The Hope That Defies All: On Icons, Saints, and the Distinction Between Worship and Veneration

But since some find fault with us for worshipping and honoring the image of our Saviour and that of our Lady, and those, too, of the rest of the saints and servants of Christ, let them remember that in the beginning God created man after His own image. On what grounds, then, do we show reverence to each other unless because we are made after God’s image? For as Basil, that much-versed expounder of divine things, says, the honor given to the image passes over to the prototype.

— St. John of Damascus (AD 676-749)

One of my Orthodox acquaintances writes on the subject of the veneration of Christ and the Saints through icons:

I had difficulty with the concept as a new convert. But one day, while dusting, I picked up a photo of my dear, much-loved departed grandmother, and without even thinking, kissed her on the cheek and, gazing into her kind, humble eyes, exclaimed, “I love you so much, Grandmom!”

In a very shocking instant, I realized that my true feelings of love were what had prompted my actions, without any brain/decision-making activity involved, and I suddenly realized she was very much alive, just on the other side of the veil of this life, and that my love was somehow transmitted to her, through the grace of God.

I could feel her love streaming toward me as well, however that works. I don’t have a doctrine memorized, but today, I feel love streaming toward me from photos of my departed parents and grandparents, as well as from various icons…it’s simply incredible, and not even worth trying to explain to those who doubt. They’ll have to find out for themselves – it’s a very visceral experience. Not just a doctrine, or concept.

This reminds me of the adage I have heard from so many Orthodox clergy and friends over the years: True theology must be lived. When one experiences for oneself the love toward a departed family member or friend, and feels how real and alive they truly are– alive but transfigured, alive but reposed, made truly alive in Christ — one realizes exactly why we venerate and honour the Saints through their icons.

How we extend our love to those “beyond the veil” — and come to realize how illusory and thin the veil really is! — is mirrored in how we love and venerate Christ and His Saints, especially His Mother, through the icons in our homes and churches. My paternal grandmother Patricia Hunter reposed in March, and, amazingly, I have felt no sense of loss in her passing, only joy that she is with Christ and has the promise of eternal life in the Resurrection! As my friend says, that joy is “truly glorious”, for it is the hope that defies all things! The light and joy of the Resurrection transfigures all.

My godmother, who is widowed, has described a similar awareness of the other world and how it is really very much here among us. It is something which, truly, only we Orthodox have preserved, in our prayers, our liturgical life (replete with such rich typology and hymnography) and our private devotions. It is a great blessing and comfort to have this connection to the other world; I am a twin (my brother Sean passed away shortly after birth), and an Orthodox priest told me “he is your guardian angel”. In this way, I have felt his presence throughout my life.

One of the local monks in my town, a hierodeacon who is very studious and well-versed in theology and patristics, commented as follows, on the all-important, natural distinction between the worship we give to God alone and the veneration we give to the Saints:

If you look up the Greek word “proskynesis” (ie towards-knee-ing, ie “knee-bending-towards”), translated into classical, old school English as “worth-ship” (as in addressing an English Judge as “Your Worship/Worth-ship”), then it is clear in both Biblical Greek AND classical, Old School English that the old school usage of the English term “worth-ship/worship” means giving to the object the respect that it is appropriately worth, bending the knee in respect, if to God, then as to God (for of divine worth, bending the knee to the Divine) or as to creature (for of lesser worth, as a bending the knee to a King or Queen, or Sarah bending the knee to Abraham).

In other words, learn to read a text the way it was meant, not simply by distorting it through an only modern, now changed word usage.

We respect God with Latreia (the kind of respect due to God alone). We respect other things with Doulia (the various kinds of respect appropriate to the various creaturely persons or sacred things, e.g. bending the knee “towards thy Holy Temple”).

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One thought on “The Hope That Defies All: On Icons, Saints, and the Distinction Between Worship and Veneration

  1. I am a Sokol/Rybinin, re below, and my expeeience with language has found the same about the above; see “Gratciani” which is the same articulation.

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