    Forgive me, a sinner

  15. Dino Avatar

    traditionally, in (typically eastern) Orthodox countries, it seems that honouring and venerating is done in a rather ‘worshipful’ manner and I guess this can look quite extreme: there’s a great deal of bowing bodily movements that sort of signify this. However, I think it is rather clear that we only worship the Divine , (even if you think of it as the Uncreated which has made its abode in the created in some faith expressions), again in these motions.

  16. Esmee La Fleur Avatar
    Esmee La Fleur

    I had an interesting conversation with a Romanian man recently over the title “Holy Royal Martyrs” that we have given to Tsar Nikolai and his family in the English language. This man was extremely upset because he said we should call the “Holy Imperial Martyrs,” and that simply calling them “Royal” was denigrating. He kept getting mad at people on Facebook for using this, in his view, inappropriate title. I tried to explain to him that 1) as an American, I have never made the distinction myself and it had never even occurred to me to ask the question, and that I was certain this was likely true for most Americans given our unfamiliarity with Monarchy on the whole; 2) it was likely a translation problem and not an intentional attempt to denigrate Tsar Nikolai and his family; and 3) the translations were almost certainly approved by our Bishops, so attacking individuals on Facebook over this issue was a lost cause. Why I was even having this conversation with this man I do not know, LOL, but… in the context of this conversation on veneration, reverence, devoutness, etc. I do think it sheds light on just how difficult it is for Americans to willingly acquire a “hierarchical mind” so-to-speak, compared to those who grew up in Orthodox countries with a history of monarchy.

    When I read Saint Paiosos’s words on reverence myself a few years ago, my immediate realization was that I have absolutely no concept of what true reverence toward Christ and His Church really is. I “understand” that dressing in a skirt and a head scarf is recommended for women because it helps to put us into a reverential state of mind, but my laziness as a spoiled, selfish, “modern” woman who feels more comfortable in jeans often wins. But if I truly “felt” reverence as a heart thing, not an intellectual head thing, toward Christ and His Church, it would not be an inner struggle for me every time I go to Church services to “do the right thing.” I would unquestionably choose to serve Christ and His Church by dressing appropriate before Him, rather than choosing to serve myself. I hope this makes sense.

  17. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    thank you for your reply to Leah. What you say cut right through my defences and pierced straight to the heart of it/me with such ease and clarity, I am now able accept the truth of something I knew but could not face, nor admit to myself; my narcissism. The healing continues.
    ‘ Glory to God for all things!’

  18. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    thank you too for your post. I don’t love well either.

  19. hélène d. Avatar
    hélène d.

    Thank you P.Stephen for this timely and important reflection… There is much depth to discover and our relationship to the world…
    I remember, among other things, these words :
    “Our refusal to acknowledge the “uneven” character of creation is also a turning away from what it is within us under the false notion that the problem is outside us.”
    And I thought of a reflection of Mgr Nicolas Velimrovitch on inequalities which had challenged me a lot and which continues to make me think. I take the liberty of putting his words here. Perhaps you know this text. I hope it will not be too long.

    “Inequality is wiser and is preferable to equality. Inequality was placed as the very foundation of the created world. We should rejoice over this inequality and not rebel against it, because it was put in place by love, not by hatred; by wisdom, not derangement. Our life isn’t wretched through a shortage of equality, but because of a lack of love and spiritual understanding among us. Add more of the love of God and a better spiritual understanding of life and you’ll see that even twice as much inequality couldn’t vitiate the bliss people would feel. People are unequal because they’re not all needed in the same way
    Making everything equal results in a weakening of creation. Life is based on inequalities.
    If you really look carefully at yourself, you’ll see that you don’t really want equality. What you actually want is the elevation of the small and weak to the same level as the great and mighty. This is a very noble aspiration. But, because you don’t have the power to elevate the small and weak, you bring down the great and the mighty to the lower level. God gave strength to the powerful so that they could help the weak; wealth to the rich so that they could carry out works of charity; wisdom to the wise, so that they could teach the ignorant and make the foolish understand.
    he Lord shared his gifts among people in an inequal way so that, because of this inequality, there’d be constant activity in people’s life.”

    I give thanks for this sentence you wrote :
    “Veneration is a movement of love. The rejection of veneration is a movement of management (that always fails).”

  20. Andrew Roberts Avatar
    Andrew Roberts

    I do struggle with hierarchy at times. It would seem that instead of leaving Egypt, reasons are found to stay and make it more ethical; convince Pharaoh to share the power and wealth around.

  21. Sharon Avatar

    The decision is becoming quite clear these days – Will I energize my actions by power, for power -> nihilism….or will I energize my actions by touching into the “Hope that beckons” -> that we may all be one – a greater and greater realization of communion, which is our “purpose”?
    Hope is the antidote to nihilistic calls for the bulldozer of “equality”.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well said! False goals often make good slogans (such as equality) but make for tragic and unhappy outcomes. The truth of things is much harder to articulate and requires much greater wisdom in order to be lived. I think, by and large, that people live in the real world most of the time, and find various ways to accommodate things (such as inequality). But, then, instead of exploring how and why this is so, we then make ourselves miserable as we nurture false beliefs and explanations within ourselves.

    “Communion” is a much better understanding – and has much within it to be explored.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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