When my husband and I became Eastern Orthodox seven years ago, I knew I had come home. However, I wasn’t sure how to make my own home reflect my new faith. This series–”So I’m Orthodox, Now What?”–is based on the questions I asked myself in the first few years after our chrismation: How could I make our home a “Little Church”? How could I instruct my children in a faith that I myself was only beginning to explore? After some experimentation, conversations with older and wiser Orthodox mothers, readings, and instruction from spiritual fathers, I have found ways to create an Orthodox home. I hope that this series can provide encouragement and practical ideas for new converts and a forum for more seasoned Orthodox families to share their practices.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of an Orthodox home is its icon corner. The icon corner becomes the spiritual heart of the home–a constant reminder to pray, an intersection between the family and the greater family of saints who have gone before, a sanctuary or rest and renewal in the midst of the world.
But how do you create an icon corner? Where should it be? What should be included?
Where should I place our icon corner?
Traditionally, an icon corner should be on an eastern facing wall. In an Orthodox Church, Christians pray facing the East for several reasons.
-First, it reminds us of our ancient home in the paradise of Eden. We remember the perfect communion that our first parents Adam and Eve experienced with God while in the Garden, which is described in the Bible as being in the East.
-Second, we recognize Christ as the Sun of Righteousness, as the light who illumines all men. We face the direction of the rising sun in homage to the eternal Light.
– Finally, early Christians interpreted Matthew 24:27 (that the coming of the Son would be like lightning that comes from the East) to mean that the triumphant return of Christ would come from the East. We anticipate this return by facing the East when we pray. However, some houses simply do not have an eastern facing wall available. In that case, it is perfectly fine to locate the icon corner elsewhere.
The icon corner should also be in a place that is visible to all of the family and easily accessible. It should be an integral part of the daily life of the household. In our house, this means the living room. Other families that we know have their icon corner in the dining room or the family room.
What do I use to make the corner?
I remember agonizing over this question. What exactly did I use in order to make an icon corner? Did I need special materials? Should I go out and buy a certain type of shelf? However, I’ve discovered that there are a variety of options and traditions with a little “t” out there.
-Nails. Place icons on nails that go directly into the wall. Bypass the shelf question altogether! This works well for families who own their own home and are able to put multiple nail holes in one location.
-Hanging shelves. Many beautiful hanging shelves can be found at home stores or on Amazon. (We used ones like these when we had a small apartment.) Buy two or three and use them to hold icons, candles, and other materials. We set up our icon corner this way in one of our first apartments. We didn’t want to leave a lot of nail holes behind, so it was a simple and lovely solution.
-Book shelves. Dedicate one bookshelf to be your icon corner. This gives you plenty of shelf space for multiple icons and other items. We currently use this option and love it! One note. It would not be appropriate to have secular items on the same bookshelf as your icon corner. So, make sure to set it apart as a holy space.
Remember, what you do in the icon corner–pray–is the most important thing. Don’t let this turn into another “home project” that expends a lot of time and money. Please don’t postpone having family prayer time because your icon corner is not “perfect”!
What do I include in my icon corner?
The basic answer to this is an icon of Christ, an icon of the Theotokos, and a candle. When we first became Orthodox, that was all that we had! And, it was all that was necessary. The longer that we are Orthodox, though, the more that we place in our icon corner. The following list is certainly not exhaustive.
-Icons of Christ and the Theotokos.
-Icons of the family saints. Each Orthodox Christian is given a saint’s name and maintains a special relationship with that saint throughout their lives. They ask the saint to intercede for them regularly. Therefore, it makes sense to have that saint’s icon in your icon corner.
-Icon of the current feast. We now have several festal icons (icons of the Nativity of Christ, the Crucifixion, the Ascension, etc.) and place the current festal icon in a prominent location.
-Candles. Orthodox Christians light candles when they pray as a reminder that Christ is the Light of the world. These could be beeswax candles like the ones used at your church or small votive candles. If you had any candles blessed during the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, then those candles should be in your icon corner.
-Holy Water. Orthodox Christians receive holy water during the Feast of Theophany (the baptism of Christ). That holy water should be kept in the icon corner. We drink holy water and receive Christ’s blessing when we are sick, before a journey, or simply at the beginning of the day with morning prayers.
-Palm Branches. In the Orthodox Church, we hold palm branches during Liturgy on the Feast of the Entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday). These palms are blessed with holy water and kept in the icon corner until the next Palm Sunday.
-Incense. Orthodox Christians pray during Vespers, “Let my prayer arise, before you like incense.” Incense is used nearly continuously during Liturgy and other times of worship. It can also be used during family prayers at home. You can purchase incense and a censer from your church’s bookstore, from Ancient Faith publishing, or from Amazon.
-Prayer Books. Prayer books help us pray the prayers of the Church at home. They are great for helping us learn the Trisagion prayers, the Morning and Evening prayers, and prayers for special occasions. There are also prayer books for specific prayers, such as the Akathist Hymn, which can add a beautiful depth to our prayer life.
-Prayer Lists. Many families make a list of people that they want to pray for each day. They may add names of friends, family, or church members who are sick, newly married or baptized, or who have recently departed.
During our first year as Orthodox Christians, I felt a bit awkward having an icon corner in our house. It was strange for me to look up from washing the dishes, reading a book, or talking with my husband and to see the face of Christ. But now I realize that I, in my sinful state, need this constant reminder of Christ and his saints.
I need to pause and pray instead of becoming frustrated at my children.
I need to light a candle and pray, “Lord have mercy,” when I hear heartbreaking stories on the news.
I need to take a drink of holy water when I am sick to remind me that Christ is the ultimate Healer.
I need to smell the incense and remember that my prayers are sweet-smelling incense to God.
I need Christ in my home.
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(Linked to Faith Filled Fridays.)