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”).

Abbot Tryphon on love for the Saints

Abbot Tryphon

Our Friends in High Places
We Orthodox are known for our veneration of the saints, recognizing as we do the truth that there is no separation between the Church Militant, here on earth, and the Church Triumphant, in heaven. In the Divine Services we are not gathered together alone as mortals, but we are joined in our worship before the Throne of God by the Cloud of Witnesses, who are joined with us in Christ. This truth is exemplified by our use of icons and frescoes depicting the saints. Their images surround us, reminding us that heaven awaits us, where those who have won the good fight have gained their reward, and stand before the Lord of Glory.
When entering our temples we venerate the icons with a kiss, not because we believe the saints reside within these icons, but because we, by our veneration, pass on our love to the archetypes. This is not really any different than if we’d kissed a photo of a beloved relative, whose memory we cherish. In our veneration of the icons, we are not worshiping the saints, reserving adoration only for God, but showing honor and love to our friends. They stand before us as witnesses, by their lives, to the truth that eternal life is a reality, because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Because of His redemptive act upon the cross, the saints are not dead, but alive. The saints gaze upon the glory of Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven, and through the Holy Spirit they see the sufferings of men on earth. The great grace that resides within the saints allows them to embrace the whole world with their love, and they see how we languish in affliction, and they never cease to intercede for us with God. The saints, having won the good fight, encourage us by their example, and pray for us to be victorious.
Their lives give witness to the importance of living in repentance, and placing Jesus above all else, for it is in Jesus Christ that they have gained eternal life. It is in Jesus Christ that we, like the saints who have gone on before us, have the same promise of this life eternal. As our friends, they await the day when we will join them, and they offer their prayers for that end.
With love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon

The Very Reverend Igumen Abbot Tryphon is the spiritual leader at All Merciful Saviour monastery located on Vashon Island in Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington State. The monastery is within the canonical jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The monastery’s widely acclaimed and popular Facebook page can be found here. Abbot Tryphon’s popular blog can be accessed here.

My icon corner


My icon corner

I took this picture last night using the light provided by my desk lamp several feet away.

I took this picture last night using the light provided by my desk lamp several feet away.

I took this photo after my morning prayers on Saturday, February 16. The burning frankincense and the beauty of the icons through the fragrant smoke reminded me very much of being in church.

I took this photo after my morning prayers on Saturday, February 16. The burning frankincense and the beauty of the icons through the fragrant smoke reminded me very much of being in church.

Icon corner 7

I took the first two images on the evening of Monday, February 25, 2013. The latter two are from the morning of Saturday, February 16.

Beautiful icon of St Nina arrives at St Nicholas Cathedral in Washington


Saint Nina, whom the Church venerates as Equal to the Apostles and the Enlightener of Georgia. This fourth century saint, hailing from Cappadochia, converted the Iberian queen Nana and eventually her husband King Mirian III who had initially persecuted the new faith. Her black grapevine cross is an historic symbol of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

This icon was painted in Georgia for St Nicholas Cathedral and donated by a Georgian parishioner. It was blessed on the tomb of St Nina, which is preserved at the Bodbe Monastery in Kakheti, eastern Georgia. It was also blessed by the Patriarch of all Georgia His Holiness Ilia II and presented on April 24, 2012 to His Beatitude Metropolitan +Jonah at the Cathedral.