The Sweet Smoke of Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so we do both.

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


Photo by Andriy Tod on Unsplash

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.






6 responses to “The Sweet Smoke of Prayer”

  1. David Kontur Avatar
    David Kontur

    Thank you, Father Freeman! As a Roman Catholic, I was deeply influenced several years ago, reading Father Gabrielle Bunges book on prayer. He has a great discussion in that book about the importance of engaging our whole person, body, heart, mind in our prayer. He also discussed the meaning of facing east. I only noticed after that how many churches, especially older ones are built so that the alter is positioned so that the congregation is facing to the east. I have incorporated these practices into my own prayer. More recently within the last several years the Catholic Church has incorporated a partial prostration in the liturgy during the Nicene Creed.
    Thank you for all that you do!!

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Is there any way in which offering incense is analogous to confession? Jesus’ mercy turning our hearts?

  3. glorytogod Avatar

    Welcome to the new site! I tend to liken the incense to all forms of our offering to God. Confession is indeed an offering – the humbling of the heart is a “sweet smelling fragrance” to God. When the “inside” matches the “outside” there is a wholeness that is hard to describe.

  4. glorytogod Avatar

    Interestingly, even when the altar-end of the Church is not able to physically “face” the East, in Orthodoxy, it is still described as the Eastern end of the Church. Where the altar is – is the East end of the Church.

  5. Esmée Noelle Covey Avatar
    Esmée Noelle Covey

    Thank you, Father. My mother follows an East Indian Guru, and one if the things she likes about this “path” is that it has been stripped of all the “meaningless” rituals. I have been frustrated by my inability to explain to her the spiritual significance of the physical traditions within the Orthodox Church services. This post will give me something to share with her should the subject come up again.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Hindu faith, as I am sure you know, posits the total unreality of our physical existence from which we need to escape to be free. I am not sure if there is a philosophy more opposite than the Orthodox Incarnational faith. Yet, in this world, the irrelevance of matter has a great attraction over the fact that bread and wine are transformed and transmuted by the Grace and Activity of the Holy Spirit.

    Even when one allows that same Holy Spirit and the presence of our Lord actively in our hearts, it can be a tough sell in the world mind.

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