And I’m addicted to incense…
Orthodox Christians have a “prayer rule” — a set of prayers they say daily. This may be discussed with a person’s spiritual father (usually one’s priest). Mine is based primarily on the Orthodox Church in America prayers, but I do borrow from the Greek Orthodox. I am finding that set prayers are more helpful than I’d have thought. It is important to mean what one is praying, and not just read them. (I’m not always 100% successful with that.) What surprised me is that my prayer life is greatly enriched by this. I pray for much longer periods of time now that I don’t have to come up with what to say myself. My prayers are more well-rounded as I pray about things I would not normally remember to bring up. There is considerable praise and worship included. Confession of sin and prayers about staying away from situations that can lead to sin are a part. Of interest, I am praying about things I might otherwise avoid, such as for my personal “enemies”: “Save, O Lord, and have mercy upon those who envy and affront me, and do me mischief, and do not let them perish through me, a sinner.” I am gradually memorizing many of the prayers through sheer repetition. A friend pointed out that this would be helpful when I need to pray and I’m not thinking clearly at the moment. Certainly extemporaneous prayers from the heart can be said as well.
I continue to use an Orthodox prayer rope. I found it very helpful the other day during a meeting when someone else was being particularly annoying. By praying the Jesus prayer (I had the rope in my lap under the table), I was able to stay calm and keep my mouth shut. The person was repeating something I’d heard many times before, so it wasn’t a problem if I didn’t follow everything he said. I’ve noticed that feeling the knots in the rope between my fingers help me to return my attention back to prayer when it wanders. I also go to sleep very quickly this way. I made a little one with 20 knots (most have 100) so I don’t have to worry about getting tangled up in it when I sleep and waking myself up.
I put together an “icon corner” in my home. Icon corners are a place set aside in the home for prayer and worship. Here are a few examples:
So as not to disturb the rest of the household — and to have some privacy — I put it in a room in the basement.
Picking icons I liked was very important to me as I would be looking at them every day. I spent literally two hours on the internet shopping for my icon of Christ. I wanted one where He looks strong but not too stern. I decided on this one:
This one is a print and doesn’t have any metal foil on it like it looks like it does on the Internet. I have an icon of Mary, two archangels and two saints and a nice big wood cross. Orthodox talk to the saints asking them to pray for them like people do their living friends. I ask the Archangel Raphael (known for healing) and my patron saint to pray for me and my work. I ask Archangel Michael and a male warrior Saint to pray for my patients and my veterans. I have candles and an incense burner.
I am stunned by how enriched my prayer time has become by having an icon corner. I suppose at some point in the future the newness of this will wear off and I will need more self-discipline to go off to my corner and have my prayer time, but for now I’m really enjoying this. It is a very peaceful experience for me!
I also love incense. I ordered two sets of samples and have been trying them out. We keep a bottle of Everclear in the house for medicinal purposes (it’s 95% alcohol, so a good antiseptic just in case). Well I opened it for the first time because it occurred to me it could help me light the charcoal without smelling bad or smoking — it does help but one must be judicious! A little bit goes a long way — a quarter teaspoon is adequate. (Don’t go overboard with this stuff — it is very flammable!) I’m working my way through my samples and I must say the incense made by monks is quite wonderful. It looks like tiny white pillows (about 1/4″ inch long). Nothing like those sticks you find in most retail stores. A little goes a long way — one little bit will make the whole room smell great. (I have a little travel spray bottle with water to cool off the smoldering coal when I’m done praying. I didn’t want to chance the cat coming in the room and accidentally knocking over the censer.) I find that I need to put a new bit of incense on about every 5 minutes because when the incense gets used up it doesn’t smell like its original scent any more. UPDATE: I got some incense made at Mt. Athos, Greece (the epicenter of Orthodoxy) and it burns nicer than the kind made in the USA – less acrid smell at the end. But I also discovered if I melt the kind made in the USA over a candle that that smells good throughout, but it’s not hot enough for the Ethiopian kind that looks like little pebbles. Very little smoke is generated so probably better for the environment. I still burn the incense on charcoal occasionally.
Why do we burn incense? My understanding is the sweet smelling smoke represents our prayers and it’s like making a sacrifice to God. The OCA website has this explanation.
Vespers preserves other ancient features as well, including the offering of incense. The original sung Vespers service included three units each consisting of three psalms. One of these was Ps. 141, obviously chosen for the line “Let my prayer arise in Your sight as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” … This incense reminds us of the acceptability of our worship to God—through Christ, we now have access to the Father, and He accepts our praises since we offer them to Him as disciples of His Son. The fragrant incense we smell as these psalms and hymns are sung remind us of our exalted status in Christ.
I’ll leave you with this.
1 O Lord, I call upon you; hasten to me!
Give ear to my voice when I call to you!
2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
(English Standard Version)
2 O Lord, I have cried to You; hear me;
Give heed to the voice of my supplication when I cry to You
3 Let my prayer be set before You as incense,
The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
(Orthodox Study Bible)